Happy Birthday to Maiden Voyage

Celebrating ten years of inspirational dance with Nicola Curry

Maiden Voyage Dance Company is ten years old. For over 20 years, its founder and artistic director Nicola Curry has witnessed the stop-start progress of dance in Northern Ireland, along what has sometimes been a rocky road.

Like many of her peers, she cut her teeth with Ulster Youth Dance, under the inspirational leadership of internationally renowned choreographer Royston Maldoom. From the age of five, she had taken ballet classes at home in Armagh and then in Portadown and vividly remembers those early encounters with the brave new world of contemporary dance.

'I was 16 when I joined Ulster Youth Dance,' she recalls. 'It was very important to a whole generation of young dancers. It gave us the confidence to believe that it might actually be possible to have a career in contemporary dance. I was also involved with Irish Youth Dance in Dublin, where I met people like Liz Roche (of Rex Levitates), with whom I’ve worked many times over the years.

'They were halcyon days. I had the amazing experience of performing in huge productions like Royston’s Carmina Burana in the King’s Hall and at the 1996 Belfast Festival in Wayne McGregor’s Cyber Generation.'

She grins and notes that none of them knew then that Wayne would become one of the giants of the dance world.

'Those performances generated massive audiences for dance in Belfast. Companies from across the water like Phoenix and DV8 and Diversions came here regularly and made a big impression. But then the funding dropped off and the whole thing was in danger of withering away.'

Indeed, Curry’s own career might have taken a similar turn. On leaving school, she was offered a place at the prestigious Laban Conservatoire in London, but her local authority would not support her financially. Instead, she studied law at Queen’s University and then signed up for a Masters in intellectual property.

But the urge to dance would not go away. Fearful of missing her chance, she quit her law studies and went to Limerick to do a Masters in dance performance.

Three years as an arts administrator at Young at Art during the early years gave her the business expertise to strike out and set up her own company. In 2001, Maiden Voyage took its first faltering steps.

'There were not many dance companies around at the time,' Curry says. 'Echo Echo was in Derry and a few others had started up but had not lasted. Of one thing I was certain, I wanted Maiden Voyage to be a Belfast company.

'For the first four years, our funding was entirely project-based. We had no office, I was the only staff member and I danced myself – although I sometimes wondered if I was too old!'

Over the years – and under Curry’s solo stewardship – Maiden Voyage has put down deep roots, dividing its activities into three strands: commissioning and producing new work, professional development, and outreach and education workshops.

It has notched up an impressive set of production credits – including last year’s massively popular Best - and Curry takes justifiable pride in the volume of quality new work commissioned and the creative teams involved.

'Funds are short and it’s difficult to make new work here, but we have been fortunate in attracting so many top composers, dancers and choreographers to join us. It’s also satisfying to give professional opportunities to young dancers and choreographers, who are from or based here,' she says.

'One of my favourite pieces is 4 Quartets, which was based on TS Eliot’s beautiful poem, composed by Neil Martin and choreographed by four people with whom I’ve worked many times. One of them, Susannah McCreight, is doing a big new piece for us for 2012, with music by Brian Irvine. We’re really excited about that.'

While Curry is now focusing her attention on restructuring and expanding the company, she also has something rather more jolly on her packed agenda. Maiden Voyage’s birthday falls over the weekend of October 22 and 23, coinciding with its performances in the Ulster Museum during the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

'This is the second year of our Dance Exposed project at the Museum, in which we’ve commissioned contrasting pieces from a local and a European choreographer, Stevie Prickett and Filip Van Huffel from Belgium,' Curry explains.  'But, we do have a bit of a break between performances, so I think we’ll probably take the opportunity to fit in some birthday cake and a bit of a hooley.'

Free Dance Exposed performances will take place in the foyer of the Ulster Museum at 11:15, 12:15, 14:15 and 15:15 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's. For more information check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On.