Photo: Paul Burns
The dancer and choreographer Akram Khan still remembers meeting Lady Bernstein for the first time, after a performance he gave at the Southbank Centre in 2001. “She was kind, warm, and extremely enthusiastic about what she had seen,” he says. “There was a look in her eye that told me she knew where I was coming from, and a tone in her voice that suggested she knew where I could go.”
Other meetings soon followed. Khan was introduced to interesting people and, in time, he was given £100,000 to realize three new projects. “There was no agenda,” he recalls. “Nonetheless I felt this invisible hand gently guiding me to places that I never knew existed... Her faith in my ‘potential’ ensured that by 2006 that word was no longer being used.”
Besides spotting Khan when he was still little-known, Lady Bernstein began supporting Wayne McGregor | Random Dance in 2001. In 2008, she helped Hofesh Shechter to set up his own company – not just by funding it before the Arts Council took over, but by introducing him to experienced and talented people who could help him manage its success.
All three are now undisputedly among the leading choreographers in the world, and Lady Bernstein is still there, helping where she can. Two years ago she made a £1m grant to McGregor, which he has used to endow a charity with the aim of building a new home for the use of his company and others. Generosity and kindness are wonderful things, but deciding where to put them is a fine art, and her record of backing winners over the years is almost uncanny.
No doubt this talent grew out of her own ballet-dancing career in the Royal Ballet, where she also learned the sad side of the business, after a foot injury forced her into retirement at the age of 22. If there is one point she does press upon the people she helps, therefore, it is the importance of dancers taking care of themselves, and being properly taken care of. Her commitment to this cause led her to initiate a pioneering concept - that of incorporating the skills and benefits of sports science within the world of dance - and this has now been adopted by both the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet.
In the words of Alistair Spalding, artistic director and CEO at Sadler’s Wells, another beneficiary, “her work on dancers’ health is making a huge impact on the wellbeing of professional dancers in the UK.” Her hope is that dancers worldwide will ultimately reap the benefits. The Quercus Trust has also supported the artistic work of many dance companies and has been central to the planning and building of the Royal Ballet Healthcare Suite.
In short, wherever you look among the highest reaches of contemporary dance, there are people who are simply bursting to say thank you to the woman who has made so much possible. “What Angela Bernstein has done for me is difficult to describe in words. I could go on about it forever as it will affect the rest of my life,” says Shechter. “Angela Bernstein is daring, risk-taking and unique,” says McGregor. “She is a true modern Diaghilev.”
The Prince of Wales Medal for Arts Philanthropy celebrates individuals whose significant cultural philanthropy has played a crucial role in shaping and sustaining the cultural sector across the UK.
Arts & Business, part of Business in the Community, is managing this award on behalf of The Prince of Wales who is our President. This is the sixth year in a row he has presented these medals.
This year, the five honourees whose contributions have been both instrumental to the organisations they have supported, and inspirational to others are: