From its formation in Amsterdam in 1991 and arrival in Derry six years later, Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company has steadfastly ploughed its own furrow. Director and co-founder Steve Batts knows all too well the challenges and pitfalls involved in pursuing an unshakeable artistic focus linked to a highly tuned creative ethos, particularly in a city where, almost twenty years ago, contemporary dance would not have been the easiest of sells.
It is a company which never seems to stand still. Three years ago it moved its home base into new studios on the two upper floors of Waterloo House on Magazine Street, an imposing, historic building beside the city walls. And as the year turns into November, Echo Echo is poised to deliver its fourth annual festival of dance, movement and physical theatre with an exciting, high quality programme centred around a combination of new, home grown work and internationally acclaimed performances and installations.
'It does seem to have become an established event now,' reflects Batts, whose personal career encompasses dance, choreography and teaching all over the world. 'It was an idea that had been in my mind for many years but the circumstances and resources had not been really viable. With 2013 being the year of City of Culture in Derry, it seemed like a good time to try to start something new. We proposed three major projects to the commissioning team and received substantial funding at an early stage, which meant that we were able to plan and organise things properly. The following year, we received money from the City of Culture Legacy Programme so that, two years in, the festival was being recognised as quite a success.
'Of course, like any other arts organisation, we go from year to year and any substantial cut in funding could make it unviable. We are hoping that the resources will be sustained into the future so that we can increase the depth and scope of what we are able to offer and can look at earlier commissioning of new work. That way the festival becomes an integral element of the company’s annual schedule.'
This year’s programme is ambitious, with a strong international flavour and a wide selection of one-off special events, installations, workshops, discussions and performances which reflect the company's concentration on developing work through what Batts describes as '… close attention to organic process..
'I don’t go shopping around other festivals to bring in events that have been seen elsewhere. Everything we present is specifically aimed at nurturing a cultural ethos based on the concept of poetic movement. The company works as an ensemble. We are not suited to generic practice. There is a general tendency amongst dance companies to create projects that are short term. That way, you are always looking over your shoulder for the next thing. We work hard at developing relationships, following eastern European models of theatre practice that take you deeper.'
This year the festival is breaking new ground in moving outside the Echo Echo studios and into mainstream public spaces. There will be events in the Garden of Reflections Gallery, the Craft Village, the Playtrail, Donemana Primary School, St. Columb’s Park House and Foyle Arts Building, as well as in its own building, of course.
The brilliantly inventive English aerial theatre company Ockham’s Razor are doing their show Tipping Point in the Foyle Arena because of the need for extra height. Artist Rosemary Lee, who created a huge video installation involving 500 people in the city in 2013, is bringing another intriguing piece of work called Liquid Gold is in the Air. Funk soul maestros Velvet Alibi will headline the closing concert, there is a Festival Symposium whose theme is Conversations on Moving and Being Moved and there’s even a family friendly Dance Picnic.
Batts, who describes his family history as ‘among the last planters’, grew up in Portstewart and left Northern Ireland as a teenager to study in England. He continued studying and working in the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, soaking up the influences of the European dance traditions which continue to inform and shape his artistic vocabulary.
With his partner, the Swiss dancer Ursula Laeubli, who sadly passed away in 2011, Echo Echo was founded in 1991 and the pair set out to forge a company modelled on an ensemble template, with artists committing to long term connections and making work together. It was an approach which they continued to grow when they set up shop in Derry.
After many years of non-stop peripatetic activity, crossing countries and continents, Batts recalls how he regularly returned to Northern Ireland, appearing frequently at Belfast's Old Museum Arts Centre and other venues.
'With the onset of the peace process, I started to think that this was maybe the time to come back,' he says. 'We started looking for a permanent place as we had been on the road a lot, working with many different groups. We did quite a few performances at the Playhouse in Derry and the director Pauline Ross invited us to become its dance company-in-residence. So in early 1997, we took up the invitation and it worked well.
'We are no more financially secure here than we would be anywhere else but we have developed good relationships with the local community and receive core funding from the local council as well as from the Arts Council. Like so many other arts organisations, there is no leeway and the necessity for making never-ending applications to trusts and foundations does take its toll. For the past two years I have been working on an application to the European Cultural Foundation, along with two European partners. There is an important deadline looming as, with the onset of Brexit, this will be our last chance to apply. With only a small administrative team, it’s a challenging balancing act, keeping an eye on the money while also trying to sustain my own creative practice.
The coherent way in which the festival has been curated reflects its distinctive identity. The company is comprised of a group of long-term colleagues, who create their own work but also reach out and make connections across the dance world.
Batts describes dance as falling under two headings - dance that puts armour on and dance that takes armour off. Echo Echo is very much about the second. About artistic freedom, organic working methods, collaboration and sharing; about refusing to be contained within a prescribed compartment.
As a result of his own and the company’s international links, he is able to call on colleagues and peers with whom he has forged lasting creative connections. From the perspective of the forthcoming programme, he has danced with, taught and been taught by the Japanese dancers Chico Katsube and Shoko Kashima, who will present Phase 47 and a series of improvised performance around the city. He talks of their ‘delicate, fine-tuned, beautiful’ style and expresses his appreciation that they have worked the festival into their busy touring schedule, before leaving to perform in Hong Kong.
Barcelona dancer Leilani Weis has been an Echo Echo invited artist, whose ongoing relationship has brought her and her company back to Derry to present Dones: Women Just Dancing (Everywhere).
'I have wanted to invite Chico and Shoko here since before the first festival, but their schedule didn’t allow it. ' says Batts. 'We have always kept in close touch over the years and they have done us a big favour by fitting us into the big epic trip they are currently undertaking. I’m sure that audiences will be thrilled with what they’ll see.
'Our interest is in depth rather than numbers, in forging longer, deeper relationships. We are primarily an artist-led company, not a commercial venture. Our artists and our associates are very important to us, as are the communities who work with us. Families, over 50s groups, children and all the people who come out to see them … there is an overlap. We have not developed in a way that is typical and we are not filling a generic gap. We have resisted the temptation to go down that route. But the quality of what we do is high, there is a future to it. Yes, you could say we plough our own furrow and, yes, it is much easier to say than to do. But almost 20 years on, we’re still here and our audiences continue to support us. We are in it for the long haul. That’s the crucial thing.