When I moved back to the Highlands I could name around 20 theatre and dance companies working professionally across the region. Today I can think of only 3. To make matters worse, none of those companies receive regular support from our national arts funders and rely on project to project funding, which is unsustainable. These companies are long established, experienced and have a loyal audience. Yet I worry about the future of theatre and dance in the Highlands. When I started Play Pieces it was to create a much needed network of support for emerging work by theatre-makers at every stage of their careers to test new ideas. I found myself wondering where the next generation of dance and theatre-makers in the Highlands was going to come from and how they were going to get the break they need to become established and gain experience.
This week I felt I could rest a little easier after witnessing a fantastic performance of young dancers at a Year of Young People 2018 event at Culloden Battlefield. The Highland Youth Arts Hub was concluding a week of cultural activities in partnership with the National Trust of Scotland at Brodie, Glencoe, Glenfinnan, Inverewe, Cromarty and Culloden. The programme had been curated by young people, performed by young people as well. Another terrific example of the for young people, by young people ethos of Year of Young People 2018.
The dancers in questions had been working with the only Highland-based, contemporary dance company Plan B for the week and created the most stunning piece to original music, performed by Fèis Rois musicians. The ease and grace of the movements which seemed to hint at traditional work skills, Highland dance and the seasons was professional, mature and captivating. To see young dancers so engaged with their work and delivering to a very high standard really demonstrates why we need companies like Plan B in the Highlands. They inspire a whole generation of artists. If we don’t have creative representation of independent, professional, Highland-based theatre and dance companies then our young people will lose out on access to experience, expertise and mentoring on their own doorstep. And we as a region will become culturally poorer as a result.
In contrast, the music scene continues to thrive. Following the exceptional dance piece was Calum Mackenzie John with his Nu Trad 5-piece. Again they displayed a high level of professional delivery combing original songs (which demonstrated a catchy writing ability way beyond what you might expect from a 17 year old ) with floor-filling ceilidh tunes. Bear in mind that I was watching this the same night that Runrig played their retirement gig down the road in Stirling. It was reassuring to know that there is plenty of musical talent to walk into the spotlight.
If we could replicate the Fèisean model for theatre and dance then I think we would be looking at a future of confident Highland creatives who can use their region and culture as the inspiration for their work, knowing that there is an international audience read to hear what they have to share. Currently I am concerned that while the traditional music scene continues to go from strength to strength, innovating and evolving for a contemporary audience, we aren’t investing and sustaining theatre and dance the same way.
Some might argue that this is because it doesn’t fall into the traditional arts category and since the start of the Fèisean movement, the case has been to revive traditional music and Gaelic culture. I’d say job well done now let’s use that creative thinking and artistic model to see how we can do the same for original theatre and dance in the Highlands.
Let’s aim to have 20 professional young companies so the future of culture in the region looks innovative and exciting again. There are Highland musicians performing Internationally because they have grown up seeing someone who inspires them. Representation is everything. Without professional dance companies and theatre-makers in the Highlands, how will the next generation of creatives know that they can do it too?
Columns published here are the authors own opinions.