The Dundee council estate where Radio 2’s first ever Artist in Residence grew up was, he says, ‘an artistic wasteland.’ Thomas Small’s early life was bereft of any interaction with the arts. ‘There was a dance company and a theatre company in the city, and I had no access to that whatsoever. They didn’t come and do any productions, there was no community work, there was nothing.’
But thanks to one 1987 community theatre production called Witch’s Blood and an early aptitude for playing the organ (‘it’s actually a lot like dancing, it uses all of your limbs…’), the young Thomas Small soon determined that if the arts wouldn’t come to him, he would take himself to the arts. Fast-forward to 2016, and Small has just completed a year as BBC Radio 2’s first ever Artist in Residence, a position that has seen him curate five pieces of contemporary dance, reactions to various BBC events including Children In Need, Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary and even Chris Evans’ CarFest.
‘I almost didn’t apply for the position, but I did it anyway,’ says Small. ‘When they got back to me to say I’d been shortlisted, I thought, “Well, they’re clearly making up the numbers and I’m in a region.” Then I was told I was on a shortlist with two Turner Prize nominees.’ At this point, things became serious. Once he’d been confirmed as the successful applicant by jury members Claudia Winkleman and Peter Blake in June 2015, Small was away: the next 12 months were a flurry of logistics, project-planning and, of course, incredible contemporary dance choreography.
The bravery of a radio station, dealing primarily in things heard rather than things seen, selecting a dance choreographer as its first ever Artist in Residence is not lost on Small. ‘Contemporary dance is always the poor cousin. The weird people that talk about trees. I can’t believe they were so bold as to do that. I wanted to hug them and say, “You’re so good! Well done for being so brave!”’ But now that the year is over, was it everything he hoped it might be? ‘It’s turned out better, actually. I genuinely thought it would be difficult, a lot of me trying to argue the case for the arts, when actually they were totally on board. I went in with a bit of armour, ready for proving the worth of art.’
Though the suit of armour was ultimately unnecessary when it came to getting his projects made, it may have come in useful during the creative process for some of Small’s more adventurous projects. For a particularly difficult scene among crashing waves in Shakespeare Shuffle, Small and his team almost fell foul of the coastguard at the River Tay. ‘We went out in a speedboat with all our safety gear on, took a massive ladder and a forty-foot red parachute which was turned into a dress, and we literally stepped up on the ladder and a huge gust of wind came and dragged one of the dancers from the top of the platform into the water.’ Small and his team were quickly told by the coastguard that perhaps filming should stop for the day. ‘But the dancer was like, “No, I’m going to carry on! Yes, I almost died, it’s fine!” That was quite a hair-raising moment…’
Throughout Small’s eventful and clearly fulfilling year, there’s been a constant focus on access to the arts for those who wouldn’t normally get anywhere near it – not unlike the young Thomas Small, desperately seeking culture in the Dundee of his early years. In particular his project Lost But Found, created in response to the BBC’s annual charity bonanza Children In Need, took Small back to his youth: ‘Just hearing the stories from Children In Need and doing the work I do with vulnerable children in Dundee, that really resonated with me.’ The personal satisfaction, he says, was huge: ‘At that point I thought it was probably the most exciting I’d made in my whole career.’
With the roller-coaster year now over and Small planning a ream of new dance projects for the next step of a still-growing career, his advice to anyone wishing to follow in his footsteps as a Radio 2 Artist in Residence is simple: ‘Be brave. Don’t be afraid of being bold with your ideas. Think as big as you can, and then let the parameters tell you what you can and can’t do. Then anything becomes possible.’