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Ballet company confirms it is considering touring without an orchestra as part of efforts to save money in the face of rising costs.

Sign on the front of the Northern Ballet company headquarters building in Quarry Hill, Leeds
Northern Ballet receives £3.29m annual funding from Arts Council England during 2023-2026

Philip J Openshaw

Northern Ballet is struggling to deal with rising costs and is in negotiations to replace its live orchestra with pre-recorded music for some performances to save money, it has emerged.

The Leeds-based company, which was established in 1969, has entered into “emergency discussions” with Arts Council England (ACE) to “reassess the amount of live music” that accompanies its touring productions from April 2024 onward.

A member of Northern Ballet Sinfonia said that they were informed of the situation yesterday, adding that they were told the company was "in serious financial trouble".

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The Musicians' Union, which has members in the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, the orchestra that plays at Northern Ballet performances, said the company had a significant operational deficit in 2022/23, which it used its reserves to cover.

It said the ballet company is now considering using recorded music instead of a live orchestra to remain sustainable.  

Viola player for the Northern Ballet Sinfonia Hannah Horton told Slippedisc yesterday that the ensemble had been "given devastating news by Northern Ballet that they are in financial trouble, serious financial trouble".

“The only way forward for the company (apparently) is to continue touring without the orchestra. This means that we are out of work from January onwards. This impacts seriously on my income, my family, my home, my mental health.”

Cultural vandalism

The MU has said using recorded music would be “an unacceptable state of affairs”. The union has previously raised similar concerns about Matthew Bourne's dance company New Adventures, which performs only with an orchestra in London, using a pre-recorded soundtrack on tour.

Morris Stemp, MU Orchestras Official, said that it was “unthinkable” that Northern Ballet was considering using recorded music instead of a live orchestra.

Although he appreciated that the measure was “a last resort”, he said, “our members are the product and an integral part of any ballet. It would be no different to replacing the dancers with a video screen.”
“We acknowledge that Northern Ballet are in emergency discussions with Arts Council England today, and we urge them to collectively find a solution to the funding shortfall.”
Naomi Pohl, MU General Secretary, added: “Most ballet companies appear to be offering less work to orchestral musicians, even those who have players with ongoing contracts.

“There is no doubt that this is a direct result of funding cuts, and the situation at Northern Ballot is particularly stark. Ballet is a live medium, and we know audiences demand live musicians. 

“We urge the Arts Council and Northern Ballet to work together urgently to avert this cultural vandalism and ensure the company can keep doing what it does best: live performance.” 

Standstill funding

Last year, ACE awarded Northern Ballet £3.29m per year for 2023-2026 as part of the National Portfolio. That is up 5.7% from the £3.1m it received for the 2018-2022 period.

However, separate ACE Strategic Funding the company previously received for children's ballet activities was merged into the core NPO funding in this latest round, resulting in a marginal decrease in overall funds. 

In a statement to its orchestra, Northern Ballet said it remained “grateful to Arts Council England, Leeds City Council and our supporters for the funding and support that we receive.”

However, due to rising costs, it had “become clear that we can no longer continue with our traditional touring model” and need to “explore different options if we are to continue to bring world-class narrative ballets to audiences throughout the country.” 

Northern Ballet said that while it believes in the “power and importance” of live music, it was with “deep regret” that this was something it “cannot maintain at every venue”. 

It added that “where possible”, live music would remain in its productions but confirmed the company was in discussions with its musicians, MU and ACE to “explore what a new touring model could look like for Northern Ballet.”

Arts Professional has approached ACE for comment.

A headshot of Mary Stone