This Life: David Nixon

HE's been head of Leeds-based dance company Northern Ballet Theatre for almost a decade and has just been awarded an OBE in the New Year's honours list for his contribution to the performing arts.

Now NBT's artistic director is also looking forward to moving the organisation from its current base in north Leeds to a purpose-built building in the city centre. But, as Rod McPhee found out, life hasn't always been so good for David Nixon.

I was brought up in a small town in Canada called Chatham where every guy played hockey, and since I didn't play hockey I was bullied pretty much all the way through school. The fact that I liked dance made it worse. I remember auditioning for the part of the chimney sweep in the school production, Mary Poppins, and for about six years after that my nickname was Tina the Ballerina and I would get hassled all the way to and from school. It could be a pretty miserable existence.

My mum was a seamstress and my dad was a schoolteacher and they were always very supportive of me. It was pretty obvious that I wanted to be a dancer from a very early age – I was always leaping around the house doing split jumps.

And in the end I don't actually feel scarred by the bullying I got as a child – it did toughen me up and make me stronger and it actually helped me in later life because as a dancer you really do face a lot of tough criticism.

For a long time in my teens I was protected and lived in a bit of a bubble because after dance school I went to work for an associated dance company in Canada. So when I was offered the chance to work in Europe I was pretty scared. The best piece of advice I ever received came from my flamenco teacher at school and she said: "We are always alone, remember that" which is completely true. We get frightened by the idea of not having people around us we're familiar with. Ultimately we should be at peace with ourselves because at the end of the day when you go to bed that's who you have to be happy and content with.

The one person I couldn't live without is my wife. She's very supportive and understanding and calming in a very subtle way. She's also just about the only person in the world I truly trust. I've learned this valuable lesson in life about trust. I remember telling one of my best friends something and swearing her to secrecy, then the next day she relayed the same story to me wrongly thinking she'd been told it by someone other than me.

The thing I'm most proud of has to be the dancers of Northern Ballet Theatre. It's really great to have got the OBE because it is acknowledgement that you've achieved something. But it is the dancers that are the greatest achievement. They are like a family to me, because many of them come to the company when they are very young and you have to mentor them and guide them and ultimately you have responsibility for that period of their lives. So to see them develop and flourish is a tremendous source of pride for me.

The person I'd most like to meet is Daniel Day-Lewis, not just because he's a great actor but because he is such a chameleon. A lot of stars just play themselves in movies but he completely changes from role to role, submerging himself in it. As an artist that's a fascinating phenomenon. I've already met many of the greats of the dance world I wanted to meet, people like Nureyev. My wife has actually danced with him.

My philosophy on life is to continually keep developing and progressing. No matter what age you are you can continue to grow and discover new things.

I'm 51 and I'm pretty obsessive about going to the gym. I think most people might find that surprising. I'd visit every day if I had enough time but as it is I only manage it three or four times a week. I also watch what I eat quite carefully, don't drink much – but my big weakness is chocolate. I just can't seem to give that up.

The best thing about Leeds is that if you want to do everything you can, and if you want to do nothing then you can do that too. If you want peace and quiet you're just minutes from the countryside, and if you want nightlife and restaurants and shops then the city centre is also great. The trouble with a big, capital city like London is that it's so dense and intense. There's no escaping all the hustle and bustle, whereas I like to dip in and out of things and that's something you can easily do in a city like Leeds.

My first job was wrapping Christmas presents in a men's store in a small town in Canada. I must have been about 16 or 17 years old and I would just do it to earn a little extra cash during the holidays. I loved it actually.

To relax I like to sit down and watch something like CSI or Criminal Minds. I also love sci-fi, always have, ever since I was a kid.

My first kiss was at my parent's cottage up in the north of Canada. I was about 11 or 12 years old and it was just a local kid – I don't even remember their name.

Favourite things

Favourite food: Italian

Favourite programme: Enterprise

Favourite film: Out Of Africa, Shakespeare in Love, Pretty Woman

Favourite actor: Meryl Streep

Favourite book: Lord of the Rings

Star sign: Scorpio

Rachel Reeves.

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