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Darkin's ambitious plans for Scotland, the dancing nation

THERE'S an empty cereal bowl in Fleur Darkin's office.

It proves someone has been here relatively recently, as does the blackboard planner on which activities for 2015 and beyond are printed neatly in yellow chalk (there's a "??" against summer 2016; I see the word Edinburgh; there's a drawing of what looks like a spanner). But of Scottish Dance Theatre's artistic director herself, there is no sign.

When she does arrive, it's only to leave again promptly. This time she has me in tow, however, and lunch rather than breakfast on her mind.

"I've just come out of a rehearsal - it's not the whole company - but I think I was the only person in the room who was born in the UK," she tells me a few minutes later as she tucks into a plate of rice, vegetables and humous in a cheery Turkish cafe round the corner from Dundee Rep, Scottish Dance Theatre's home base.

Her aim (between mouthfuls, anyway) is to illustrate the company's international make-up and, by extension, its international profile and reach. The company followed a 2009 visit to China with a well-received tour of India in late 2012 and Darkin is currently planning trips to Italy, Mexico, Brazil and (surely a first for a Scottish dance company) Kazakhstan.

Before any visas are applied for there's the small matter of the company's ongoing Scottish tour. It arrives at Glasgow's Tramway this week for performances of two works by Darkin - Innocence and SisGo - and a double bill of work by Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet and Spaniard Jorge Crecis. But in the autumn, Edinburgh Festival run behind them, the dancers will again visit India and China.

"I can't believe it, coming from London," says Darkin. "There, you're funded to tour England and even going to Scotland, well you can do it but you don't get funding for it per se. So when I had my own company I used to come up to the Traverse Theatre and we wouldn't really get funding for that. And that's what's so incredible about Scotland and so incredible for Scottish artists - it's understood dance is an export industry and we're funded to go abroad."

Beyond the relative beneficence of arts quangos and funding bodies, there's another north-south difference Darkin has observed.

"I think Scotland is a dancing nation," she says. "I mean my six-year-old son is doing country dancing in his PE lessons, so everyone knows how to dance with each other and that seems to translate throughout the generations. So I think it's in good health."

It's 15 months since Darkin arrived in Dundee to take over Scottish Dance Theatre. At the time she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her third son and stepping into the ballet flats of Janet Smith, who had run the company since 1997 and was departing to take up a role as head of the prestigious Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds.

It was a big job, in other words, though Darkin's CV was clearly impressive enough to match the scale of it. She had run her own company, the Darkin Ensemble, had worked on large-scale, populist projects at the Glastonbury Festival among other places, could switch between the rarefied world of the Royal Opera House and the circus ring, and loved to reach outside dance to collaborate with artists from other fields.

She already knew Scotland, too, having worked with theatre company Grid Iron and the National Theatre of Scotland on projects such as 2006's Roam, which was performed at Edinburgh Airport.

"I remember the first time I came here," she laughs. "It was late at night and a taxi driver drove me up to The Law. I thought he was going to murder me - it was ten at night, I was nowhere near where I needed to be - but it was just this sort of civic duty that he showed me the lie of the land. So I always had a good feeling for the place and when the job came up I thought 'Yeah, let's go for it'."

Like her introduction to Dundee, Darkin's introduction to dance was also a little out of the ordinary. It came not through primary school ballet lessons or a girlish preoccupation with pink pumps and tutus but courtesy of an electrifying jolt from the Rolling Stones - as parlayed into dance by the cutting edge Rambert Dance Company. Her mother took her, aged about 14. On the bill was a performance of Christopher Bruce's famous piece Rooster. It blew her away. "I remember not being able to talk for about three days afterwards," she says.

Given that outing, I imagine the Darkins to be a posh, arty family, confidently and regularly taking off to the theatre. Not really, she counters. True, her parents met at a Bob Marley gig and were both musical, "but I think they would self-identify as working class". She admits her mother had spent time in Paris, "hankered after glamour" and had had ambitions of being a dancer. (Darkin says her own decision to become a dancer "is probably a love letter to her".)

But Rooster and the Rambert Dance Company weren't the only things exploding around Darkin in her teens. Her parents had already separated and after Darkin's grandmother died, her mother had a nervous breakdown and she and Darkin's stepfather split up. "The family just disintegrated," she says. "I basically put myself into a children's home aged 15 or 16. It affected my A levels because up to that point I'd been a grade A student. But I couldn't handle the responsibility and I was angry. So I straightened out and got into dance school, which I understood to be disciplined, and I knew I needed it. I was trying to become an adult, and I didn't really know how to do it."

Dance training for her was "probably what the army is like for other people. I really used it to knuckle down and take orders and just kind of self-improve, if you like. I felt like it was a rescue".

The later part of her teens was spent in Bristol where she jumped whole-heartedly into the city's vibrant trip-hop scene - this was the time of Massive Attack and Portishead - and became friends with a graffiti artist who would go on to make a bit of a name for himself.

"I used to hang out with Banksy," she says matter-of-factly. "I was much younger than him, though, he was a few years above me in college. At some point I'd like to do some work with him but it would need to be the right project." Are they still in touch? Sort of. "The last time I saw him was at a funeral about five years ago and he was based in Bristol then. I imagine he still has a bolthole there."

Darkin's formative years in Bristol, the way she talks about the absence of metropolitan self-regard as a reason for the city's vibrancy, are a strong indicator she also finds Dundee to her liking. Her youngest son was born in Dundee, she notes, making him a fully-fledged Dundonian and another has, unbidden, proclaimed himself a supporter of Dundee United. And that, as every football fan knows, is the kind of thing that sticks with you for life.

"It's the promised land," she says. It's a phrase she's used a couple of times over the course of our interview and I ask her what she means by it.

"I think it's got a self-contained spirit, an identity," she explains. "But most importantly it has the conditions you could spend a lifetime trying to achieve. By some miracle they are here - we have a beautiful studio and we have dancers who are on permanent contracts. We have light, we have mountains around us and we have incredible landscape. It's just an incredible place to do this kind of work."

If whatever fills Darkin's blackboard in future can parlay all that into great art, it's going to be a sight to behold. And look out Scotland, India, Mexico, Kazakhstan...

Scottish Dance Theatre are at the Tramway, Glasgow, from Wednesday until May 10.

May Day is this Thursday.

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