Interview: Julia Carruthers Q&A

Friday 1 June 2012

In 2011, Julia Carruthers was appointed Director of the Dublin Dance Festival. She moved from London to Dublin to take up the post, bringing her experience of work with organisations such Southbank Centre, Akram Khan Company, Michael Clark Company, Jonathan Burrows Group and as Dance Officer at the Arts Council of England. Inaugurated in 2002, the Dublin Dance Festival has become the premier dance event on the Irish arts calendar, presenting an eclectic mix of local and international artists. In-between shows in this, her first edition of the festival, Julia took some time out to chat to Mary Kate Connolly about her move from London – and the experience of being at the helm of this vibrant festival…

As we’re slap bang in the middle of the festival, perhaps you could talk about how it is going so far?
Well I’ll begin by saying that if anyone wants to lose weight, I’m going to produce my ‘Run a Festival’ diet book– it’s all so hectic, you don’t eat, you forget its lunchtime and then suddenly its 4 o’clock. I haven’t been on the scales for a while but I think I’ll have lost about ¾ of a stone on what I’m calling the ‘Dublin Dance Festival Boot-Camp!’ I’ve got a chart at home and each evening I triumphantly strike off another day – we’re at about the halfway mark and so far all is going really well.

What has been the highlight so far?
Well of course (as the Director) you worry most about the headline show as it has the biggest box office risk and if people don’t like it then you’re cooked! For DDF, this was a mixed bill of the Trisha Brown Company. I was quite freaked to come across a review of the company at Brighton Festival just before they were due to arrive here – it had obviously gone down like a lead balloon! We did have a slightly different combination of pieces for our line-up but still it was worrying. The foyer pieces such as Spanish Dance are completely unsuitable for the foyer of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre so we actually put it on stage which worked wonderfully. We also had Les Yeux at l’âme and For M.G: The Movie , among others. And in fact, the works got a great reception with practically a standing ovation so the company were thrilled. The wonderful technical team at the Abbey Theatre had looked after them really well and the main auditorium there is such a good place to see the work.
I had asked the rehearsal director of TBDC whether it be possible to drop some Irish performers into Spanish Dance. She was totally up for it and so Liz Roche and Liv O’ Donoghue, (Irish dancers/choreographers whose work is programmed in the festival) performed. We had kept it under wraps so that it would be a surprise and it was so great to see members of the audience recognising them!

The rhythm of programming an annual festival has quite a distinct feel to it, as opposed to an all-year round venue such as Southbank Centre. How you are finding the change in pace?
Well my first job ever was secretary to the Edinburgh Festival office which has come in very useful – I learned from very good, experienced people (director John Drummond (Director) and Executive Assistant Sheila Colvin) all sorts of things about how to run a festival team! One of the reasons I took this job was because I really like the rhythm of having one very intense period of time; you have intense relationships with everyone – it’s almost like being on a film shoot, and we are having such a laugh in the office because there are all sorts of amusing and mad things going on. At Southbank I felt my whole life was ruled by the venue; Christmas, Easter etc – I didn’t do very well on holidays! I felt there was an awful lot of being physically present but the mind not being engaged – all that floating around in the foyers, whereas this is quite different.
Here we have 43 volunteers working on the festival, all of whom speak different languages. So we have the Spanish team translating the Irish Times reviews for Aracaladanza [the Spanish company who produce work for children and families] and a fantastic intern from Lithuania who speaks Russian taking care of our Russian and Latvian performers! There’s a fantastic festival team and a wonderful system which I have luckily inherited.

This year’s festival doesn’t have a theme as such – how did you go about putting together the programme?
Well I had a few starting points. John Scott (Director of Irish Modern Dance Theatre), had put me on to the fact that Trisha Brown Company were in Europe, and I decided that would be the big work in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. I also was certain that there would be no monologues – we have enough monologues in Dublin! And I would have to be very careful about dancers talking and acting – this is high quality Theatre-Town. I only arrived here last August so I was quite short on time to pull the programme together. I had to call on my old mates! After seven years at Southbank, I have a substantial catalogue of people who I have established good relationships with such as Klaus Obermaier, Jonathan Burrows, Liz Roche and Divya Kasturi. Jonathan also in turn recommended some artists to me such as Mette Edvardsen, a Norwegian living in Brussels.

How do you find Dublin audiences, and the dance scene in the city?
The audiences are very receptive here. They turn up at the last minute to shows, but they do turn up! By May 8th [just before the festival began], I thought we were bankrupt; no one seemed to be booking tickets. In London people plan weeks ahead (so you have an idea of box office) but here venues are all very close and accessible, and so people leave things to the last minute. I did say at opening night that I have a whole new crop of grey hair from this!
One of the joys for me here in Dublin is the skill and attitude of the theatre technicians, who are often overlooked or not acknowledged. But they have been fantastic during the festival which is great for the performers; we’ve had Jonathan Burrows beaming at the technical team from the stage, and the team at Project Arts Centre have gone crazy about Michael Hulls’ lighting designs for Aakash Odedra. It can be nerve-wracking presenting artists such as Klaus Obermaier (whose work Apparition is heavily reliant on technology), but it has all gone smoothly.
Another thing I like here is that it is really ‘cross arts-form’. You don’t have the feeling of being a dance community out on a limb. I spend a lot of time with theatre people and there are theatre professionals on the board of the festival. It was also really easy to get a programme of short dance and animation films on at the Irish Film Institute – they were keen to be involved in what we were doing. There is a nice network of Directors of the Irish arts festivals such as The Fringe, Dublin Theatre Festival, Cork, & Kilkenny festivals etc – they all came to my opening nights and I will go to theirs. We stay in conversation with one another and support each other’s work.

Its early days but any plans for the next festival?
Well, roving around at the festival this year are some delegates from Arts Project Australia who organise lots of touring of dance and theatre for around Australia. For next year I hope to showcase some Australian work. I’m moving away from programming American artists which Laurie Uprichard my predecessor did so well, to try something different.
Another aim will be to increase the amount of press coverage of the festival. We really tried for example to get some coverage from The Guardian newspaper because it has a large readership in Dublin. We only got a listing with no mention of the festival, so hopefully we’ll be able to improve on that next year! We’ve already had an irresistible photo of Aracaladanza on the front page of the Irish Times – I was totally thrilled about that breakthrough.

This year’s Dublin Dance Festival ran from 11 – 26 May

Photo: Elspeth McBain

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