Despite its location amidst a bustling parade of shops close to the Manchester Metropolitan University campus on Oxford Road, The Dancehouse – the building now home to the Northern Ballet School – could be considered somewhat of a hidden gem, with an intriguing history. It was planned as two public halls, built in 1929-30 and has since held the Regal Twin Cinemas, expanded to include even more screens – before transforming into a theatre and dance destination!

By Drew Forsyth

So how did it all begin? The building itself was conceptualised in the 1920s by Emmanuel Nove, a Ukrainian constructor who himself holds a significant part in the making of Manchester’s cityscape. Born in the Pottava province of Ukraine in 1871, Emmanuel Nove’s actual last name was ‘Novakovsky’ – meaning ‘the new man in the city’ – so it seemed quite fitting that he came to Manchester in the 1890s. This was following a time of turbulence in which he has been forcibly conscripted to the Russian army and reacted against this – eloping to Britain with his young bride Betsy, first moving to Wrexham and working as house-painter before coming to Manchester.

It was on coming to the city, now under the surname ‘Nove’, that Emmanuel started to construct houses – setting up a small building firm in order to do so. Living on Wilmslow Road in Fallowfield at the time, his first construction effort was Grove Terrace on Burton Road in Withington (1910). He then moved into one of these houses himself! He also built Old Broadway in the area, and it is worth remembering that at this time Withington was not so significantly urbanised, in fact there were still a number of farmsteads close by.

A Nove’s career progressed, he went onto work on larger public structures- overseeing the development of what is now The Dancehouse. At the time he envisaged the construction of the building – on Oxford Road between Chester Street and Hulme Street – as capable of holding two large meeting halls. It was then designed by the architects Pendleton and Dickinson, and built between 1929-1930.

The Art Deco design features of the building are perhaps an allusion to the grand hopes and aspirations of the nation, following the First World War coming to an end. However, this also was a time of economic uncertainty and recession; with the construction effort facing some difficulty along the way. Although the building firm of Emmanuel Nove initially oversaw the structure of the building going up – principally a large steel frame – Nove then went bust. In turn, the unfinished structure faced being abandoned… though luckily the steelwork company who were already involved in it, decided to take over the project themselves.

Although the building was first planned as two large meeting halls, as it was being constructed, other ideas emerged. By the 1930s, it has been reconceptualised: as an impressive space featuring two back-to-back cinemas. On the 20 September 1930, it opened as a huge twin cinema, one of the first of its kind in Europe! What was meant by a twin cinema? It meant that there were two screens running within the same building – and often the same movie would be shown in both, one perhaps half an hour or so later than the other.

By Drew Forsyth

Titled the Regal Twin Cinemas, each had its own name – ‘Romulus’ and ‘Remus’ respectively – referencing the twins who went onto found the city of Rome. This was perhaps also a reference to the grand and ambitious outlook for the building, as cinemas were particularly popular go-to destinations in the 1930s. Oxford Road was after all bustling with multiple venues, people piling off buses and into the screens to see the likes of the monumental All Quiet On The Western Front and the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, to name just a couple.

The appearance of the building would have also made an impression at the time, designed in the aforementioned Art Deco style, with a parade of shops at the front facing the road. Inside, the place boasted beautiful plasterwork, tall ceilings and a significant attention to detail, right down to the impressive light fittings. Little wonder then that it became an iconic entertainment location, continuing to be a communal place even during the Second World War and on into the 1950s, before the mainstream accessibility of television. The two screens each had their own foyer but shared the same projection room – located between them - and one of the early projectionists was a former Army Projectionist during the Korean War.

The 1960s then saw a transformation of the Regal Twin Cinemas – bought by the Star Cinemas Group and renamed Studios 1 and 2 in 1962. The space within the building was also developed, leading to five screens altogether… turning the building into an impressive multiplex; a concept popularised in America. Going forwards, the cinema therefore became known as Studio 1 to 5, and highlighted the scale of demand: in a city like Manchester, people could see a different film every night of the week!

Yet by the 1980s, the popularity of cinemas in general was starting to wane, especially as personal televisions had become more affordable, meaning that more people were content to stay at home. The Cannon Group went on to buy the space in 1985 but little could be done to maintain audience numbers – and costs for the building and its upkeep were considerable, especially given its size. Almost 56 years to the day it opened, the cinema closed its doors on the 25 September 1986 and went onto lie abandoned for four years.

During its time of emptiness on Oxford Road, speculation raised around the building – who would want it? What would it become? Meanwhile, as it lay empty, the once-impressive interior started to decline. So what would be done?

