The Bridge Interviews

Peter Kyle

July 2017

In 2000 a new exhibition and lecture theatre was opened at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, which Dame Judi Dench agreed to open. All went smoothly until she sat down on one of the brand new chairs which promptly collapsed beneath her and deposited her on the floor. She laughed uproariously and took it all in good part. This was just one small incident in the life of this month’s interviewee. He is one of Burford’s more recent arrivals, a man who has enjoyed a distinguished career in the world of dance and in arts administration at a very high level.

 

Peter Kyle was born in Wallsend, at the extreme east end of Hadrian’s Wall, where his father worked in the shipbuilding industry for Swan Hunter. He had his early education there before attending Bretton Hall College near Wakefield to study drama. Robert Cohan, a former dance partner of Martha Graham, came from America in 1969 and visited various colleges, including Bretton Hall, to look for potential young dancers and introduce contemporary dance to the UK, something which did not exist here at the time. Soon after Peter was summoned to the principal’s office and told that he had been identified as a future dancer.

 

Peter wrote to the only two people he knew of in the world of dance, Rudolf Nureyev and Sir Frederick Ashton, to ask what he should do. Nureyev did not reply; neither did Ashton but Peter received an invitation to attend the Rambert School of Ballet. Ashton had forwarded the letter to the head of the school, Dame Marie Rambert.

 

He studied ballet and contemporary dance but later moved to the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz (Music and Dance College) in Cologne. Returning to this country, he joined Northern Dance Theatre and married Kathryn, whom he had met at Bretton Hall. Their first daughter, Abigail, was born in 1971. (Another, Charlotte, followed in 1975). His next move was to New Zealand where he became a soloist with the Royal New Zealand Ballet and also did some choreography.

 

In his schooldays Peter had met Maurice Gilmour who had set up the Northumberland Youth Theatre. By this time Maurice was arts advisor to Leicestershire Education Authority. He invited Peter to become dance advisor, in which role he had nine dance specialists working for him and teaching in schools across the county. Peter contrasts the teaching of music, dance and drama in schools in those days with the much smaller provision today.

 

At this point in his career Peter gave up dancing. Did he miss it? “I missed the daily discipline of an hour and a half in class but I didn’t miss performing”, he says.

 

During this period he formed the Leicestershire County School of Dance and the annual National Festival of Youth Dance, which led to the National Youth Dance Company being established. He joined the board of East Midland Arts and chaired a committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain (now Arts Council England). This led to an appointment as Dance and Mime Officer for the Arts Council and a move to London in 1981.

 

His next move took him back to his roots in the north. Three authorities in Northumberland joined together in an experiment to set up an arts centre in a rural setting. The venue chosen was the Queen’s Hall Arts Centre in Hexham, across the road from Hexham Abbey. It included a concert hall, a library, a small theatre, gallery spaces, photographic studios and a restaurant. “I couldn’t believe my luck in having three empty galleries to fill!” In 1983 Peter became its founding director with responsibility for organising its programme. He was also appointed to the board of Northern Arts and chaired its dance committee. A highlight of this period was the creation of the Tynedale Tapestry which depicts the Tyne Valley in Commedia dell’ Arte style. 800 people helped to weave it over a five year period, and it is still on display today.

 

At that time Mark Rylance was running a touring theatre company. Peter admired his work and booked him to put on a production of Othello at Hexham. This acquaintance was to prove an important part of the story, as we shall see.

 

Peter also directed Dance for Africa, a nation-wide event following just after Live Aid which raised a lot of money for UNICEF.

 

Further north still – Peter was then asked to advise Scottish Arts Council about the future of Scottish Ballet. They were considering closing the company and replacing it with a small contemporary dance group but Peter, after investigating the matter, disagreed. The upshot was that he became chief executive of Scottish Ballet in 1988 and moved to Glasgow. He held this job until 1996, growing the company to 45 or more dancers, commissioning new classical and contemporary work, reinstating international touring and sending smaller groups on tour to the Highlands and islands. Highlights included a production of Petrushka choreographed by Oleg Vinogradov, director of the Kirov Ballet, which became known as the “Perestroika Petrushka” and The Sleeping Beauty designed by Jasper Conran. He also mounted a ballet version of Peter Pan and he asked Mark Rylance, who had played Peter Pan for the Royal Shakespeare Company, to help with this. This was an exciting time for the arts in Scotland as Glasgow was European City of Culture in 1990 and this led to a great development of the arts – indeed it is still very much a city of culture.

