Brendan Keaney OBE has been Artistic Director and Chief Executive of DanceEast since 2013. Brendan’s career has spanned over 40 years: starting as a dancer in 1979 he then moved into leadership roles. Brendan was awarded the Jane Attenborough Dance UK Industry award in 2007, and an OBE for services to dance in 2021.
Brendan grew up in Walthamstow, North East London. He says: “my Mum was a mum, and my Dad did mostly manual work. We were an ordinary working-class family.” His oldest brother, however, was a “big influence”. Brendan says: “he introduced me to more esoteric music, loads of artists my friends had never heard of – Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Velvet Underground. I was not aware at the time, but my brother made me understand that it was OK to be different.”
David Bowie was the catalyst for Brendan’s journey into dance. He says: “I – like a lot of boys – entertained the idea of becoming a music star… David Bowie was my hero, his performances were more than just music, he presented an entire sensory experience.” After finding out that David Bowie had studied mime with Lindsay Kemp, Brendan felt determined to learn the “new visual skills” he saw in Bowie’s work. Brendan found a class to attend in the dance and mime section of Time Out Magazine, but he picked the wrong one: “I ended up going to a dance class because I thought dance and mime were the same thing.”
The dance class Brendan attended was at The Angel in Islington, which was “a few tube stops away from where I lived, but a different world.” Brendan says attending this dance class was the “mistake” that led him to where he is today. He says: “I found the first dance class incredibly intimidating – but [it] made me realise that a just a few stops away there was a whole new horizon to explore.”
Brendan was “determined to find out more.” He went to see a dance performance. He had “never been to the theatre before”, but “instantly realised” it was what he was meant to do. “I saw the people on stage and thought they were gods. It was so much more exciting than watching people play music – I was determined to become a dancer. That was it.”
Growing up with dyslexia, Brendan had found his calling. He says: “[it was] clear both [my] brothers were academically bright and might go into university and have careers, groundbreaking stuff for my family – however, it was not at all clear what I was going to do with my life.” He says, ultimately, that “had I not been dyslexic I might not have gone into dance.”
Brendan says people should “try new things, as who knows where it will lead.” He says: “we create boundaries in life. When I attended that first dance class, I crossed a boundary, albeit by mistake. It opened up an exciting new world to me.” He says “lots of people of people have inhibitions about dancing or are intimidated by watching dance… [but] I would encourage people to dare to be different. If you can take one step forward in a direction that you don’t know anything about, you can apply this curiosity [to] loads of areas in your life – and hopefully like me you will be pleasantly surprised and rewarded.”
Today, Brendan is as passionate about dance as he was 40 years ago, and particularly about DanceEast and its home the Jerwood DanceHouse, which he describes as “one of the best dance spaces in the country.”
He says: “there are so many moments when I think ‘this is wonderful’. I always [love] the packed end-of-year shows or community performances, when you see so many people (and not just those who are professionals), dancing and enjoying themselves. That does give me great joy. Seeing the building full of life and energy is always special. For me it’s that thing about people who aren’t yet professional dancers, who are on the cusp of that world, and seeing them on such a lovely stage, able to be their best in such a good building.”
Read more about Brendan’s role at DanceEast and the celebration of DanceEast 40th anniversary in this month’s issue of Suffolk Life magazine here.