The XX factor in Leeds

Sharon Watson.
Sharon Watson.
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After research showed a lack of female choreographers, Phoenix Dance’s Sharon Watson tells Yvette Huddleston why she is determined to put women centre stage.

Sharon Watson is a quietly formidable woman with an energy, drive and determination that gets things done. Appointed as Phoenix Dance Theatre’s seventh artistic director in 2009, Watson wasted no time in making her mark – a year later she was named as one of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s Women to Watch, a list of 50 influential women working in arts and culture in the UK.

She is a committed champion of dance and of her home city of Leeds – she is chair of the European Capital of Culture Leeds 2023 steering committee and is a passionate campaigner for diversity. This is partly what inspired the latest Phoenix project, Phoenix at Home: A Celebration of Female Choreographers, which comes to the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre next week.

Last year there was discussion in the media around the lack of women choreographers; the story featured in the national news and Watson was very much a part of the ensuing debate. “There is an assumption that dance is saturated by women, but some of the research has shown that is not the case,” she says when we meet at the company’s Quarry Hill base in Leeds.

“At the lower levels, there are lots of women but when you get up to the level of director and choreographer, women are definitely in the minority. The higher up the ladder you go, the fewer women you see.”

Phoenix at Home, created as a positive response to the negative backlash, is a celebration of the talented women choreographers working within the company. “I have always tried to put together a balanced programme with a 50-50 split of the work of male and female choreographers but this is an opportunity for us to showcase our women choreographers. It is a celebration of the women we have in the company; it is important that we shout about this, say how great we are and show young women coming through that it can – and should – be done.”

The collection of work featured promises to present audiences with a thrilling night of dance. It will include Calyx, which explores the themes of beauty, desire and decadence. Created by dancer and choreographer Sandrine Monin last year, it was Watson’s first commission from an in-house choreographer – it is part of the company’s core ethos to encourage and nurture dancers, supporting those who are interested in making the transition into choreography. Alongside Calyx is an original solo piece by dancer Carmen Vazquez Marfil, plus a humorous collaboration between dancer Vanessa Pang and rehearsal director Tracy Tinker set in the audition room and a new piece choreographed by dancers Natalie Alleston and Vanessa Pang for the rising young stars of the Phoenix Youth Academy. Watson will also be making a significant contribution to the evening with an exclusive preview of her major new piece Windrush: Movement of the People, which celebrates the 70th anniversary next year of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush which in 1948 brought the first generation of Caribbean immigrants to England in large numbers.

“I am really excited about it,” says Watson. “I had three and a half weeks of R&D and I couldn’t wait to get in to work every morning.” The completed 40-minute piece, made for the full company of dancers, will premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in February 2018 and Watson will be previewing the first 20 minutes, which charts the journey from the Caribbean to England, in Phoenix at Home. The piece, she explains, highlights the enormous contribution that the Caribbean community has made to the cultural and artistic life of the UK.

While it is largely celebratory, Watson does not avoid some of the more difficult issues. “It is an uplifting production and has a great soundtrack – everything from calypso to RnB – but there is a little section that’s not so joyful,” she says. “There were also uncomfortable moments for those first arrivals – this was a time when there were signs in windows saying ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’. That was the world that my parents had to live in for a long time and it is also about the subtleties of the racism we are experiencing today. We need to be making art to address those issues.”

Dancers tend to stay with Phoenix for a long time; the company was once described to me by a young dancer as like being part of a close-knit family – this is a description that Watson recognises and values. But it is about give and take; those who join Phoenix are expected to make their contribution. “I think the fact that we are relatively small means that I have enough time to take interest in everybody as individuals, but nobody can hide in this company. Everybody who comes on board has to offer something – the idea that we can take the time to nurture people is key, but our dancers also have to know how to be a team player. Some stay with us for quite a while, but even when they leave, they take a lot of Phoenix values with them.”

Those values include a long-standing and ongoing commitment to outreach work and dance education. “It is a strong part of our offer as a company,” says Watson. “And we value that because it is part of our history.”

Phoenix was formed in Leeds in 1981 by three young men – David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James – who had been inspired by their teachers John Auty at Intake High School and, at Harehills Middle School, Nadine Senior who went on to found the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

The company offers a range of weekly classes, as well as more focused training for young people through the Youth Academy, runs a schools partnership scheme, takes workshops out on tour and organises a range of mass-participation events – in August 2015, 450 young people were taken to perform on the pitch at Wembley.

“That opportunity to connect with a young person can make such a difference,” says Watson. “We very often see students coming back to us and continuing with dance. We give young people the chance to do things and to be in places they would never experience. You can’t underestimate the value of that.”

Watson is also a committed advocate for the arts as a force for good and as a powerful form of social cohesion, especially in today’s increasingly fractured and complex world. “When things fall apart people tend to look for inspiration from art to find some comfort and hope,” she says. “I feel very strongly we need to value the arts and at the moment it feels as though they are under threat.”

Countering that threat means thinking outside the box, especially when it comes to funding, and working with a range of partners to ensure the company continues to develop and thrive. Watson puts Phoenix’s longevity – 36 years and counting – down to its ability to adapt.

“We reinvent ourselves – our resources are that we have the dancers, the creativity and the energy; sometimes you can create quite a lot with that.” And always at the heart of the company’s ethos – and Watson’s – is the issue of diversity. “For a company that really built its foundations on diversity we need to be at the forefront of those conversations,” she says. “It is something I feel really passionate about – I am on a bit of a mission and proudly so.”

Phoenix at Home: A Celebration of Female Choreographers runs at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds, from September 27-30. 0113 220 8008, theatreleeds.com. On October 8 Phoenix Dance Theatre and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance will pay tribute to dance pioneer Nadine Senior, the school’s founder, who died last year, with a gala performance at West Yorkshire Playhouse. wyp.org.uk