 

Now the story moves a lot further south. A friend had set up a company called Tumbuka in Zimbabwe. Dance in the country had been led by the National Ballet of Rhodesia and the idea was to develop contemporary dance among young people, especially boys. This started with drumming workshops which led to dance classes and eventually to the establishment of a company of eight black boys and one classically-trained white girl. Peter was asked to run the company and choreograph for it. He spent two periods totalling 18 months with the company during which he took them on tour outside the country for the first time, visiting Cape Town, Johannesburg and Switzerland. He remembers how the boys were afraid to go into the sea in case the mermaids caught them - this was the result of warnings their parents had given them about the dangers of getting into African lakes from which a variety of nasty diseases can be caught - and their delight at seeing snow for the first time.

 

Peter was then headhunted to become dean of the Arts Educational Schools, London, which provided a day school with a college providing courses in the arts. However he left this job very soon as he was invited to become chief executive of Shakespeare's Globe in London where Mark Rylance was the first artistic director. “I agonised about leaving after only a year but the opportunity was too good to miss”. Peter held this post from 1998 to 2010, working with Rylance until 2005 and then his successor, Dominic Dromgoole. “This was a wonderful time”. The Globe has no regular state funding and is dependent on what it can raise itself and take at the box office. It has a strong educational underpinning and Peter was responsible for the opening of an exhibition space in the undercroft and the lecture theatre where Dame Judi came a cropper. A new Educational and Rehearsal Centre was also created.

 

What was the most memorable event in this period? “A production of Twelfth Night which sought to recreate the playing conditions under which it was originally performed, in the Middle Temple Hall, in 1602. Mark Rylance played Olivia. "It was the most extraordinary performance I have ever seen”.

 

Peter was awarded the OBE in 2011 for services to drama. He also acquired a clutch of other senior appointments. He became a governor and later pro-chancellor and chairman of the University of Westminster, chairman of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, a trustee of the Noël Coward Foundation, chairman of the Noël Coward Archive Trust, chairman of the Centre for Magic Arts and a trustee of the John Ellerman Foundation, a charitable trust. Peter was also director-general of the English–Speaking Union from 2011 to 2013.

 

A few years ago Peter and Kathryn began to consider moving away from London. They knew the area through friendship with Sir Jeremy Morse and his wife Belinda who lived at Barrington Downs. (Sir Jeremy, who died last year, was a former chairman of Lloyds Bank and gave his name to Inspector Morse). This area had the additional advantage of being roughly equidistant from Peter’s two main areas of work in London and Stratford. They moved here two and a half years ago and were delighted by the warm welcome they received and by the number of interesting people they met.

 

Kathryn was a teacher throughout her career and spent ten years as head of a large multi-national primary school in Hackney, East London. She is now a governor of Burford Primary School and made a big contribution as one of the five committee members of the recent Burford Festival, where her leadership and co-ordinating skills were much appreciated.

 

What does he think about the present state of the arts in this country? “Arts organisations here are the envy of other countries for the funding opportunities they have through the Arts Council, the National Lottery and the Heritage Lottery Fund.” He mentions the grant made to the pavilion in Burford as a local example. From his time at the Globe he is convinced that total reliance on state funding is not healthy for arts organisations. Nevertheless keeping going in the arts is always going to be a struggle. Does he think too much funding is directed to London? He is pleased that efforts have been made to address this such as the opening of the Sage and the Baltic Centre in Gateshead and Newcastle, similar developments in Liverpool and Hull being UK City of Culture this year.

 

Although Peter left Shakespeare’s Globe in 2010, nearly all of his other appointments mentioned above have continued to the present day. Not surprisingly, they keep him very busy. However his role at the University of Westminster is coming to and end this month and this should free up some of his time. So, arts people of the Cotswolds, here is your opportunity!

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