Photography: Brian Slater (MK Ultra – Rosie Kay)

In many languages there’s no distinction between what in English is called music, and dancing. It’s common in Sub-Saharan Africa (nkwa in Igbo) and Asia (sangīta in Sanskrit, wai khruu in Thai). So, for many people around the world, the movement of the body is inseparable from the sounds to which it moves. And why stop there? Dance is one of the most versatile art forms people can do – like singing, we’re born with the equipment. So, being naturally human, dance is super relatable to an audience, and it goes well with sounds and images. This makes it a great medium for storytelling, too.

“I always align dance with going to the cinema or art gallery – you get the same visual element, and an element of storytelling.”

You kind of expect dancers to be energetic, and Karen Gallagher is very energetic. If she’s been running MERSEYSIDE DANCE INITIATIVE (MDI) and their flagship festival LEAP for 25 years with half as much energy as she uses to talk, there’s no secret behind their success and longevity. She runs through the line-up for LEAP 2018, their 10-day dance festival, at quite a lick.

“Liz Aggiss’ Slap And Tickle is autobiographical, telling how maverick she was (and is, still quite happy to show off her bottom); Lost Dog’s Juliet And Romeo reimagines the Bard, looking forward after his play ends and Avant Garde’s Fagin’s Twist looks back on Dickens via hip hop. Lost Dog managed to get some extra funding for their show, which allows audio description for the shows, and even a touch-tour before one of the performances.”

Funding is a loaded topic for MDI this year, as Karen explains. “Unfortunately, we lost our regular funding status. The festival is normally in March, but we had to fundraise and change our approach. We’ve developed a partnership with Liverpool Hope University – they gifted the space on their creative campus [in Everton] to us and we their students will see a whole load of dance. It would have gone ahead in September but building work meant pushing it back to November. It’s allowed us to spend a bit more time perfecting it.”

LEAP 2018 differs from, while building on, what’s come before. The ethos, as Karen explains, is “who are we, what is it about being in a society and what does that mean to us as an organisation. Trying to be as transformative as we can in terms of what we do. We thought about what happens when people-power comes together. We were throwing ideas around, and realising 2018 was 100 years of suffrage was a real lightbulb moment. It’s also about how women are perceived in the dance sector, and we’ve now got a dance festival that is 98 per cent created by women.”

MDI aren’t just inclusive in terms of gender. They’re not just open to, but actively seek out racial diversity, international and intergenerational participation, and people from different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds.


“That’s why we [created] our own pop-up venue in 2017: to shine a light on different kinds of people. We also thought about how to talk about this [diversity]. Just because you’re based in Liverpool doesn’t mean you’re not international. So, we set up a conference – Our Dance Democracy – to bring keynote speakers from all over the world, as well as from the Merseyside region, to talk about how democratic we are as a city in recruiting [and working with] people. Cultiv8 is something we’ve done for years, and having empowered black activists and black women involved is the point of that. It’s a workshop, discussion and performance; a real celebration of who we are as women. The MDI have been instrumental in creating this programme: Jennifer Hale from Taciturn is really prolific, she’s curated the Northern Dance Platform, and dances in it too. Then there’s the Cultiv8 Showcase – it was curated by Maxine Brown for 16 years, and that features Nafisah Baba, who was BBC Young Dancer 2017. And then Paul Doyle has created the youth showcase. It’s important to show that we’ve got works being created by our team as well as featuring touring shows. Loads of people also came out saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got this show Karen, do you wanna put it on?’”

That enormous surge of support was partly motivated by the fact that it’s Karen’s last LEAP, after 25 years as Artistic Director of MDI. In 2017, Arts Council England (ACE) didn’t renew MDI’s place in its National Portfolio of Organisations (NPOs), leaving them without public funding for the first time in 22 years. How do you come back from that?

