2023 launch headingley


Headingley Stadium – stands and stage – to be packed with artistic talents of all Leeds people for spectacular LEEDS 2023 opening event

LEEDS 2023 Year of Culture will start with a bang, as it means to go on, with an unmissable opening show at Headingley Stadium on 7th January 2023.

Heralding the start of a year that will ‘let culture loose’ across all 33 wards of the city, LEEDS 2023 is inviting Leeds residents, and those who love Leeds, to be part of this special event.

‘The Awakening’ will celebrate Leeds’ past, present and future in a live show from the home of Leeds Rhinos.  With 15,000 tickets available, a special ballot opened today (23rd September).  No ordinary ticket ballot, LEEDS 2023 is asking Leeds people, wherever they live, to get creative and submit a piece of art to be in with a chance of gaining a pair of free tickets to this unmissable, one-off show.

Directed by Kully Thiarai, Creative Director and Chief Executive of LEEDS 2023 and Alan Lane, Artistic Director of Slung Low, each known for creating large-scale, radical, inclusive work, ‘The Awakening’ will be an original celebratory collective act. Work from the whole city will be showcased, inspired by its directors’ driving belief that there is artistic talent, creativity and brilliance in all the people and homes of Leeds.

Hosted by LEEDS 2023 Chair and broadcaster, podcaster, writer and former international gymnast Gabby Logan MBE with broadcaster Sanchez Payne, a Trustee of LEEDS 2023 and former Leeds United footballer, leading Leeds artists will perform in a creative collision of surprising pairings, new commissions and collaborations including:

Global star, singer/songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae

Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and band LYR

Music from The Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North including a rendition of Chumbawumba’s ‘Tubthumping’

Ntantu, UK Rap and RnB artist

George Webster, TV presenter, actor, dancer and the first CBeebies presenter with Down’s syndrome.

British rapper and former footballer Graft

Tabla and percussion maestro Inder Goldfinger

Jamie Jones-Buchanan, rugby league coach and former Leeds Rhinos player

Lyricist, spoken word artist and playwright Testament with musician, artist and songwriter Denmarc Creary 

Many more artists from the city’s rich cultural life – famous, familiar and forgotten – will feature in the show. Drawing on local talents with deep roots in the city, the creative team behind ‘The Awakening’ includes international choreographer and movement director, Lucy Hind, choreographer and Principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Sharon Watson, and the UK’s leading show design studio, New Substance.

The LEEDS 2023 programme will be a three-part epic. Three seasons will shape the year, with ‘awakening’ influencing Season One (January to April), ‘playing’ the focus of Season Two (May to August), and ‘dreaming’ a forward-looking end to the year (September to December). The epic begins with ‘The Awakening’, an expression of all that the year of culture’s mantra ‘letting culture loose’ means.

Kully Thiarai said:

“Sometimes knock backs, whilst hard to bear at the time, can open doors to new adventures and ideas. LEEDS 2023 was born from dashed hopes and shaped during a period of huge turbulence, uncertainty and change.  It made us think about what culture can do and what might be needed today. How could we play our part in the economic and social fabric of our city in a way that mattered? Our Year of Culture, often buffeted and shaped by forces beyond our control, is in some ways an act of defiance. A defiance that says we are still here.

“We are here, and together through the power of the imagination and our collective endeavours we will tell a new story of and with the people of Leeds. A city that is home to world-leading artists and arts organisation and brimming with everyday creativity and culture in all 33 wards.

“Creating a shared memory that, when we look back, we can proudly say, “Wow, that was us. Together we made an extraordinary year happen. A year where we got to tell our stories, old and new, known and forgotten, in joyful celebration. 

“All that kicks off with ‘The Awakening’, a show only possible if everyone shares their individual act of creativity whatever that might be for them.

“We have deep roots and wide horizons, and we make things happen. By the end of LEEDS 2023, what we and the world will know about Leeds will be different and surprising. So come and help make this new story with us.”

