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Photograph: Andrej Uspenski/@dancersdiary

Hoxton’s outdoor ballet has been saved – here’s how you can see it in action

Created by members of The Royal Ballet, DistDancing is back from the brink

Alexandra Sims

After being shut down by police and threatened with closure, DistDancing - a series of canalside shows featuring members of the country’s most respected dance companies - is back. 

Created by Royal Ballet dancers Chisato Katsura and Valentino Zucchetti, the free-to-watch performances at arts space Hoxton Docks on Regent’s Canal in Hackney feature everything from classical ballet to aerial acrobatics.

Photograph: Andrej Uspenski/@dancersdairy

Each week a different set of dancers tiptoed onto a floating stage to pile for an audience watching from the towpath on the opposite side of the water. There were gasps from the audience when I watched on in late August, as Giacomo Rovero of The Royal Ballet delicately stepped out onto the pontoon. He was followed by aerialist Ben Loader, who expertly tumbled from a suspended rope, and Russian mezzo-soprano at the Royal Opera House, Aigul Akhmetshina, who sang an excerpt from ‘Carmen’ while the English National Ballet’s Aitor Arrieta bounded along. 

For the furloughed performers, the shows were a chance to dance for a purpose again; for those watching, it was one of the few opportunities available to see live dance. 

The performances came to a halt on August 30 after ‘six vanloads of police officers’ shut down on the show. However, after messages of support from fans, the shows have now returned. 

DistDancing have decided to ditch their strict performing schedule, putting on impromptu performances over the remainder of the summer instead. People passing Hoxton Docks at the right moment will still be able to catch a glimpse of the action. But, so no one misses out, they’ll be using a new video format to upload the performances onto Instagram, too. You can watch their latest performance, here.

Photograph: Andrej Uspenski/@dancersdairy

While DistDancing survives, the arts and architecture charity Antepavillion, which provided a space for the show, is still embroiled in a disagreement with the council. Every year since 2017, the group (in collaboration with the Architecture Foundation) has given emerging architects, artists and makers a platform at Hoxton Docks to display their work. Over the years Antepavillion has had planning permission issues with Hackney Council. However, this year, the council served a demolition notice against the group, ordering the removal of all its installations, including an art installation in the canal of five fibreglass sharks by architect Jaimie Shorten. 

In a statement on Instagram, Antepavillion said: ‘London should be a place where people feel free to outwardly express themselves and where young people can enact change, a place of inspiration that encourages architecture and performance arts that engage with the public. Hackney should be at the forefront of architectural innovation and creativity, not binding itself to reactionary planning controls fit only for specific pockets of central London.’ 

A spokesperson from Hackney Council said it has ‘a legal duty to investigate all reported breaches of planning control.’ 

They added: ‘An investigation into the ‘Sharks!’ installation found the proposed artwork to pose a significant risk to public safety and would adversely affect the amenities of nearby residents, and, would result in unacceptable harm to the character and appearance of a conservation area. Effective Planning Enforcement is vital in order to maintain public confidence in the planning system and the Council will continue to take action as required against rogue developers for the wider benefit of the community.’

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Finding alternative ways to showcase art will be ever more important as social-distancing measures remain in place for the foreseeable future. ‘In the future, it will be much harder to push forward with our old ways, like performing in theatres,’ says Chisato. ‘But this is exciting, and it makes ballet much more accessible especially for people who may have had the assumption that ballet is boring. The reaction from the audience has been amazing. Even though there’s a canal separating us you still feel so connected.’ 

Audiences are also more grateful than ever to experience performances in the flesh. When I watched DistDancing in August a woman behind me tried to capture the experience for her friend over the phone. ‘It’s just glorious’, she said, ‘Even the kayaks have stopped in their tracks.’ Mark, who happened upon the show while walking down the canal with his friends, told me: ‘It’s breathtaking. I knew I’d miss live performance, but this makes me realise just how much. It’s given me hope for the future.’  

If you’d like to support Antepavillion, you can help by sending an email to Hackney Council using the template and links here

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