A few months ago when Arts Council England announced their funding allocation for the next four years, one of the shocks that came out of it was the dropping of Liverpool’s MDI as a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO).
Headlines around that time always focus on the positive, the theatres and companies that successfully secure another few years of regular, significant income. And of course it’s great news for those who get to carry on as normal, but to celebrate that too much when loss of funding could likely mean a death knell for others always seems a little bad taste.
Hope Street-based MDI – Merseyside Dance Initiative, as was, and whose mission statement is “inspiring people through dance” – had relied on ACE funding for 25 years. It was one of their major sources of income – and its withdrawal came as a complete surprise. They are, thankfully, not giving up without a fight; but the future is uncertain. I’ve been wanting to write something since then, but never got round to it although it has played on my mind a great deal. So better late than never, here it is:
MDI to me is one of the most diverse, inclusive, intelligent and vibrant multi-racial arts organisations we have. No other champions, promotes and educates in dance in all forms the way they do. More recently, MDI has aimed to found a dedicated dance house in the city – something it is hard to believe a place as culture-mad as Liverpool doesn’t have.
It is best known for its flagship LEAP festival, that brings top choreographers from around the globe together for public performances, workshops and discussions. They always support national events like Big Dance, with performances across the city. And when they go big, they go big – helping to bring Mark Morris’s premiere of Pepperland to huge audiences at the Royal Court was a sweet moment. World-renowned choreographers like Akram Khan and Matthew Bourne have brought their work to Liverpool and LEAP over the years thanks to MDI.
But it’s not just about the major events, at all; it’s the African dance summer schools for kids; tea dances for people living with Parkinson’s (and dementia, too, before again losing funding when the Alzheimer’s Society pulled out of Liverpool); the 50 Moves older people’s troupe (which got to perform at Saddler’s Wells), the Open Level Ballet class for everyone, and so much more.
MDI’s artistic director Karen Gallagher can be found at any and every dance event and performance in the city, supporting practitioners, promoting talent and working hard to increase local audiences.
One of the most moving and rewarding things I saw this year was the LEAP festival’s community showcase, which really showed the breadth and depth of MDI’s work, with pieces from all kinds of dance groups including children, young people with learning difficulties, Voguers, young black women and amateur ballet dancers. It was there you could really see the power and the magic of dance, the stories it can tell, and the potential it had unlocked in all manner of different people.
MDI remains core-funded and has generated some £6m for dance in the city region over the years. It is also worrying that neighbouring Dance Manchester also lost its NPO status in the latest round of ACE funding (which ends next year).
Although it’s not to say MDI could still secure project-specific funding from ACE from now on, the politics of it all raises a lot of questions – why pull out after decades of supporting an NPO with proven success in diverse community outreach, working in hard-to-engage areas, in a medium that is arguably under-represented in the region as it is? Compare it with this year’s big controversy, the allocation of millions of pounds to a new theatre company set up by the (soon-to-be former) artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Emma Rice, just days before the funding deadline, that has not even begun to produce work yet.
So what will this mean for dance in the North West region as a whole? MDI aren’t about to give up – which is a good thing, because Liverpool can’t afford to lose them.