Alan Lane said:

Those of us who work and live in Leeds know that it is a city of glorious culture: in every household, in every community there is quiet, bright shining talent. The mission of ‘The Awakening’ is to celebrate this in a world that too often decides that not all of us are important, but bit players in the epic movie of national news; customers to what others are selling. ‘The Awakening’ will strike back at that, certain of the power and creativity that we all have. And specifically, to proudly declare that Leeds is full of brilliance – creative, cultural, artistic brilliance.  To declare it to the nation. For too long a sleeping giant, LEEDS 2023 will wake everyone to this reality – not least ourselves.”

Ticket Ballot

100 days before the year kicks off (23rd September), a ballot has been opened and the general public are being asked to submit a piece of art that they have created to be in with a chance of securing a pair of free tickets for ‘The Awakening’.  Organisers are encouraging residents and anyone with a passion for the city to get creative in any way they wish to express themselves. Paint splashes, doodles, portraits made of pasta, Lego sculptures, bus stop raps, cakes and papier mâché models; photographs, videos and audio recordings of anything and everything can be submitted to the ballot.

People can upload photos, audio, videos of their creations to www.leeds2023.co.uk. Those unable to submit online will be able to drop off their creations at yellow art boxes across Leeds.

‘Creation Stations’ also will be available at Trinity Leeds Shopping Centre, White Rose Shopping Centre and at LEEDS 2023 headquarters on Brewery Wharf, where the public will be helped to create art works to enter into the ticket ballot. Opening Times are: Trinity Leeds Shopping Centre, 11am-4pm, every other Saturday from 24th September to 19th November; White Rose Shopping Centre, 11am-4pm, every other Saturday from 1st October to 12th November; Brewery Wharf, 10am – 4pm Monday to Friday from 26th September to 25th November.

25th November is the deadline for submissions when 7,500 pieces of the public’s art will be selected at random to receive a pair of free tickets to a once in a lifetime experience. Their work will also feature in the opening show.
This unique way to receive a ticket is designed to showcase the artistic talent, creativity and brilliance of the people of Leeds.

LEEDS 2023 is the city’s response to the cancellation in 2017 of the UK’s participation in the European Capital of Culture competition. The city’s overwhelming response was to “do it anyway” and LEEDS 2023 has secured unprecedented cross-sector support from business, educational institutions, and public and private sector funders.

Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Deputy Leader and executive member for economy, culture and education at Leeds City Council said:

“Creativity is thriving in Leeds. From our schools and workplaces, through to our shopping centres and community spaces and parks, and everywhere else in between – we can’t wait to let culture loose in the city for our Year of Culture in 2023.

“Arts, creativity and culture will play a big part in bringing people together, now more than ever as we see more and more people affected by the cost of living crisis – we need and want to look forward to events we can share together in the city.

“I would encourage everyone who works, lives or has some connection to our amazing city to get involved and submit your own piece of artwork or creativity to be in with a chance to attend an unforgettable opening event. We will be starting the year as we mean to go on, with a show that brings together our past, present and future and showcases all the very best of what we already have in the city and sets the scene to awaken culture in us all.”

‘The Awakening’ is supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund and commercial property company Bruntwood.

Key dates:

4th October: Resources will be available to help schoolchildren to make creative work to submit to the ballot.

25th November: closing date for the ballot.


A digital press pack, including images and video, is available to download here


Editors’ Notes

Yellow art boxes where local people can submit artworks and enter the ticket ballot for ‘The Awakening’ are situated in public spaces across Leeds, including: The Old Fire Station, Middleton Health for All, Voluntary Action Leeds, New Wortley Community Centre, Armley Library, Reginald Centre, Hamara, Bramley Baths, Kirkgate Market, Leeds Beckett University, Headingley Campus and Leeds Beckett University, City Centre Campus. 

