Leeds 2023: City's year of culture to bring 'lasting legacy' – BBC

Leeds 2023 – a year-long celebration of the city and its culture – is about to get started, with a spectacular launch at Headingley Stadium aiming to set the tone for the months ahead. With hundreds of events planned across the city, what can its 800,000 residents look forward to seeing? And how did it come about in the first place?
It all started back in 2014 with Leeds preparing a bid to become European Capital of Culture. But the city and four other applicants were soon delivered some crushing news following the UK's vote to leave the EU.
Despite it being the UK's turn to host the title once again, the European Commission ruled only cities from a member state could hold it.
Cities from non-EU countries have held the title before – but if a country isn't in the EU, it must be a candidate to join or must be in the European Free Trade Association or European Economic Area.
Sharon Watson, who chaired the original bid, says: "I was in my office, the call came in and they said, 'are you sitting down?' – it can be good or bad news when someone says that.
"The initial blow was the journey was coming to an end, but being the resilient city we are we just thought we needed to get on with the job."
Preventing all of its ground work going to waste, the newly formed Leeds Culture Trust decided to press ahead with its own programme of events and Leeds 2023 was given the green light.
Ms Watson, who is chief executive officer of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, continues: "There's a general belief that Leeds is quite a complacent city, 'if it doesn't happen we'll move on and do something else'.
"It's about showing that this isn't the rhetoric of who we are as a city. We've got a lot of culture to offer and we want to grow that because we believe it's the conduit between us and life."
The year of culture "wakes up" at the home of Leeds Rhinos on Saturday, with 15,000 people invited to a live show promising a free celebration of Leeds' cultural past, present and future.
Hosted by BBC Sport's Gabby Logan and BBC Radio Leeds' Sanchez Payne, the event will see performances from singer Corinne Bailey Rae, Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and LYR, The Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North and others.
Emma Beverley, Leeds 2023 director of programmes, says the eclectic opening will reflect the richness on offer throughout the 12 months ahead.
"A year about culture should be about culture in its broadest sense – that includes art, sport through to food and how we communicate," she says.
"One of the things I've always loved about this programme is Leeds is a city which speaks 175 languages, so we can be local and international just by who we are as a place."
Those who managed to secure tickets to The Awakening used creative currency rather than cash, with artistic creations such as paintings, photos, poetry and rap videos submitted during their ticket application.
Submissions will later go on display across the city.
As a city renowned for its dance schools, the medium will feature heavily in The Awakening, with Ms Watson choreographing a routine for a Leeds West Indian Carnival-inspired reinterpretation of one of the city's best known songs, Kaiser Chiefs' I Predict a Riot.
Ms Beverley adds: "We've got some really well-known people involved who lived and worked in Leeds who went on to show off their talent all around the world."
The backdrop of the event will be the cost-of-living crisis, with household bills continuing to soar and wages failing to keep up with inflation.
With Leeds City Council also looking to tackle budget pressures caused by unexpected rising costs, some may ask if this is the right time to be helping to fund this ambitious project.
Kully Thiarai, Leeds 2023 creative director, argued culture is "an every day need" which also provides significant economic returns.
She told Radio 4's Front Row: "It's a difficult moment for everybody, and the cultural sector has had a really challenging time through Covid, but the flip side of that is perhaps now more than ever we need some sense of joy and the ability to come together, celebrate together and find some hope and possibility in our lives.
"Culture provides that in a very powerful way."
Organisers say as many of the events as possible are free to access, with a "neighbourhood host" representing each of Leeds' 33 wards recruited to ensure each and every corner of the city feels included.
Dozens of workshops aim not only to get established city residents involved, but those new to Leeds too.
Stand and Be Counted theatre, launched to help those seeking sanctuary in the UK, is holding weekly sessions to help people learn, be creative together and make a variety of productions "without fear of judgement".
Rosie MacPherson, the group's artistic director, says: "They are the most understanding rooms I've ever been in, we all speak lots of languages and we might muddle our way through, but we work together – it's patient and collaborative.
"I think we can sometimes be quite dismissive of the importance of joy, but actually in stress management and keeping going it can be an absolute lifeline."
After the event's conclusion, Ms Watson hopes the year will have raised Leeds' profile internationally, created economic growth and – crucially – created better opportunities for people in the city to engage with the arts.
"Some of it may not materialise immediately after watching a show, but I do feel to impact someone's life and have it resonate five, 10 years beyond is a massive achievement," she says.
"That lasting legacy and changing opportunity will be huge."
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