In good company

It wasn’t cool to be a dancer when Anthony Missen was growing up in Manchester but twenty years on his courage has paid off, says Ciara Leeming

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As a teenager he kept his hobby secret – but today Anthony Missen runs an internationally-acclaimed dance company.

The 37-year-old was a reluctant dancer, who was terrified of being mocked for it by his schoolmates. But he eventually ditched university to train professionally and never looked back.

“When we started, we wanted to make dance more accessible.”

After spending years touring the world with various dance troupes, Missen joined forces with friend Kevin Turner to form Company Chameleon. Much of their work is inspired by male behaviour, male dynamics and father-son relationships – and they frequently take dance onto the streets.

Missen says: “I grew up in Hulme, Manchester, and when I was younger it was seen as slightly sketchy for a young man to be involved in dance. Kevin and I met at a youth dance theatre group in Trafford when I was 15 and he was about 12. I was there very much in secret – I’d have been given so much stick if my friends had known. These days dancing is seen very differently – I think partly due to all the TV shows.”

Missen had his first taste of dance the previous year, when visiting teacher Phil Tune led a one-off PE lesson at his school.

He recalls: “No one wanted to do it but we were forced to do this dance class. Something just happened in that room for me though – I absolutely loved it. At the end, Phil called me over and told me I had a gift and should think about attending the youth sessions in Trafford. I was dying inside – my mates were all waiting for me so we could go and play football.”

Over the following months, Missen’s PE teacher kept bringing the subject up in public – until he agreed to go along just to make her stop. Once there he was hooked, becoming a regular member for the next five years. The group produced creative literary adaptations that they peformed on stage, mainly at schools. He and Turner would dream about taking the dance world by storm by one day setting up their own company.

Instead, Missen began a degree at Liverpool John Moores University with the intention of becoming a PE teacher. Like his first taste of dance at school, his professional training also came about largely by chance.

“A close friend was auditioning at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds and she asked me along for moral support,” he says. “I took part in the tasks during the day and ended up being offered a place myself. I spent a while wondering what it would be like before it hit me that I could always return to my degree later if it didn’t work out.”

After graduating – Turner also trained at the same place – both men spent several years working internationally before returning to Manchester eight years ago. As well as putting on traditional stage performances, Company Chameleon takes dance to the streets and trains young people.

Missen says: “When we started, we wanted to make dance more accessible. It’s seen as quite elitist but over the years we’ve introduced lots of people who might not feel comfortable going to a gallery or theatre to what we do, and we get great feedback whenever we take it into the public realm. We also want to show people that dance can be more than just throwing shapes. Audiences often find what we do quite moving because they can relate it back to themselves and their own lives.

“A lot of our choreography is driven by things that interest us. For example, we have a recent piece called Beauty and the Beast, which is all about male social behaviour – the different faces of masculinity, if you like. Things like bravery and camaraderie but also subjects that are discussed less, such as sensitivity and vulnerability. There’s lots about aesthetics and beauty in dance but we like to show it can also be about specific ideas and universal experiences.”

Last month Company Chameleon was the only North West organisation shortlisted for the National Dance Awards. It didn’t win, but Missen says being nominated still feels like an achievement.

Company Chameleon regularly works with young people – past workshops have taken place in Morocco, Trinidad and South Africa as well as closer to home. In April it will launch Chameleon Youth, designed to be a more permanent focus for the young people in Manchester with whom they work.

Missen says: “We feel a responsibility to give something back as we benefited hugely from dance as young people.

“Young people growing up today face a lot of issues and they can either create or destroy. All that energy has to be channelled somewhere. Hopefully we will play a part in building the next generation of dancers.

“What’s exciting is the huge amount of knowledge and experience that is at our disposal to share and pass on. We’ve worked with so many choreographers and so many companies over the years, the young people in Chameleon Youth will be the beneficiaries of this huge amount of experience.”

In May Chameleon Youth is offering free taster sessions to young people age 11 to 18. Email, or call 0161 232 6082 for further details.

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