George Best in Dance

Jane Coyle dances around the topic of where dance and football meet with choreographer Andy Howitt. Click Play Audio for a podcast interview

Whoever it was reckoned that the macho world of football and the rarefied reaches of contemporary dance were a definite case of oil and water should have a word with Andy Howitt.

Fife-born dancer and choreographer Howitt is currently in Belfast, working with Maiden Voyage Dance Company, for whom he has created Best, a new full-length dance piece based on the life of famed footballer, George Best.

In Howitt's part of the world, dance was not an obvious career choice for the average teenage boy. Not until he met the inspirational community dance animateur Royston Maldoom did Howitt ever consider dance as a vocation.

'Up until the age of 16 I had never done any dance in my life,' Howitt recalls. 'I never anticipated that it would be part of what I would be or what I would become. I grew up with football. There was no history of dance or the arts in my family.

'Then one day I did a dance class [with Maldoom]. To be honest, the reason was for a bit of a laugh. Plus, it was obvious, that was where most of the pretty girls went. But I still remember the shape of the moment that changed my life. At the end of the session, I went up to him and I said ‘I want to be a dancer'.'

A self-confessed footy anorak, Howitt admits that his love of the beautiful game goes beyond a merely healthy interest. 'I’m addicted to football. A former chairman of United once said you can change your house, you can change your car, you can change your wife but you can never change your team. And that sums football up for me. People pay lots of money to go to see it. They want to be entertained and there was no better entertainer on the field than George Best.'

Best was initially conceived by Howitt and Nicola Curry, artistic director of Maiden Voyage. The two appeared together in Ulster Youth Dance’s epic scale performance Carmina Burana in 1990 – directed by Maldoom. They view it as a project which will make dance accessible to a wide mainstream audience.

Howitt admits that the job is something of a dream ticket, combining three of the passions of his life – dance, football and Best.

'I know, you couldn’t get anything better for a male dancer like me,' he laughs. 'I had done Archie Gemmill’s goal for Scotland in 1978. And I did a Michael Owen goal, which I performed on Have I Got News For You?, and a Newcastle goal. But they were just little 20 second goals and excerpts, not an epic like this.

'When Nicola and I first sat down and talked about it we asked ourselves are we doing this for the right reasons. We decided that it was a positive way of viewing dance and I have also come to the conclusion that it is one of the best ways of seeing the story of George Best, the passion and the power. He was such an exuberant person to work with. And we see him during key milestones in his life from 1948 through to 1988, with music from those periods.'

The production has been supported by the George Best Foundation and by the Irish Football Association. Best’s sister Barbara McNarry told Howitt that she was initially puzzled about how he could possibly make a performance piece about her brother’s life – in dance, without using words.

'That’s the challenge of making great work. That’s what gets me into the studio. We’ve sourced all kinds of material, I read letters to his mother and I watched YouTube and analysed goals like the time he kicked the ball over Gordon Banks’s head and stood with his arms folded.

'It was a very humbling experience when the family came to the rehearsal room. They had never seen contemporary dance before. Barbara said something very interesting – ‘it’s not how you see it, it’s how I see it that’s important’.

'We don’t really go into the dark days and I’m so glad that we begin and end with the testimonial game. Best needs to be remembered for the glory days. It’s so easy these days to forget what a great player he was and what he represented.'

Best is at the Tower Street Campus of Belfast Metropolitan College from 18 to 20 February, with a Saturday matinee performance. Tickets through Belfast Welcome Centre – 028 9024 6609 or www.gotobelfast.com

It tours to The Market Place, Armagh (24 February), The Waterside, Derry (25) February, Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (26 February). Strule Arts Centre, Omagh (3 March) and Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (5 March). More information on Maiden Voyage Dance Company.