Michael Ockwell, Chief Executive of Grand Opera House Belfast

As part of our new series of features on the Dance Consortium venues. We interviewed Grand Opera House Belfast’s Michael Ockwell.


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Michael is now Chief Executive of the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton.

DC: Why did your theatre became a member of the DC?
Grand Opera House has been involved in DC since very early on but has not always taken tours due to pressure on funding. Since I came to Belfast in 2010 we have become more actively involved in DC and have taken Alvin Ailey 2 and will host NDT2 and plan to take The Trocs in 2013.

We get access to work that we could not afford if we were to try and present them on our own. I also benefit from the enormous experience of 20 other dance programmers so it aids my own personal development.

DC: Could you give me a brief history of your theatre? e.g How old is it? Has it always programmed contemporary dance?
The Grand Opera House was designed by Frank Matcham in 1895 and seats 1,061 on four levels. The theatre has always presented ballet and has also hosted several contemporary dance companies and includes regular visits from Northern Ballet and Scottish Ballet.

Contemporary dance has been part of the programme but the costs can be prohibitive – the Trust of the Theatre and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland fully support the programme which provides an opportunity for  the people of Northern Ireland an opportunity to see the very best in world dance.

DC: Tell us about your career in theatre,  we hear you have a passion for contemporary dance?
I started my career as an actor and moved into theatre management in 1997 when I joined Stoll Moss Theatres as House Manager of the London Palladium (another Matcham designed theatre) – after managing the Gielgud Theatre I moved to Wycombe Swan in 1999 as Operations Manager and took over as Theatre Director in 2002 – my development in programming contemporary dance started while at Wycombe as we presented one of the most important regional dance festivals in the south east.

Since then it has been a voyage of discovery and I have found that my own preconceptions of what theatre should be has been challenged through my exposure to more dance. I feel that dance has a power to move and inspire in a way that other art forms don’t always achieve. Words can be restricting as you are controlled by your available vocabulary but there is a language to dance that can elicit emotional responses in some very surprising ways.

The challenge is introducing new audiences to an art form that by its very nature is perceived as esoteric and, at times, threatening. It also challenges our teams in the theatre – the marketing team need to express the intangible thoughts of a choreographer while the technical team have opportunities to learn new skills, especially in lighting.

GOH is predominantly a presenting theatre so there are limited opportunities for the team to create work – theatres should be a vibrant, pulsing force and a varied and diverse programme of events ensures that we are constantly challenging our people to be better at what they do. It is rewarding to participate in the creative process, to have to use our own imagination as opposed to recreating other people’s visions – the aim is to have a stake in what we do and take pride and ownership in what we achieve.

DC: What is the most difficult part of your job and the most interesting part?
Finding a programme that will ensure the theatre remains sustainable while challenging and developing my audience. Not providing the same staple diet of large scale musicals but seeking to enrich our lives and to ensure that live entertainment remains relevant to a modern audience.

DC: Why is it important international dance comes to the UK?
As we receive public funding I believe we have a social responsibility to present a programme to fulfil all our audiences’ aspirations. As drama, musicals and opera are a main stay of my programme I think it is important that dance is reflected in the overall mix.

We do have a small number of local dance companies and it is important that we allow our own indigenous work be benchmarked against an international programme. We can inform opinions and shape the development of our own artists by accessing complementary work.

DC: What has been your favourite tour so far?
The piece that inspired me originally was Ghost Dances by Rambert – I saw it when we presented the company at Wycombe and it was the first time I had been moved by a dance piece. Subsequently I would say that Minus 16, which is part of the NDT2 programme in March at the Grand Opera House, is one of the most uplifting and accessible pieces I have ever seen and a wonderful introduction for any potential dance enthusiast.

My highlight, from a programming point of view, was seeing the sheer joy on the faces of the audience who saw Alvin Ailey 2 perform Revelations at the Grand Opera House in 2011. The energy and vibrancy from the audience as they stood at the end of that show could have uplifted the whole of Northern Ireland!

DC: How do you decide which tours to bring to your theatre?
I will only programme work that I believe in – to advocate on behalf of the company you have to like their work, especially as the costs mean that we are reliant on Arts Council funding to help support the most challenging element of our programme.

I have to feel that our audience will enjoy the work but that it will also challenge and provoke an audience to want to come back and experience dance again.

DC: Do you get any say in the repertoire of the tours?
DC have an artistic programming sub committee that review potential companies and the repertoire that they are likely to tour – all recommendations are taking to the full committee and are discussed – as the consortium totals 21 members and the touring weeks are restricted it is quite easy to drop out of a tour if we did not feel the company or the rep was suitable for our audience without effecting the feasibility of the company visit to the United Kingdom.

The repertoire for NDT2 was an issue for discussion last year as a group of us went to The Hague to see the proposed programme and had different views on what would work for our audiences. The end result was NDT2 agreed to tour three mixed programmes with the venues able to select a specific programme for their audience.

DC: How do your audiences respond to contemporary dance?
In Belfast we have a small but growing audience who are slowly responding to the programme – we have a Risk Free initiative where we guarantee to offer patrons their money back if they do not like a show they have been to see. This encourages potential audiences to experience contemporary dance without the financial risk.

It is important that we do not present the art form in isolation and I attempt to build development blocks which use the narrative ballets presented by Scottish Ballet and Northern Ballet as entry points for potential contemporary dance audiences. Therefore we may offer a discounted ticket to NDT2 when purchasing a full price ticket for one of the ballets. Hopefully our audience will grow to trust my programme and will be willing to take the risk on companies that they do not necessarily know.

DC: Do you have any other comments on contemporary dance/your theatre/Dance Consortium?
DC has given an opportunity for regional theatres to programme work that they would never be able to access in isolation.

The centralised marketing initiatives ensure that we are able to share best practise and the educational elements allow audiences to participate in the art form through the post show discussions with the artists and workshops. By giving the audience an opportunity to discus the creative process with the artists we are able to deepen the partnership and encourage our audience to take a stake in what they are watching.