The QT

Thursday 20 June 2024

Thrilled to be dancing in home city

Conor Kerrigan tells David Whetstone how he was inspired by Billy Elliot and about the cheer he’s hoping for at the Theatre Royal with Rambert
Rambert dancer Conor Kerrigan. Credit: Camilla Greenwell

Rambert, which prides itself on being the country’s oldest dance company (centenary coming up in 2026), is on the brink of a Newcastle return —  good news for fans and a special thrill for one of its dancers.

Conor Kerrigan, who was born in Newcastle and grew up in Gateshead, has been waiting for this moment.

It nearly came in 2020 when a touring triple bill was kiboshed by Covid just ahead of its Theatre Royal dates. He well remembers his reaction. “No! That was my moment.”

Then the company’s hugely popular Peaky Blinders show, The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, which he’d helped to create, didn’t come to the city on its national tour. Conor reckons the stage was unsuitable.

But now comes his moment —  his long-awaited big moment —  with a Rambert double bill called Death Trap, directed and devised by Ben Duke who also has a North East connection.

He studied English literature at Newcastle University before going into dance and 20 years ago co-founding Lost Dog, a company which blends dance with other disciplines to tell stories.

Rambert dancers Joseph Kudra, Archie White and Conor Kerrigan in Ben Duke’s Death Trap (Cerberus). Credit: Camilla Greenwell

Death Trap comprises Duke’s two pieces for Rambert.

Goat, made in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 London Bridge terror attack, features an on-stage band and the music of Nina Simone.

The piece involves a sacrificial human ‘goat’, danced by Conor.

Cerberus (in Greek mythology the name of the multi-headed hound that guards the Underworld) is more recent, dating from 2022. Described by the Theatre Royal as “a bittersweet musing on myth and mortality”, it presents dance as a matter of life or death.

If this all sounds grim, the Theatre Royal woos us by calling it “darkly funny” and “packed with originality.”

Conor describes Cerberus as “a piece mostly about journeys, journeys through life and death.

“It’s a bit unusual because what Ben does is bring you into this world through narration and storytelling. You don’t expect dancers to speak as much as we do in this piece.

“It’s not just pure dance straight away. At first you might think ‘What’s going on here?’ but there’s a real accessibility to it.”

Learning Goat, he says, was “quite a process… it’s about a community of people coming together for a ritual to put the problems and worries of the world onto a sacrificial scapegoat, in this case a person.

“Ben’s quite clever because he’ll mislead you. It is oddly funny with off-the-cuff humour and media interventions, and what I’ve noticed is that audiences tend to laugh at things that shouldn’t necessarily be funny but he’s put you in this state of laughing at someone getting sacrificed.

“In playing the goat, I have to go out and convince the audience that this is how it has to be. There’s a fantastic dance to death which is quite the number.”

At one point, he says, the scapegoat, under interrogation, is asked where he comes from. 

“I always say Newcastle and audiences usually chuckle about that, like I’m making it up. I’m hoping I might get a bit of a cheer at the Theatre Royal.”

With family and friends in the audience, that seems more than likely.

Conor, who is 28, had his first brush with dance when he was just four, at about the time Billy Elliot was delighting cinema audiences.

“That was a massive inspiration to me growing up,” he says, although he was probably a bit young for it when his mother took him to his first dance class at the Reavley Theatre School, in Felling.

Rambert dancer Naya Lovell in Ben Duke’s Goat. Credit: Camilla Greenwell

“I started with ballet, tap, jazz, theatre, the basics of performing, and I kept with it over the years.

“Because I started so young it didn’t matter that in the North East it wasn’t always looked upon as something for a boy to be doing. It became a habit. Also, I enjoyed it and I was good at it.

“I can draw comparisons with the Billy Elliot story because, like Billy, I really did want to do it. But my dad was never a miner and my family have always been very supportive and non-judgmental.”

Conor’s mother was a teacher and his father became a law professor but his revelation that they met when performing at the People’s Theatre suggests he might have inherited a performative gene.

As a teenager, says Conor, he got interested in hip hop and the ‘breaking’ scene and attended classes at Dance City.

Rambert dancers Jonathan Wade, Naya Lovell and Angélique Blasco in Death Trap (Cerberus). Credit: Camilla Greenwell

“Through that I discovered new things, the different ways of approaching dance. It was a real eye-opener. I did that for a while alongside the theatre school but then I joined Dance City’s B Tech course.

“That kick-started my interest in contemporary dance which I’d never done before. I got really into that and actually went to see Rambert perform at the Theatre Royal when I was 15 or 16.

“I remember thinking that was a company I wouldn’t mind being in. It seems a bit surreal saying that now. I saw dancers back then who I ended up dancing with.”

Conor got accepted into the National Youth Dance Theatre, run by Sadler’s Wells, and spent a year working on a new piece with Belgian dancer and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

“What’s great about that programme is it gives young dancers a chance to discover what the industry’s all about and to perform in what is essentially a professional piece at Sadler’s Wells.

“It broadened my horizons. When you’re 17 and performing on big stages like that, it really inspires you.”

Conor then spent three years at London Contemporary Dance School which he remembers as “the most enriching time of my training life”.

Then in 2019, a mere four days after graduating, he was accepted as a founding member of Rambert’s company of young dancers, Rambert 2. A year later he progressed to the main company.

I can draw comparisons with the Billy Elliot story because, like Billy, I really did want to do it. But my dad was never a miner and my family have always been very supportive and non-judgmental.

The Death Trap double bill has already taken him around the country, from Truro to Aberdeen, and also to Paris where audiences loved it. “It was,” says Conor, “right up their street.”

Loving the life he has led so far through his demanding chosen artform, he says he hopes he can continue dancing professionally into his 40s.

Before then, though, there’s Newcastle. Coming back, he says, will be “an honour”. He hopes audiences in the city will be peppered with people who have followed his progress and might give a cheer or a whoop at the opportune moment.

Death Trap is at Newcastle Theatre Royal on April 24 and 25 (Wednesday and Thursday) at 7.30pm. Buy tickets via the theatre website or call the box office on 0191 232 7010.

Before he goes, Conor also lets slip that Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, in which he dances the role of Arthur Shelby, is hitting the road again in the autumn and you can catch it at Sunderland Empire from October 29 to November 2.


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