Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company has called Derry its home for the past 18 years and in that time it has grown to become Northern Ireland’s leading dance company as well as a key player in the development of dance throughout the whole of Ireland, both north and south.
The company itself was established in 1991 by Steve Batts and Ursula Laeubli in Amsterdam, and subsequently toured their performances throughout Europe before deciding to relocate to Northern Ireland in 1997.
I had the pleasure of watching the final performance of their popular family show ‘Ludo Lusi Lusum’, during its most recent run. The piece, performed by the Echo Echo Ensemble and directed by Associate Artistic Director, Ayesha Mailey, is full of energy and humour, as the audience is transported to magical world where the dancers are transformed into animals through movement and sound. The piece captivates both kids and adults alike, and is full of fun and mischief.
Afterwards I met up with co-founder and Artistic Director, Steve Batts and his passion for dance and his passion for dance and for the company was evident and in abundance. I started by asking Steve how the concept for the theatre was born.
“It was based on the idea that we would be committed on working together creatively on a long term basis rather than just a project to project basis which is the usual way most dance companies operate. We wanted to set up an organisation where we could establish longer term creative relationships with people. The company worked out of Amsterdam, a lot in Germany, former Soviet Union countries and also in Eastern Europe for about 6 or 7 years but we didn’t really have a base or a home.
We also toured Ireland. I had always come back here because this is where I grew up and I had always kept a connection through teaching and performing. We were touring one year in 1996 and had performed at the Playhouse, but in a surprise gesture we were asked by Pauline Ross, the theatre’s director ‘why don’t you stay here for a while?’ As we were actually looking for a base at the time, we said yes.
We were based at the Playhouse for 6-7 years and then the Waterside Theatre, but in all that time myself and Ursula had two things that we had wanted to do with the company. First, to establish the Ensemble model, so in a way establishing the long term commitment that we wanted in working with the same people at a deeper level over a sustained time. We also wanted a place which we could call home for the company. Now those two things have happened as in 2013 we had the opportunity to open this building. Sadly Ursula was not around to see it happen as she died in 2011, but it was clear even then, that our home was going to become a reality.
We had established the Ensemble, who are still with us now, around 2009. They are a mixture of people who have mainly worked or trained with Echo Echo in some way, then maybe have gone away to university and have come back. So it’s people who are committed to a long term connection with the town and with each other and this is an unusual model in a sense.”
Give us an idea of what kind of work goes on within the theatre…
“Our work is very broad, it ranges from professional productions which go to small and medium scale venues, touring, playing festivals right through to participatory projects with older people and children, and also those with disabilities. The thing that keeps it all coherent, and we are rather unusual in this way, is that we approach dance as an art form; we think in a very broad way that dancing is about poetic movement. The equivalent of what people may do with language in poetry, it’s more about meaning and content, composition and grammar and a bit less to do with bodies and shapes.
So we are unusual in a number of ways, unusual because we have our own home, unusual because we work as an Ensemble and we are unusual because our approach to dancing is quite outside the mainstream.
We are very lucky because, marginally, we actually have the strongest annual support from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. It’s unusual to be not mainstream yet in a way, a leading client of the Arts Council.”
Steve went on to tell me about what the theatre offers; “we have a lot of international connections too. Students often come from abroad and we even have colleagues here at the minute from Tuscany in Italy who we are developing a 3 year European project with. We will be collaborating with them and also some people from Moldova.
We also run an International Festival of Dance and Movement which happens each November so we have quite a broad range of work. Echo Echo is really focussed on creating an accessible programme and offering a comfortable place to come to, a warm and easy going kind of thing, but at the same time maintaining high expectations of people.
In our programme we have kids classes every Saturday where children of different ages come along. We also have the Summer Scheme which will be starting soon. We also work a lot with schools too.”
In speaking with Steve it’s clear to me that we are very fortunate as a city to have someone so passionate about dance as the leader of an organisation who are at the forefront of their field and so well respected internationally. They are not only a credit and an inspiration to Derry, but to Northern Ireland.
“The dance world is designed in a way for people who have no connections” Steve went on to tell me when asked about what makes the Echo Echo so different. “They’ll train, they’ll go from project to project, a little bit like actors but worse. So you tend not to get the sensitivities of, for example, people who have families. What we try to do here is to make it friendly to people’s real lives, but at the same time we have a very high level of expectation of what is possible for people.
What we do with our participation projects generally is not in a way outreach and education, but an invitation to join in. Saying there is this magical world of mystery and imagination and creativity in movement, actually, if you want to come there you can. The depths of marvelousness you can get out of that is connected with the amount of effort that you are willing to put in.”
Coming up this month will be the beginning of Echo Echo’s Summer Schemes. Two programmes of dance, movement, music, martial arts and creativity for kids aged 5 - 11 years with the Echo Echo Ensemble Artists and guests are on offer. Kicking off on the 6-10 July, with a second week running from 10-14 August, the course costs £60 for 1 week, £100 for 2 weeks, and will run from 10am - 3pm daily. It’s a fantastic opportunity for the kids to learn from such highly experienced dancers, and in keeping with Echo Echo’s desire to make dance accessible for all, reductions for families, and daily rates are available.
If you’re interested in the Summer Scheme, or indeed any other courses or events the Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company offer, you can check out their website www.echoechodance.com or give them a call on 7130 8883.
Photo of the The Echo Echo Ensemble is courtesy of Living Witness Productions