Freddie Opoku-Addaie is celebrating his new job as artistic director of Dance Umbrella festival, but he is unsure whether there will be a live festival to direct this year. The 2021 event is not scheduled until October, when he is hopeful theatres will be back in business, but there could be curveballs – if an international artist is coming as part of a tour, for example, and has to quarantine between countries. “Hopefully, fingers crossed, at least some of it can be live,” he says.
Opoku-Addaie is only the fourth artistic director in Dance Umbrella’s 43 years, following Val Bourne, Betsy Gregory and Emma Gladstone. The annual London festival is a reliable highlight in the dance calendar, from its early days giving the first exposure to Mark Morris, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Michael Clark to recent years uncovering contemporary ice skaters Le Patin Libre and acclaimed choreographer Oona Doherty.
Opoku-Addaie’s mission is to “widen the centre”, meaning to broaden the idea of what mainstream contemporary dance is: what it looks like, who makes it, where we see it and how it interacts with other art forms. He not only wants to find the new, but to value the artists who are neither “hot young things” nor establishment names. “I’m really interested in artists who blew up and then they went quiet – they’re still out there doing amazing things, they’re still making interesting work.”
You could say the 40-year-old is one of those himself. Born in east London, he spent time in Ghana as a child and discovered dance at Newham Sixth Form College. He danced with Wayne McGregor and Candoco and then started to choreograph work that is witty, playful, questioning and fond of props. He was twice a finalist in the Place prize, memorably for 2010’s Fidelity Project, a duet with Frauke Requardt involving a popcorn machine, but outsiders to the contemporary dance world could easily have lost track of him since then.
Some of that time was spent as a guest programmer for Dance Umbrella under Gladstone, where he was passionate about championing artists under the radar, especially those on his doorstep. “I think London is the greatest city ever, it’s diverse in its diversity,” he says. “There’s a breadth of artists I really want to support on to the international stage. We need to shout about our artists doing amazing work. The music scene and other sectors are more vocal about that, we could do it a lot more in dance.”
Dance could be vocal in other ways too. Dance people are notoriously nice, he says. “Maybe sometimes we’re a bit too nice” – when it comes to getting paid properly, for example, or speaking up about a system that leaves the majority of its artists living precariously. Occasionally he’ll hear someone referred to as being difficult to work with. “Why are they difficult?” asks Opoku-Addaie. “Is it because they don’t want to work in this way, in this structure? Maybe we need to adapt.”
When it comes to diversity – whether Bame, LGBTQ or disabled artists – Opoku-Addaie is calling time on “the three Ts”: tick-box, tokenism, tolerated. “So it’s not one in, one out,” he says. “I’m in this new role, but it means people not turning their backs and saying, ‘That’s great, he’s the first black artist to lead Dance Umbrella, everything’s fine.’ Everything is definitely not fine. How do we move things forward beyond, ‘OK, we’ve got one in’? It’s a wider conversation.
“There’s more listening going on, and that’s what I’m going to do as well. So we are not just tolerating – for artists to make their best work we have to go beyond that, they need to know you’ve got their backs and you’re with them.”
Opoku-Addaie’s thoughts about change also cover more imaginative programming – juxtaposing hip-hop, traditional African dance and ballet, for example – making the industry more self-sustaining, and giving artists “invaluable slack time” to develop beyond the conveyor belt of forever creating the next show. The post-pandemic landscape could offer an opportunity to redraw the picture.
“This is the time when artists, creatives and audiences can really reimagine how we exist,” he says. “So it’s really exciting. We’ve been through challenging times – what could be more challenging? By comparison, this is not a risk. The risk is that we don’t do it.”
He is ready to play his part. “Festivals, especially Dance Umbrella, capture people’s imagination, and give a sense of …” He thinks for moment. “‘Hope’ sounds a bit cheesy. But they galvanise us to do something bigger than ourselves.”