Phoenix put trust in their name and audience

Rehearsals by Phoenix Dance

Rehearsals by Phoenix Dance

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Phoenix Dance Theatre is on the rise once again – with a small but significant change. Nick Ahad met the woman leading the Phoenix.

Next week when Phoenix Dance Theatre takes to the stage of West Yorkshire Playhouse, it will be your last chance to see the company.

In the past this sentence would have caused consternation that we were on the precipice of losing the company again. These days Phoenix is on a much firmer footing. So it won’t come as a surprise that it’s not really the last chance to see the company – just the last chance to see it operating as it does now.

This time it will be a small revolution. The size, however, does not make the change any less significant.

“This is the last tour we’re doing with a title,” says Phoenix’s artistic director Sharon Watson.

“After this tour we will simply take work out under the banner of ‘Phoenix Dance Theatre’.”

The latest tour, Particle Velocity, sees its world premiere at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds next week. That in future audiences will simply be buying tickets for ‘Phoenix Dance Theatre’ is significant – the company has reached a stage in its development and a level of confidence to not need anything other than its own name to sell a show.

It has reached this point under the leadership of Sharon Watson.

“It will still be mixed work and it will still have the stamp of quality that people have come to expect from Phoenix, but what we’ll be saying by touring work under the banner of our own name and nothing else, is that audiences can trust us. They can come to see us and know that they will be getting work that is good enough to be on stages across the UK and internationally.”

The reason it is such a bold move to simply ask people to buy tickets for ‘Phoenix’ and not some show with a title, is partly because of the turbulent history of the company. By laying down this marker, Watson is clearly saying that she is happy with what she has created with the company over the past three years and that Phoenix is, at the risk of using marketing speak, a trusted brand.

“We’re getting there. The vision is stronger than ever, we had a great London season last year, we have a company of dancers that have the skills to keep up the high quality of work we want to keep producing,” she says.

When she took over as artistic director of Phoenix in May 2009, Watson inherited a company that had gone through one of the more difficult times in its history.

Set up by four young black men from Chapeltown in 1981, in its early days the company gained an international reputation – and fast, but its journey has not always been easy.

Since Watson took the reins, there has followed a period of stability and now, she hopes, growth. Watson was one of the first women to join the company, as a dancer in 1989.

Some feel that the Phoenix of today looks little like the company that set out of Chapeltown 32 years ago, but Watson says she pays tribute to the history of the company while looking to the future.

“People sometimes say that the company has strayed from its roots – but I am a former Phoenix dancer. The fact that I am here as artistic director, has to be paying tribute to where we have come from,” she says.

“The work might not be inspired by the same reggae music and the stories that were being told back then, but as a company we are looking at and reflecting what diversity means today.”

Another nod to the past comes in next week’s Particle Velocity, which will feature the premiere of a new work from Douglas Thorpe, a Leeds-based former Phoenix dancer who is beginning to make a name for himself as a choreographer.

Particle Velocity features three other world premieres – Richard Alston, choreographing for the company for the first time, Jose Agudo’s first work for the company and a new piece created by Watson herself.

Watson’s piece, the first time she has choreographed a work with the company’s dancers since returning from a serious injury, has reinvigorated her.

“It is really exciting and just great to be back in there, making work,” she says.

Watson’s piece, Repetition of Change, is a dance work exploring DNA, set to a specially commissioned score from composer Kenneth Hesketh. “It has kept me awake at night, thinking about this piece,” she says.

“It is something that has really tested the dancers and pushed them to their limits.”

An aspect of Phoenix that cannot be discounted is the degree to which the city of Leeds, which gave birth to the company, embraces the dancers. When the company appears on the stage of the Playhouse next week, the Leeds audience will meet a few new faces.

“Richard Alston is one of contemporary dance’s great and most influential choreographers. That the dancers have the ability to represent his work, is an indication of where we are as a company.”

The change to the way Phoenix will present its work in future might be subtle, but it is another point on the road map for a company getting stronger and stronger.

From Leeds to the world

Set up in 1981 by dancers David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James, Phoenix came out of the young men meeting together at school.

In 1987, Neville Campbell joined Phoenix as artistic director. In the same year, Phoenix moved out of Chapeltown and established a permanent base at Yorkshire Dance in Leeds city centre. In 1991 Margaret Morris took over as artistic director and the company began touring internationally, gaining a reputation in America and in the Caribbean.

Particle Velocity: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Feb 6 to 9, 0113 2137700. The Civic, Barnsley, March 22, 01226 327000.

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