Award-winning contemporary dance company Southpaw to move into Sunderland Sheepfolds

An award-winning contemporary dance company has been announced as the newest tenant at the hotly-anticipated Sheepfolds development in Sunderland.

Southpaw Dance Company will be one of the first tenants to move into the Sheepfolds Stables development, which is currently transforming Grade II listed buildings and surrounding courtyards into a vibrant new leisure destination near to the Stadium of Light.

Southpaw specialises in large-scale, outdoor dance performances and innovative and imaginative theatre productions. The company is particularly well known for its participatory work, creating original, mass movement spectaculars for new or inexperienced community dancers.

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The company’s new home, currently being created by Sunderland-based architectural and engineering practice Building Design Northern (BDN), has already attracted some top names in the world of hospitality, including Hairy Biker, Si King; a Japanese fusion restaurant and Speyside Distillers who are to open a whisky and cigar lounge.

The development will open its doors later this year, serving up a range of restaurants and eateries, pubs and bars, as well as a large stage area that will host live music and performance.

(l-r) Robby Graham of Southpaw with Rick Marsden of BDN.

The stage was just one of the attractions that convinced Southpaw Artistic Director Robby Graham to take a studio space at the exciting new development.

He said: “We were talking to BDN’s MD Rick Marsden about an opening night performance and I thought what an amazing space the Sheepfolds Stables is going to be. When Rick showed me the space and his idea for what it will be, I was blown away.

“We got talking and Rick agreed that one of the spaces they had available could work as a full-length studio, which is what we’ve been looking for. The courtyard area is perfect for outdoor performances and I can see us performing preview shows and rehearsing there.”

He added: “What’s happening in Sunderland – and the Sheepfolds development is part of it – is so exciting. Southpaw is all about connecting with audiences and working in community participation and there’s so much of this happening on Wearside right now.”

In addition to being a hub for Southpaw Dance Company, the new studio space at Sheepfolds Stables is envisioned as a unique addition to the Sunderland landscape. With a multi-functional space that can host a variety of events and activities, Southpaw hopes to make the space available to other artists and companies. By encouraging collaborations and partnerships with other creatives, Southpaw aims to promote a thriving arts scene in Sunderland and beyond.

Robby established Southpaw in 2013 when it was based in Newcastle. The move to Sunderland came in 2018 when Southpaw was named Dance City’s Associate Artist in Residence at the then newly-opened Fire Station. Last year, the widely-respected company became an Arts Council England (ACE) National Portfolio Organisation, meaning the company will get financial support from ACE over the next three years.

Robby and Southpaw have performed in the city on several memorable occasions – including Faust on top of St Mary’s Car Pak in 2016; Carousel at The Tall Ships celebrations in 2018; Acedia, an inventive, ground breaking digital piece at the Athenaeum in 2021 and Speakeasy at The Fire Station in 2022.

Rick Marsden from BDN said: “We couldn’t be happier to be working with Southpaw Dance Company, and the team there have such vision, which really aligns with the environment we’re trying to create at Sheepfolds Stables.

“We want to create a lively, animated space, where our visitors enjoy a unique experience, and that relies on us bringing together amazing occupiers and organisations. Sheepfolds is an exceptional space, and we are determined to present a diverse, exciting offering for all visitors when it opens its doors later this year – one that will raise the bar for Sunderland.”

For the National Theatre Robby choreographed Angels in America and Pericles and his work in the capital has also included Leave to Remain at the Lyric Hammersmith and various productions at the Royal Albert Hall and Sadlers Wells. He has also produced his award-winning outdoor work in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Australia and New York.

Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “This is such an exciting collaboration that will create a unique experience for people both from the city and those visiting. The venue will bring together a cornucopia of exciting occupiers, each bringing something different, and I’m delighted that Southpaw will be among them.”

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