Echo Echo Dance Company is one of Derry’s hidden gems

Ailbe Beirne, Company Manager at Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company, Derry. DER4614MC061
Ailbe Beirne, Company Manager at Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company, Derry. DER4614MC061

Yesterday marked the end of the second Echo Echo Festival of Dance and Movement. It was a key addition to the City of Culture year in 2013 and the continuation of that work is a legacy that they hope will come to fruition for many years to come.

The dance company are also building on their other programme of events and projects as they settle into their new permanent home on Derry’s Walls.

Company Director Ailbe Beirne has been with the company for 11 years and has watched it grow and move premises a number of times.

“My background is in accountancy but when I tried my hand at professional accountancy work it wasn’t for me. I had always enjoyed music, drama and the arts so when a position within Echo Echo came up I thought I would give it a go. I didn’t even know that much about the world of dance and movement when I joined but after spending some time with the Company at the Edinburgh Festival I soon discovered what was out there.

“I had previously watched plays and drama but it was interesting to see how dance could connect with other genres.

“It was also inspiring to place Echo Echo in that international context - and we have performed our works in various venues in Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Far East.”

Last year the City of Culture label soon became something Echo Echo relished.

“Last year was about bringing that international focus back closer to home. We now have six full time dancers as part of our ensemble and it can be challenging for them to make dance their full-time work. So the programmes last year allowed that to happen on their doorstep, although it’s not easy.

“That’s part of my job, to bring in the funding to enable projects to be created and developed. In the current climate that is becoming increasingly difficult, and now that we have our own building there’s a higher level of infrastructure to support too. Also, there are more people asking for the same pot of money, and that pot of money is depleting all the time.

“Echo Echo are lucky in that we have received funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland since our inception in 1998. The new building was also funded by a range of capital funders including Arts Council NI - they funded lighting and technical equipment for the centre.

“The main capital grant was through the City of Culture Infrastructure Fund funded by Department of Social Development. Once we had the main grant it enabled us to proceed with building project and then generate the further funds required from Heritage Lottery Fund (local heritage agency Walled City Partnership were a huge help with this grant), Ulster Garden Villages Trust, and The Wolfson Foundation based in London. It was a massive challenge to pull it all together in such a short time frame!

“Once the letter of offer was in place as regards the building, it enabled us to try and source additional funding elsewhere.

“For instance we have since been funded by The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Foyle Foundation - and they are all streams of income that would not have come into the city otherwise.

“We are also painstaking in our cost cutting and making sure that every penny counts. Generally I think the Company provides excellent value for money in terms of our spend.”

Many of those who work at Echo Echo also work long voluntary hours in order to keep the Company ticking over, a frustrating situation that Ailbe hopes can some day be eliminated.

“Many people don’t realise that, for instance, the members of the ensemble may only be paid for a certain project, and that’s not full-time. Yet they spend a lot of time working for free which is a massive contribution that isn’t often recognised.”

Aside from the funding, Ailbe works hard at getting the Echo Echo name out there.

“Last year was a great year for us. We moved into the new building in April and then had two large City of Culture projects, as well as the first Festival, to undertake. Many arts companies would take time out to move into new premises and get settled but we saw the opportunity to keep the momentum going.

“The doors of the new building lead out onto the Walls and because our Without film was shown for eight weeks, many tourists stopped to view the work, and there were tens of thousands of people over the doors last year!”

The second Festival of Dance and Movement is about keeping that momentum going now that they have officially moved into the building.

“Although we were here last year, we only officially moved in last month. So it’s great to have the Festival back again and it’s growing to accommodate more international acts as well as works developed in-house. We have had full houses for the majority of the acts on show over the last ten days. That’s so encouraging.

“I’ve always said that Echo Echo is one of Derry’s hidden gems and I think people are just starting to find out who we are.

“Moving into the purpose-built studios was a dream come true for the team and I think we’re all invigorated by the permanent base and growing audience numbers.

“Hopefully now we can keep our funding coming in so we can grow further. ”