Emma Gladstone, who has died of cancer aged 63, was a woman of impeccable taste. As artistic director and chief executive of the London festival Dance Umbrella from 2013 to 2021, she showed an unerring talent for spotting innovative, often experimental artists who could deeply connect with audiences.

Some were at the early stages of their careers and would go on to make a huge impact on the dance world, including the Northern Irish choreographer Oona Doherty and Ivan Michael Blackstock, who won an Olivier award in 2023.

Gladstone was instrumental in nurturing the Canadian contemporary ice skaters Le Patin Libre, giving them their first major commission – a performance at Alexandra Palace ice rink for the 2014 festival – before they went on to international success. She once described what she was looking for in a performance as “something articulate, brave, personal and distinctive”. And repeatedly she found it.

A Dance Umbrella performance of Jérôme Bel’s Gala at the Bernie Grant arts centre, London, in 2016. Photograph: Foteini Christofilopoulou

But Gladstone’s creative decisions are only half the story. She will be remembered by artists, producers and programmers across the international dance sector as an inspiring leader, dedicated to supporting others’ artistic ideas and professional development.

Despite a schedule that at one point saw her watching up to 200 shows a year, Gladstone would make time to sit down and talk, always bringing warm and wise counsel. She was kind and curious, genuine and generous, ready to take risks and quick to laugh with an infectious, mischievous cackle. “You wanted to be in the space that Emma was in,” said Freddie Opoku-Addaie, her successor at Dance Umbrella. “It was just the energy; it was good vibes.”

Gladstone believed that dance had a greater intellectual power than it is often given credit for, not to impart concrete facts, but in subtle suggestion and connection. “I think choreographers are such intelligent beings and so wide in their thinking and their invention,” she told the writer Nicholas Minns. She loved dance’s ability to transport the viewer to a different world, the moments she called “lift off”: “I love those works that make me leave the theatre in a different place from where I went in; that’s what I want an audience to feel.”

At Dance Umbrella, and in her previous role as artistic programmer and producer at Sadler’s Wells, Gladstone programmed a huge range of artists from different styles and cultures: the South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma, the radical flamenco artist Rocío Molina, the Indian kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas and performers at the cutting edge of European contemporary dance.

She was active in diversifying not only what was seen on stage, but also who saw it, and where, and who worked behind the scenes. She championed disabled artists, sent children’s shows on orbital tours of London to reach wider audiences, and put dances in parks or on rooftops, all across the city.

She brought in the relatively inexperienced Opoku-Addaie at Dance Umbrella as a guest programmer. “Instead of ‘Yeah, let’s think about it, let’s do a consultation’, she walked the walk,” he recalled. Gladstone had no interest in clinging on to the reins of power. “I love the job,” she said in a 2019 interview, about running Dance Umbrella, “but the scene is constantly changing and new, younger voices need to be heard. You can only reinvent your own wheel so many times.”

Gladstone was born in London; her father, Tim, worked for NatWest bank, her mother, Caroline, for Camden council and the Independent Television Commission. She had two brothers, Rupert, and her twin, Toby, and started ballet classes at the age of four, making her professional stage debut at 11 in the musical I and Albert in the West End, alongside a young Sarah Brightman. As a teenager she danced with Arlene Phillips – appearing on Top of the Pops with Hot Gossip while still a student at Camden school for girls.

Emma Gladstone performing with the Cholmondeleys. Photograph: Chris Nash/PA

Graduating from Manchester University in 1983 with a degree in history, Gladstone then went on to postgraduate dance studies at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance (now Trinity Laban Conservatoire) in London. It was there that she met Matthew Bourne; along with five other Laban students they founded, in 1986, Adventures in Motion Pictures (which later evolved into New Adventures).

Gladstone quickly emerged as the business brain of the group and, as well as acting as producer and a dancer with the company, as the only member with a driving licence it was her job to drive everyone home in a van after the show. She stayed with the company for three years.

Gladstone danced with Lea Anderson’s all-female group the Cholmondeleys (pronounced Chumleys) between 1989 and 1997 before moving into producing and programming at the London dance institution the Place. She was co-director at the production company Crying Out Loud (2003-05) and then moved to Sadler’s Wells for the next eight years, where she launched many development initiatives for choreographers.

She was involved in numerous projects as an artistic director, adviser and mentor (both formally and informally). She was co-founder of the Big Pulse Dance Alliance, a network of 12 European dance festivals, and worked as an adviser, speaker and assessor internationally, including in Chile, China, India, South Korea and Hong Kong. Gladstone also chaired the board of trustees at Siobhan Davies Dance for four years, until 2022.

In 2004 she married the artist and cabinet-maker Barnaby Stone. Gladstone had a daughter, Matty, from a previous relationship and became stepmother to Stone’s children, Mair and Matthew. In 2016, after a life in London, she moved to Devon to live close to where her husband grew up, first on the edge of Dartmoor and then in Dartington, where she was on the board of Dartington Trust from 2019. Gladstone loved walking on Dartmoor and wild swimming in the River Dart, and was still cartwheeling on the beach at 60.

A true lover of art in all its forms, she had great personal style and would have music playing all the time. An effortless multitasker – there were lists upon lists, chalkboards in each house she lived in – in the last three years of her life Gladstone combined being artistic director of the BBC Young Dancer competition with producing an international arts festival in Athens for Rolex, as well as caring for Barnaby, who had a stroke in 2020. He died last year.

Gladstone was appointed OBE in 2021. When asked about the biggest lessons she had learned during her time at Dance Umbrella, she said: “Be kind. Trust your gut. Believe in the artists. Trust the audience … And don’t drink any wine before doing a post-show talk.”

She is survived by Matty, Mair and Matthew, her mother and her brothers.

Emma Ace Gladstone, dancer, producer and artistic director, born 12 November 1960; died 22 January 2024


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