Space, the new dance frontier

Dundee College is dancing for joy over its modern theatrical premises and the attention it is drawing to the city, Julie Morrice reports.

The undulating, white and turquoise construction at the rear of the red brick welding and catering premises at Dundee College's Kingsway campus looks as though it has landed from another planet. The Space is the new pound;5 million home of the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance and the college's theatre department.

For the past decade, the college's foundation courses in dance and drama were taught at Northern College, the old teacher training base in Broughty Ferry. The move into The Space at the beginning of the year was the result of years of persuasion and development, but it is clear that neither the staff nor the students see the building as an end in itself, rather as an opportunity to further develop their teaching and learning.

Collaboration is an important part of the dance and theatre courses at Dundee. Sheila Allan, the theatre director, and Peter Royston, the dance director, are enthusiastic promoters of mixing between their students and film-makers, sculptors, health professionals, anyone who can offer young performers an opportunity to broaden their outlook and practise their art. "If it can be part of a good training, and if there happens to be another benefit to the students, then we'll go for it," says Ms Allan.

The Space and its local architects, Nicoll Russell, have been caught up in this creative whirlwind and the needs of the staff and students became not simply part of the brief but an inspirational part of the design process. The results are delightful.

Aside from the theatre and dance studios, there are numerous areas which can be turned into performance spaces. Site-specific work is part of the Dundee courses, so you are quite likely to come across actors performing in stairwells. One dance student choreographed a performance to take place on the window cleaners' screened platform which hangs outside the great glass wall of the main dance studio. Above the green room, a balcony of perforated metal calls out for peek-a-boo antics, while down below a two-metre circle of wood set into the carpet is just the right size to spotlight an individual show, a bit of flamenco perhaps. Even the circular hallway between the offices and the dressing rooms has an air of theatricality about it.

"When people are learning to perform, I feel they should perform as much as possible," says Ms Allan. "Now that we're here the students can discover the building and do things with it. We try and let them use the building as creatively as possible."

She enthuses about the quality of light in The Space, the way in which outside and inside merge and the sense of movement in the flowing shapes of the architecture.

It seems typical of the Dundee attitude towards the arts that the dance and theatre students are among the welders and apprentice chefs, not out on their own on an arts campus, and perhaps it explains the air of optimism which characterises the city's culture. Writers, artists and directors have the opportunity to work together rather than factionalise; Dundee is feeling good about itself.

The college's dance and drama department was born out of a huge community theatre project 15 years ago. "It was the people who took part in Witch's Blood who started asking where they could carry on their interest in acting," says Ms Allan.

From a Foundation course in theatre, the department has expanded to offer courses in acting and performance, theatre arts and community theatre and the only full-time professional-level contemporary dance training in Scotland. Initially the courses attracted students mainly from the Dundee area, but Ms Allan and Mr Royston are keen to have national and international appeal and it seems likely their one overseas student will not be their last.

The Space advertises itself as "the place to see and be seen" and people from outside the college are given many opportunities to use the building. Conference facilities are tucked in beside the studios, and Ms Allan is delighted to report that some of the people in suits have returned to take part in dance classes.

Dundee College's dance development project is a multi-pronged attack on dance apathy backed by National Lottery funding. Classes cater to every taste: there's funky jazz to classical ballet, dance and drama for five to nine-year-olds and afternoon tea dances for pensioners. The project also aims to support professional dancers, host professional activities and attract touring companies to use The Space as a venue.

"Our ambition is not simply to be a receiving house but to put together an artistic programme with associated educational workshops," says Ms Allan.

She hopes the popular dance and theatre classes will help to build audiences for performances and that, ultimately, events at The Space will attract audiences from beyond the city.

Like all Scottish cities outside the central belt, Dundee suffers from a lack of external recognition, but there are people making things happen. With the buoyant arts centre Dundee Contemporary Arts, the local theatre's successful acting ensemble and Scottish Dance Theatre, the city is an exciting place for artists to train.

"It is a very exciting time," says Ms Allan. "We believe our dance graduates will shape contemporary dance in Scotland.

"It used to be the case that dancers finished their training down south and then tended not to come back to work here. But they are gaining confidence in choosing to live and work in Scotland.

"We are able to nurture students and give them a huge amount of individual attention. In many ways, we've only just started."

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