Thankfully, in the 1990s, what was the Northern Ballet School (NBS) saw prospect in the sizeable building and the decision was made to take over the lease. The Northern Ballet School has its own interesting history here in Manchester, launched in 1977 under Patricia McDonald[1]– who was formerly a partner in the Muriel Tweedy School of Dancing here in the city. Patricia, founder Principal of NBS, is a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Dance and a founding member of Manchester City Ballet, which is the school’s classical company, also a charity. Additionally, she is the founder of Jazzgalore, the musical theatre company of the school. It is Philip Radcliffe[2], an experienced architect – having studied at what was Manchester Victoria University School of Architecture in the 1960s - who was also the architect  behind the conversion of the derelict cinema space into the present dance school and 433-seat (current capacity) public theatre seen today. He was able to reveal more about the process behind such a transformation.

By Drew Forsyth

 The Northern Ballet School had formerly been located at the Cathedral end of Deansgate, in what was the British Airways Computer Centre – and when that lease was coming to an end towards the 1990s, new premises were under consideration. Areas of interest included the former Wesleyan Chapel The Albert Hall on Peter Street (which itself was lying empty at the time) and the huge basement ballroom space of what is now known as The Principal Hotel on Oxford Road. However, the cinema building just a little further up the road offered an ideal amount of space, across multiple floors – and therefore the lease was secured. Roughly three times larger than the school’s former Deansgate premises, this certainly offered new prospects... but also a restoration project!

By the time the Northern Ballet School moved into the building in 1992, significant work was already underway. The Northern Ballet School itself was fitted out with dance studio facilities, as well as an auditorium, café and bar area, for example. Yet one of the biggest long-term projects was the construction of the stage area itself. This involved removing the original cinema seating – with a few unnerving discoveries along the way. Beneath the original seats, Philip reported the floor as being ‘inches thick’ in cigarette stubs (amongst other things) an indication of the times when smoking in public places was legal and widely done.

Another added difficulty was the layering to the building, given its varied use over time. It was discovered that windows were originally put in place when it was first designed as a public hall space – only to be blocked up when converted into the Regal Twin Cinemas.  However, these windows were blocked up on the inside using plaster panels but not on the outside, which meant that noise from the ever-busy road was still coming through the walls. This in itself required a significant removal effort!

 Although considerable work was required, Philip and the team involved with restoring the building attempted to retain as much of its Art Deco splendour as possible, even the new covings were designed to fit tastefully within the space. The plasterwork in The Dancehouse is after all one of its stand-out features, and it is testament to the original beauty of its design as well as the sensitive restoration of the building, which saw it achieve listed status around 10 years ago. The building still has its original metal lift, complete with shutters and even the same motor!

It was the era of the 1990s then that saw The Dancehouse develop not only as a title for the venue and the theatre company running out of it with the Northern Ballet School, but retaining its 1930s glory. The premises would go on to welcome a range of local, national and international acts – and it was Manchester’s gain of the title of ‘European City of Drama’ in 1994 which saw the venue attract further attention. This is because it re-opened in the very same year, with a ceremony led by HRH Princess Margaret. The refit had also been significantly bolstered by funds from the Foundation for Sport and the Arts (now defunct), contributing to the cost of fixtures and fittings, which had indeed been extensive.

By Drew Forsyth

Yet the investment and love for the building over time has seen it progress onwards to not only provide a high-quality home to the acclaimed Northern Ballet School - but to welcome a packed programme of events as The Dancehouse Theatre. The stage is surely one of its highlights, located in one of the former 750-capacity cinema spaces. Here a number of Northern Ballet School and of Jazzgalore performances have taken place in front of thriving audiences, including the annual ‘A Showcase of Dance’.

 It has also welcomed a wide variety of visiting and local shows – including New Dawn Fades: a play about Joy Division and Manchester – which Haunt recently covered here. A number of Manchester Literature Festival events have also taken place inside, bringing a number of figures to the venue, including Neil Gaiman discussing his children’s novel Fortunately, the Milk and Simon Armitage launching his collection of poems The Unaccompanied. These are just some examples of The Dancehouse’s lively events programme, featuring everything from comedy and pantomime to music performances.

2019 will also see it welcome a Gothic Manchester Festival 2019 event, inspired by the art of dance itself: ‘Monster Mash: A Halloween Dance Spectacular’ on Wednesday 30 October. This special show will incorporate a variety of dance styles, to form a dark and delightful showcase – complete with a short introduction from Dr Emma Liggins (of The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies) who will outline the fascinating links between The Gothic and dance. Marvel at spectacular makeup and creative costume – whilst there will also be prizes for the best Halloween outfit in the audience. This unique event takes place the evening before Halloween after all, and given the impressive history of the building, this certainly could be considered an atmospheric location.

By Drew Forsyth

Photography with thanks to Drew Forsyth
[1] FRAD, LISTD
[2] BA Hons Arch, RIBA, MRTPI

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