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Dancing through life

Like most children of his generation, Anand Bhatt fell in love with dance by watching Michael Jackson’s music videos. Kicking, spinning and moonwalking in front of the television was his gateway into the world of rhythm and movement, and ultimately sparked a lifelong passion. Unbeknown to him then, this was the start of an impressive career, which has led to him working in some of the world’s most prestigious theatres alongside internationally renowned choreographers.

Now, as artistic director and chief executive at Dance City, a role he’s held since 2020, Anand sits down with Kate Hewison to discuss his career, his passion for education, and why the arts are so important.

Anand Bhatt was 14 when he attended his first class at a classical Indian dance school in Leicester. Traditionally, this is considered relatively late to begin learning, but dance allowed Anand to express himself in ways other activities couldn’t.

He says: “I think for lots of people who get into dance, it’s about the freedom of what dance provides.

“It’s an incredibly expressive form.

“And while I was terrible at things like team sports at school, there was still a physicality there and I channelled it through dance.

“I’m expressing myself through movement.

“But the stimulus wasn’t a football or a pool cue, it was music.

“I wasn’t someone who played an instrument, but I found that I was able to use my body as an instrument to express myself.”

Prior to this, Anand’s only experience with dancing was the one he mimicked from watching popstars on the television.

At his dance school, Anand trained in Kathak, a storytelling dance form from North India, for four years, before heading off to University College London to study psychology.

Although he took part in events with the university’s dance society, a career in dance was never something he expected to transpire.

However, as the saying goes, ‘if something is meant for you, it will find you’, and dancing was something that indeed kept finding Anand.

When he left university, Anand began working in the charity sector.

During this time, he started volunteering at a local festival, where he would teach a group of children to dance.

Once the festival was over, and his calendar was back open, he was ready for the next step.

After forming a small troupe of dancers, Anand began teaching Bollywood in Leicester.

The classes then grew beyond his expectations, and within four years it had developed into a studio with 40 classes a week, 20 of which being within Anand’s company.

Impressively, all of this was happening while Anand and his team were working full time, fuelled completely by their love of the art form.

He says: “We would all do this as a labour of love in the evening.

“It just takes a few committed, passionate individuals to get things going.

“And when you’re relatively young, single without children, you just commit yourself to that.

“So that’s what we did.”

Anand then met professional dancer Aakash Odedra, who changed the trajectory of his career.

He says: “We started to jam together in the studio space, but I couldn’t keep up with him.

“After an event that we performed at, I came offstage and vowed never to perform Kathak ever again because he mopped the floor with me.”

This eye-opening experience led Anand to take a step back from performing.

The two entered a working agreement that meant Anand would support the business side of the company and Aakash would teach dance classes at the studio in Leicester.

He had found a new way to channel his passion.

The Aakash Odedra Company then began to shift to a larger scale, performing in Leicester for events such as the Queen’s Jubilee tour in 2012 and theatre openings.

However, it was when Aakash was invited to perform a solo at Sadler’s Wells, in a festival curated by Akram Khan, with the help of fellow internationally-renowned choreographers Russell Maliphant and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, that things really began to accelerate.

Anand says: “I knew little about contemporary dance at that time, but I knew the name Akram Khan enough to say that I don’t think we should turn down this opportunity.

“And that chance conversation changed our world.”

It introduced Anand and Aakash to the world of professional contemporary touring dance.

He adds: “We took the piece to conferences that were taking place where attendees were buying and selling dance works.

“A lot of people came to see it because of the names of the choreographers – not because they knew us – and were impressed enough to say, ‘these guys are doing something, let’s get them signed up to our agency or book them for our festival’.

“That whirlwind over the following four to five years meant we got into around 40 countries, we were a speaker in the Brazil TedGlobal Conference and Aakash was commissioned by the Royal Opera House to perform for Lincoln Centre, New York.

“It was really wild.”

Although the company was on a huge upwards trajectory, it was important for Anand to keep giving back to the city he called home, and to remember the reason he began dancing in the first place.

He says: “It was incredibly important we were at our local primary school delivering workshops weekly, as well as being in New York in the same week.

“We could not be the company that we were without that local investment.”

After several years of incredible success and building an extremely prosperous business, Anand was ready for change.

He believed he needed to recontextualise himself by being in a new place, meeting different people and solving different challenges.

He says: “When I saw the job opening at Dance City, I thought, ‘I could go for this, and I’d have to leave behind something I’ve started, but I’m getting to that hamster wheel stage now, so maybe I need to make the move’.

“Maybe I could stay put in a place and think about the region, rather than feeling like I was nomadic?

“So, I took a leap of faith and applied for the job.

“And that’s how I came to be here in Newcastle.”

Headquartered in central Newcastle, and established for almost 40 years, Dance City is one of the North East’s leading development organisations for dance, which exists to lead and support dance in the region.

As someone who fell in love with dance when he was so young, Anand is passionate about ensuring he still feels that same spark he felt watching Michael Jackson as a child, through his own works at Dance City.

He says: “It’s making sure I can still feel that moment and how Dance City enables that to happen for other people as much as possible.

“Can we continue to find ways that keep people feeling that electricity?

“Dance represents hope, it’s a very cause of the living.

“This is a very invigorating place to be working, and to be able to provide that sense of invigoration to others is incredibly rewarding.

“I’m still incredibly taken aback by artists who totally immerse themselves in their practice, to give to the audience so generously about who they are and their stories.”

Dance City offers professional dance training for children aged ten to 16, as well as a BA (Hons) programme in partnership with University of Sunderland.

However, over the past ten years, dance in education has seen a huge decline, which is something Anand is eager to combat.

He says: “Teenagers don’t dance anywhere near as much as they used to.

“The number of people learning dance at GCSE and A level has fallen dramatically over the last decade, because the emphasis of what is valuable in the school system has changed so much.

“And that makes our job harder.

“What we need to do is make sure we can reach out to younger people and say that dance is a wonderful thing, and that we hope you can give it a go.

“We have to work harder to provide those opportunities in order for people to fall in love with dance.”

However, as chief executive, this requires Anand to be the devil’s advocate at times, a role that he had to grasp when understanding the business side of dance, rather than performance.

He adds: “Everyone has dreams; the challenge is that we have so many, but we can only deliver on some of them.

“We have to keep regulating all of those passions that we have, in a way that we can continue to sustainably ignite the passion in others.”

This ethos is what will inspire Dance City’s 40th anniversary celebrations next year, which Anand calls ‘dance forever’.

He says: “Dance forever is making sure the North East always has access to the best quality dance possible.

“It is also about what that quality means for a person, whether it’s in a class with six-month-old babies, watching professional performances at a larger venue or enabling young people to choreograph their own dance.

“All those things are absolutely valid, and it’s about creating the best possible dance experience for them.”

May 24, 2024

  • Feature

Created by Kate Hewison