New Adventures and Re:Bourne
New Adventures was established in 2002, as a development of the company first co-founded by choreographer/director Matthew Bourne in 1987 as a vehicle for his own work. In 2008, the charity Re:Bourne was created to run workshops in schools. In 2012 that work significantly expanded with the appointment of James Mackenzie-Blackman as executive director, a shift that was instrumental in New Adventures joining Arts Council England’s National Portfolio. Together New Adventures and Re:Bourne now have an annual turnover of in the region of £10m, of which the Arts Council funds £1.3m. The remainder of the income is earned through box office, venue fees and fund-raising. The company has a core administrative team of 5.5 people FTE, but employs considerably more – dancers and crew – for its touring shows.
Mission: a commercial company with a community outlook
As a dance company, New Adventures has a particular aesthetic: vibrant, sometimes outlandish, and, as James Mackenzie-Blackman puts it, “with its tongue in its cheek”. It also takes responsibility for talent development, and “creating the next generation of artists”. In relationship with the charity Re:Bourne, its attention is focused on “projects for children and people and communities. There is a uniqueness to that: we’re an international and national touring company, we proudly have no building, so how do we meaningfully build relationships with people, with audiences and communities, when in many respects we are not in any place for very long?” This challenge has been the company’s focus for the past five years, and it has “fairly radically changed our business model in order to be better at articulating our social and civic impact”.
The company has developed multiple strands to its community offer, which include:
1: The curtain-raiser programme
In many cities that New Adventures tours to in the UK, it will “create work with local people inspired by the themes of the touring production. We then stage that work before an audience of 1,000 or so people, on the set of the touring show, directly before the main performance.” The company employs an additional team of “dance-artist practitioners who are not touring in the show, but who have all worked as dancers for the New Adventures company, normally for many years” to travel ahead of the main company, arriving at each host city four or five weeks in advance; they then work in a community setting or school to create a performance. The programme has been running for four years, and “it’s allowed us to build meaningful relationships with people and places all over the country”.
Key to this strand is dialogue with the local venue: they direct the company to potential participants, and are invited to join the company on stage to introduce the curtain-raiser work. The programme tailors the model of delivery to each city: for instance, in Ipswich the company works with the Centre for Advanced Training national dance programme. Such is its popularity that when the company tours the US in the autumn, “the touring party will be 40 rather than 36, so that there are four people who don’t dance in the show but deliver activity with young people, older people, community members”.
2: In Our Shoes
This strand provides “opportunities for young people who have poor access to arts and culture to experience what it’s like to be in a dance company, and to consider what it might be to have a career in the performing arts. It’s an opportunity for a group of young people to have a day of creative activity in their schools, and then a day in the venue. They observe company class, have a Q&A with our dancers, have a backstage tour, they get to touch and feel props and costumes, and then they watch our shows.” Key to this strand is that the young people’s relationship is “not just with the education department but with technical teams and with chief executives”, so that it’s “meaningful across the venue”, as well as with the company.
3: Collaborative productions with non-professional talent
The desire to “work with young people with little or no access to dance, and leave a meaningful legacy of activity in a particular city,” led in 2014 to a collaborative production in which professional dancers performed alongside “non-professional talent” in a large-scale adaptation of Lord of the Flies. In each region of the tour, New Adventures “worked with local dance artists to find an ensemble of boys and young men to integrate with our adult professional talent. Over the course of 2013-2015, that project engaged over 8,000 boys and young men, across the UK, with just under 400 boys appearing in the show.”
This outreach programme had “three principle objectives: could you create work that was commercially successful in that way, could you create work that was artistic, and could you create work that had social impact?” Feeling the answer in each case to be yes, Mackenzie-Blackman says the experience “fundamentally changed how we run New Adventures and Re:Bourne”. The company is already delivering the same project, the same way, in Australia, and beginning to create another large-scale touring production bringing professional and non-professional dancers together. And Mackenzie-Blackman is particularly proud that some of the dancers discovered through this programme have gone on to pursue “conservatoire-level dance training”.
Although Mackenzie-Blackman is resoundingly positive about the impact of these community activities – on the local population, and on the organisation itself – he admits that “its innovation” can occasionally create a challenge, particularly for the “commercial theatres” in which New Adventures tends to present its work. “We’re often liaising with organisations and presenters who are new to this approach or this language, and that’s been a barrier at times.”
Part of the problem is a struggle “to articulate our reasons: why we should do this when others don’t do it this way. People will often ask, but why do you want to do it? And actually you want to say, just because – but just because is not a very specific response.” At the root of the because is the socio-economic background of Bourne himself, his collaborators, Mackenzie-Blackman, and many dancers in the company: “We had our lives changed by art, and we just want to make opportunities like this happen for other young people.”
The organisation is already improving its ability to articulate the impact of its work through appointing independent evaluators and academic research, “which we can effectively then use to lobby for future support”. As it continues to develop the curtain-raiser programme and other community work that supports the touring repertoire, Mackenzie-Blackman is
“interested in how we can push the boundaries of that participatory activity so that it also includes young people working alongside backstage workers – so people like me and technicians. We’re also very interested in whether or not we could have an orchestra to play the score of which 50% are young musicians, so we’d be emulating in the pit what was going on on stage.”
To achieve this, it needs to ensure that its dancers are trained “to be able to successfully deliver this activity in a world-class way. We don’t put our dancers into community settings unless they’ve been effectively trained, and it takes a very particular set of skills to work in a variety of unique circumstances and settings. You can’t get them into an inner-city school environment unless they have got the confidence, the expertise, to be able to throw a workshop plan out the window and start again.” It also needs to “continue to communicate to stake holders and venue chief executives that this is a really important aspect of what we do and it’s not going to change or go away”.