LEEDS 2023’s ambition is to deliver a transformational year of creative experiences connecting and benefiting people now and into the future. The planned programme will celebrate and transform the city’s identity locally, nationally and internationally – creating a lasting legacy of economic and social impact. LEEDS 2023 is run by the Leeds Culture Trust, an independent charity set up in 2019 by Leeds City Council as part of its Culture Strategy and as a response to the cancellation of the UK’s participation in the European Capital of Culture competition. Leeds City Council recognises in a number of its key strategies the difference culture and creativity can make to a city and its citizens, and is the principal funder of LEEDS 2023. www.leeds2023.co.uk


Kully Thiarai. Creative Director and CEO of Leeds 2023. Kully is renowned for her bold and ground-breaking work in the performing arts. Before taking up her position at LEEDS 2023, Kully was Artistic Director and Chief Executive of National Theatre Wales.

Kully has created a diverse range of work that spans communities, cultures and performance styles; and has directed large-scale epics, new plays and made work in non-theatre spaces, across her 30-year career. She has commissioned, produced, and directed work nationally and internationally, and developed and nurtured talent, with a particular focus on creating opportunities for those who may have little or no access to the arts.

She was the founding Director of CAST in Doncaster – a new £22 million performance venue; Co-Artistic Director of the Leicester Haymarket Theatre; Artistic Director and CEO of Contact Theatre Manchester, Theatre Writing Partnership and Red Ladder Theatre Company where she set up The Asian Theatre School (now Freedom Studios). Along with playwright Noel Greig she also created the renowned bi-annual ‘Contacting The World’ Festival at Contact Theatre

Kully recently stepped down as a Trustee of Manchester International Festival (MIF), is currently a Trustee of The Art Foundation and an Artistic Advisor to the theatre company Slung Low. She is an Honorary Fellow of the Central School of Speech and Drama and a fellow of the RSA. In 2020 she was awarded the Cultural Icon Award in The Inaugural Northern Asian power-list.

Alan Lane is Artistic Director of Slung Low directing most of their work over the last decade including projects with the Barbican, the RSC, The Almeida, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Liverpool Everyman, Sheffield Theatres, Singapore Arts Festival and the Lowry. Slung Low make large scale people’s theatre work on stages, trains, castles, swimming pools, fishing boats and town centres.

In 2017, Slung Low headlined Hull UK City of Culture 2017 with Flood by James Phillips: a 4 Part epic performed online, live and on the BBC. Over half a million people saw a part of Flood. It won a Royal Television Society Award Yorkshire for innovation in drama.

Alan has directed in places as wide ranging as the National Theatre of Croatia, a sari shop in Manchester, Buckingham Palace and in a village in Purulia, Southern India: he was a creative consultant for British Army Expo 2022.

He was the Artistic Director for the National Commemoration of the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 2016: a ceremony with a people’s theatre company of 450.

In 2019 Slung Low took over management of the oldest working men’s club in Britain, The Holbeck in South Leeds: they run this venue as a Pay What You Decide creative and community space. In December 2023 the company will create three new stages in two new homes in Holbeck.

During the Covid crisis of 2020, the company was the ward lead for Holbeck and Beeston for social care referrals with responsibility for 7500 homes. They ran a non-means tested self referral foodbank from March 2020 to June 2021: delivering 15,000 food parcels.

Gabby Logan: Gabby is one of the UK’s leading broadcasters and has recently been recognised with an MBE.  The honour is for services to sports broadcast and promoting women in sport. A former international gymnast, Gabby began her broadcasting career in radio in 1992 and joined Sky Sports in 1996 where she quickly established herself as one of their key presenters. In 2004 Gabby hosted Sport Relief for the BBC before joining the corporation in 2007. While at the BBC Gabby has presented the Final Score, Inside Sport, Invictus Games, MOTD & The Six Nations, to name a few.  She is now also a regular presenter for Amazon Prime Video’s sport fixtures. Gabby is a prolific writer and more recently has entered the popular world of podcasts, launching her chart-topping series ‘The Midpoint’. She is currently the President of MDUK and a patron of the Disabilities Trust, Prince’s Trust and Great Ormond Street.

Sanchez Payne: At the age of six he was chosen by producers to take part in a documentary entitled 7 Up following the progress of his life at 7-year intervals. From a young age Payne showed a strong interest and talent for football and began his pursuit of a career in the sport at Yorkshire Amateur A.F.C. As he progressed through Allerton Grange High School he secured a place with Leeds United F.C. He was released in 2013 but has since made a name for himself in radio and TV. Most recently, he has a show on BBC Radio Leeds.

