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Headshot of Dawn Holgate glancing to the side.

In Conversation With... Choreographer Dawn Holgate

Meet freelance choreographer, Leeds local Dawn Holgate to celebrate International Dance Day. For three decades, Dawn has been a prominent leader in the fields of dance education and community, designing and leading Phoenix Dance Academy which is still inspiring the next generation 25 years later. Dawn’s avid community engagement led her to become the Resident Choreographer and Movement Director for Leeds Grand Youth Theatre and has spent a decade choreographing the Company’s annual musical.

Written by Dawn Holgate

Life as a freelance choreographer

What three skills do you need to be a choreographer and what do you think would surprise people the most?

The first skill is the ability to create a vision for the dance work with some ideas about how you are going to realise that vision. The second skill I would say is to know your group and how to get the best out of people. The third skill is to understand and appreciate how people move, their range and capacity for movement.  What would surprise people the most, is that I don’t consider myself a choreographer! That may seem to be a contradiction in terms but the term choreographer comes with a narrow perception of what the practice is.  I prefer the term facilitator or movement director as this opens the scope for the skills mentioned above and allows for new and unexpected movement patterns to appear.

Headshot of Dawn Holgate glancing to the side.

In Conversation With... Dawn Holgate

Dawn Holgate in the studio downstairs in Leeds Grand Theatre leant in front of a laptop that is facing a group of children in a semi-circle.

Dawn teaching a group of children in the studio in Leeds Grand Theatre

What is the biggest challenge of working on freelance dance projects?

As a freelance artist, managing and juggling workloads will always be challenging and has become a well-honed practice.  Planning and organising different types of dance and workshop sessions, for different groups means you need to know your craft and understand who you have in the studio.

Knowing your worth is also key as is managing unsteady streams of income!

Is there any advice you would give to young dancers wanting to get into choreography?

Always do your research.  Overplan and prepare for going into the studio to work with others. Having an extra movement task (or two) up your sleeve will help if you run out of ideas or have a creative block. Remain curious and open to new ideas and approaches.  Be willing to work outside your comfort zone and get used to feeling uncomfortable or silly when exploring new choreographic territory – it’s not a bad thing and will make you and your work stand out from the norm.  Finally, I would advise that you have someone who can give you feedback, support and advice: someone who is willing to ask probing questions and who can challenge you to push beyond your comfort zone.

Working with Leeds Grand Youth Theatre

Describe a typical rehearsal day with Leeds Grand Youth Theatre (LGYT)

I tend to have a workshop pattern that is similar when working across all three youth theatre groups. This typically starts with a warm-up, to mobilise the body and focus the mind. In the run-up to our yearly productions, each group will have their own journey through the show, and along with Lizi Patch (Director) and Pete Rosser (Musical Director), we meet regularly to plan and map this journey and to discuss content and activity. Following our creative planning meetings I devise choreography, which can be different for each group and/or individuals. This then gets practiced, refined and rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed!… Repetition is key to success in this industry.

What’s the highlight of working with young people?

There are many! But my passion is sharing my skills, knowledge and experience with others who are willing to be open to go on exploratory journeys with me.  I love to see their confidence grow and movement skills develop right in front of me.  It’s a fulfilling experience.

What is your favourite LGYT show you’ve been part of and was there a particular moment in the show that stood out for you in terms of dance and choreography?

Gosh, there have been many magical moments!  But I have to say my all-time favourite ‘moment’ has to be the epic Jitterbug scene in The Wizard of Oz.  It was a long and challenging number to create and one that built-in energy and reached an almighty crescendo! (I can feel the energy now as I’m writing this.)  However, I need to add that this work is never done in isolation and as always reflects a great team effort, working alongside the effervescent Lizi Patch and the legendary Pete Rosser and the Leeds Heritage Theatres Learning and Engagement team is always a gratifying experience as we all have the same work ethos and values.

What can we expect from the dance numbers in Little Shop of Horrors this year? What has your thinking been so far?

Most of the bigger numbers are danced and performed by the Ronettes, who are young, hip, sassy and smart females.  At times they communicate directly with the audience breaking the invisible ‘fourth wall’ and are tasked with relaying some rather disturbing news!  My thinking is to encourage the Ronettes to embrace who they are and to embody the characteristics of each character they are playing – this applies to the entire LGYT cast!  Each cast member has to embody something new or different through movement and through dance (which can be a challenging concept) and one that will be developed through the workshop process… but that’s what I’m here for!

Find out more about Leeds Grand Youth Theatre

Dawn showing a dance move to a group of children in the studio at Leeds Grand Theatre.

Dawn and a group of children rehearsing in the studio at Leeds Grand Theatre

Dawn instructing children onstage at City Varieties Music Hall with her arms out explaining something.

Dawn instructing children on stage at City Varieties Music Hall

Dawn and a group of children on stage at City Varieties Music Hall.

Dawn in action on stage at City Varieties Music Hall

Quick-fire questions

Are there any dance shows you’ve been in the audience for over the years at our venues or beyond that have stuck out in your memory?

I recently saw Săo Paulo Dance Company perform at the Alhambra in Bradford. The company performed three sublime dance works! The dancers were exquisite and highly trained in a range of styles (including contemporary, ballet and Afro-Brazillian).  The production was captivating, and full of cultural references and diversity.  I was left wanting more.  I haven’t felt like this about dance in a very long time and this served to fill my cup!

Away from dance, what do you do in your spare time?

I enjoy physical activity (no surprises there) and at the moment I’m into going to the gym (as I’m nursing a knee niggle) and I go for walks in my local park.  I spend a lot of time with my aging mother and I take time to appreciate the special people in my life.

If you did not work in dance, what would you be doing?

I think I would have had a career in law or the justice system.  Before heading to London to train as a dancer, I worked in a solicitor’s office as an office junior, which I enjoyed.  Just before leaving they offered me more clerking duties at the courthouse.  It was a tempting offer but my heart knew what it wanted and I followed suit.