“Since 2017… it’s important at this time to reflect where we are and consider our future. I was going to leave last year, but the board wanted me to remain, so I stayed another year. I’ve been here for 24 years, but with the ACE decision I wondered, ‘Is a change needed?’ You wonder about your reputation, and if people want to support you when you lose that NPO status. Liverpool City Council gave us a culture-enhancement grant as part of Liverpool 2018 which has gone towards Avant Garde at the Epstein Theatre, and that is the only one taking place off-campus.”

"Liverpool's got just one word for dancing, activism, accessibility and identity: MDI"

These aren’t just stories and distractions, though. Many of these dancers are trying to use their art to articulate the difficult, nuanced issues that we live with and understand, but often struggle to verbalise. In North West: Seen Parts 1 and 2, Warrington’s Kate Jackson will explore surviving terrorism on the same bill as a piece on female objectification and patriarchy by duo Baba Yage. In Part 2, Vicci Riley examines the working life and conditions of women past and present in Herring Girls, which also considers how food trends affect migration and commerce.

All this proves that dance can’t be boxed off from the world or the issues that concern us. The idea of physical movement as something brash and in-your-face runs throughout LEAP, but possibly nowhere as strongly as in the revival of Gaby Agis’ Shouting Out Loud – a 1984 performance for 13 women, with a soundtrack by Ana da Silva and seminal post-punk band The Raincoats.

“We want audiences to come from all over, to see stuff they won’t see anywhere else. This is an intergenerational company – and [Shouting Out Loud] was made during the Thatcher years, in many ways the same political situation we’re in now. We’re hoping for a young audience for MK Ultra [named after the top-secret, semi-legal programme of experimentation by the CIA in the 50s and 60s which explored mind control through hallucinogenics]. It is just gonna look and sound amazing.”

Despite the global pull of LEAP, showcases of northern and North West dance are crucial for MDI. “Venues don’t present dance regularly in the city – we’re the only organisation presenting this kind of work in the North West.” This isn’t braggadocious on Karen’s part. If you’ve been to a public event in Liverpool with any kind of dancing, chances are MDI were involved at some point. “We’ve got a really good core team. Not a dance company per se to do touring and so on, but we do loads of work such as International Dance Day, City Steps, appearing in shop windows, and then there are the big events like LightNight.”

They’ve earned that place as the prime dance organisation on Merseyside after years of hard graft. “LEAP predates MDI by a year. It started in 1992, but there have been odd years without a LEAP festival depending on funding. We celebrated 25 years of LEAP last year, not just with a festival, but by building our own venue at Make. Liverpool’s North Dock base. It’s a 5,000-square-foot, 288-seater space. It’s allowed us to present work on a bigger scale. And we could prove a point. ACE had said Liverpool wasn’t a dance destination [by deciding not to include MDI in the National Portfolio for their 2018-22 funding round] so that was like a red rag to a bull!”

MDI have their main premises on Hope Street (you’ve probably walked past a class in session in the ground floor studio, with samba wafting through the open windows) but they operate around the city area – they believe that nobody should be denied access to dance because they can’t reach it. “There’s a load of men dancing [under the auspices of the new Men! Dancing! project] downstairs right now. They’re 50-60 years old, one comes from all the way from Wales. It’s been running for 15 years and a few people in the class have been coming from the start,” laughs Karen, which also includes the 50 Moves project for women over 50 that’s been running since 2002.


With Karen bowing out, where do MDI go from here? “We’re doing a big piece of consultation – what’s the role of the organisation both in the city and with other funders and developers. We’re still to appoint a new leader, whether that be someone in my role as artistic director or a chief executive, we don’t know yet. We’re keeping all the classes going and having talks with our partners about what to do for 2019. It’s still that idea of trying to get as much dance out across the city [as we can]. Constantly fundraising, building new partnerships. And we’re always thinking of inclusivity and accessibility. No matter how populist a show is, we want to be as diverse as we can, reach as many people as we can.”

Karen Gallagher’s vision proves that physical movement can be loud. Dance isn’t just an amusing distraction – it can give people a voice. Echoing the lexicon of far-flung languages, it seems Liverpool’s got just one word for dancing, activism, accessibility, and identity: MDI

LEAP takes place between 2nd and 12th November across various venues.

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