Corinne Bailey Rae: Singer / Song Writer / Musician. Corinne Bailey Rae shot to stardom with her self-titled #1 UK debut album in 2006, featuring the global hits “Put Your Records On” and “Like A Star”. Since then, she has received two GRAMMY AWARDS, two MOBOS, multiple nominations including BRIT and BET Awards and has performed worldwide from Glastonbury to Byron Bay Blues Festival. Most recently, Bailey Rae performed at the BAFTA’s at The Royal Albert Hall in London. Bailey Rae’s success has led her to compose music for film and television as well as collaborate and perform with big named artists across different music genres including Mary J Blige, Al Green, Herbie Hancock, KING, Paul McCartney, Kele Okereke (Bloc Party), Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Questlove, Salaam Rami, RZA, Tyler The Creator, Paul Weller, Richard Hawley, Stevie Wonder, Tracey Thorn, Pharrell, Logic, Mick Jenkins, and many more. https://www.corinnebaileyrae.com/

Simon Armitage and LYR: LYR (Land Yacht Regatta) is Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, singer-songwriter Richard Walters, and multi-instrumentalist/producer Patrick James Pearson. Formed in 2018, LYR are now a firmly established part of the contemporary music scene, with regular radio airplay across the networks, a critically acclaimed debut album, Call In The Crash Team, and over two million streams to their name. They have appeared at many major festivals over the past three years including Green Man and Blu Dot and completed UK tours and sell-out events at venues such as the Howard Assembly Rooms in Leeds.

The Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North: Opera North is a national opera company based in Leeds, and is a leading UK arts organisation. Rooted in the North of England, international in outlook, we create extraordinary experiences, every day. The Orchestra of Opera North holds a unique place amongst British orchestras. Universally praised by audiences and critics alike, the orchestra is the only ensemble in the country to have a year-round dual role in the opera house and concert hall. Opera North’s versatile and talented Chorus is a fundamental part of the Company. Since its foundation in 1978, the group has achieved success and an enviable reputation through independent performances and Opera North productions.

Ntantu: Hailing from Leeds, Ntantu is a UK Rap and RnB artist fusing his sound with African Diaspora inspired music. Known for his singles ‘Love & Leave You’ and ‘Pressure’, the latter has received over 1 million views on TikTok and over 400k streams. He has opened for many famous artists including Young T & Bugsy, Rudimental and Becky Hill, and is often seen performing at Leeds’ O2 Academy and First Direct Arena, as well as festivals such as Creamfields and The Great Escape. Representing Homegrown artists at the 2017 Leeds MOBO awards, Ntantu also featured in the campaign for Channel 4’s relocation to Leeds and hopes to captivate audiences with the release of his new album ‘NOW’.

George Webster: George Webster is a 22-year-old TV presenter, actor and dancer from Leeds. In September 2021 he became the first ever CBeebies presenter with Down Syndrome and is now a permanent fixture on the BBC. George aims to show the world that people with learning disabilities should be represented in the media and across the entertainment industry. George has worked in award winning films, popular tv series such as World on Fire and Casualty, in the theatre as part of national ensemble with Separate Doors and in dance productions with Yorkshire Dance and Meshdance. George is well known on the parkrun scene. He is an ambassador for Mencap and wants every child to dream big; and for people with a learning disability to be seen for what they are: people with talents and much to offer the world.

Graft: Leeds born and of Caribbean heritage, 23-year-old Graft was crowned the winner of The Rap Game UK 2020 by UK Rap royalty Krept and Konan and BBC 1xtra’s Head of Music DJ Target. Winning the MOBO Unsung Award 2018 was another triumphant moment thus far. In the same year, Graft was awarded ‘Best Upcoming Artist’ at The Yorkshire Entertainment Awards, and a year later he would aggrandize to ‘Best Male Artist’ at the same ceremony. The many awards Graft carries under his belt are true depictions of his undeniable talent and work ethic, including the Arts and Culture Award he was presented with at the 2019 Legacy Awards at the Leeds Town Hall. Graft’s versatile artistry has seen him share the stage with The Godfather of Grime, Wiley, UKs Young T and Bugsey, Manchester’s King of The North’ Bugzy Malone, and Dancehall artist Stylo G, just to name a few.

Inder Goldfinger: Inder Goldfinger Percussionist. Inder is renowned across the world for his innovative playing and esoteric sounds. He has been a part of multiple bands throughout his career. He was one of the core members of the hugely influential Fun-Da-Mental, a radical, multi-ethnic, British, Hacienda Classical fusion and ethno techno band that was formed in 1991. In 2015, he joined Winachi Tribe, an electro funk, soul sonic band from the Northwest. Inder is also well known for being Ian Brown’s (Former StoneRoses lead singer) percussionist, and has recently become the winner of the Issa International Singer Songwriter Award 2022.

Jamie Jones-Buchanan: Born and raised in Bramley, Leeds, Jamie is an ex professional rugby league player who has represented the city through the Leeds Rhinos for over 20 years. Jamie played his entire professional career with the Rhinos winning six Super League Grand Finals, three World Club Challenges, three League Leaders’ Shields and one Challenge Cup Final. Jamie is dedicated to inspiring more Leeds communities, he is a trustee of Leeds Rhino’s Foundation and Red Ladder Theatre Company. Jamie is also a devout Christian and will soon be starting a new position as Head of Culture, Diversity and Inclusivity at Leeds Rhinos.

Testament: Testament is a rapper, writer, composer and world record breaking human beatboxer. His work includes the celebrated album Homecut: No Freedom Without Sacrifice. Theatre work includes writing The Royal Court, Leeds Playhouse, Talawa Theatre Co and The Globe. Television work includes screenplays for BBC, Channel 4 and Netflix.  Testament is the writer of the 2018 hit play Black Men Walking (Eclipse Theatre/Royal Exchange Manchester) and more recently Testament’s audio drama Daughter (BBC Radio 4) was nominated for the Prix Europa. Testament wrote, composed and performed in acclaimed show Orpheus In The Record Shop (Opera North/Leeds Playhouse) which was broadcast on BBC Four and returns live to Leeds Playhouse in October 2022.


Denmarc Creary is a up north creative, from performing on stages to editing and piecing together visual stories.  After sharing stages with some of the UK’s favourite artists such as; Stormzy, Krept & Konan, Lady Leshurr & Little Simz, he has decided to return to represent and show his love for his city once again – as he did at the Leeds Arena in 2015 with his BBC 1Xtra performance.

These last couple of years has already been extraordinary for career highlights; being a part of an Adidas global campaign and the Maison Margiela 2022 Paris Fashion Week show. With foot all the way on the gas and both hands on the steering wheel, Denmarc’s near future is set to be one for the books.


Lucy Hind: Lucy Hind. Award winning Choreographer and Movement Director and Associate Artist of Slung Low. Most well known for her work on the Olivier and Tony Award winning ‘Girl from the North Country’, Lucy has worked for a host of prestigious theatres including The Old Vic, The National Theatre, The RSC, The Globe and has an extensive portfolio which has led her to work on Broadway, the West End and various international tours, as well as featuring on TV. Her TV credits include BBC, CBeebies and Amazon Prime. Most notably, Lucy was Dance Captain for the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony.

Sharon Watson: Sharon Watson MBE, DL. CEO and Principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Trustee of Manchester International Festival and LEEDS 2023. Sharon was trained at London School of Contemporary Dance, where she was one of the first female Principal Dancers invited to join the all-male award-winning Phoenix Dance Company. Sharon toured with the company from 1989 to 1997 and choreographed Never Still and Shaded Limits. She then left Phoenix to pursue a number of other ventures including setting up her own company ABCDance, before returning in 2009 as the 7th Artistic Director. Since then, she has choreographed Fast Lane, Melt, Never 2 Still, Repetition of Change, TearFall and Windrush: Movement of the People, and Black Waters. In 2022, she was made a Deputy Lieutenant and awarded an MBE for her services to Dance.