Phoenix Dance Company: Under new direction and aiming to fly high

It has become customary to begin all articles about Phoenix Dance Company with the words ashes, rising and from, arranged in any order.

Not today.

"We are not rising from the ashes, we're..." And it's not just the headline writers – even Sharon Watson, the woman now leading the Leeds-based, world-renowned company is at a loss when it comes to talking about the company and not using the phrase.

"We're an entirely new bird and from here we are going to build, and grow and get better."

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It's hardly a surprise that 'rising from the ashes' is invoked when it comes to the leading dance company. It has been on the brink of collapse more times than ought to be feasible in its 29-year history and each time it has soared back into being.

When David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James established the company back in 1981, they couldn't really have thought of a more apt name.

Two years ago Phoenix Dance Theatre went through one of its most turbulent periods – and given the turbulence it has experienced over the past three decades, that's no small statement.

In 2006, the board appointed Venezuelan choreographer Javier De Frutos to lead the company. His eventful tenure lead to a change in personnel, with half the company's dancers leaving Phoenix before De Frutos himself left in September 2008, leaving the company, not for the first time in its history, without a leader. When De Frutos was first interviewed for the role of Phoenix artistic director, Sharon Watson was also in the running.

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The board at the time felt that Watson, despite a history with Phoenix, was not ready to lead the company.

In a way, the decision turned out to perhaps be a good one for Watson – if not necessarily for the company.

After missing out on the Phoenix job, she was selected as one of 26 aspiring leaders from around the globe to attend Dance East's fourth Rural Retreat, an intensive four day think-tank exploring the challenges of the role of artistic directors in the 21st century.

Prior to taking up the post at Phoenix, she also spent eight months as director of learning and access at Northern Ballet Theatre.

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The preparation was invaluable to Watson when she was finally appointed Phoenix's artistic director, in the wake of De Frutos's departure.

"I became the artistic director in May 2009 and I picked up a company with an education officer and a finance administrator. There were no dancers, no rep. It was a shell – I got an empty vessel," says Watson.

"I had eight weeks to get work out – we were booked into venues on a tour. I found dancers and told them that they had to trust me. When I said jump, they had to jump – it was the only way we were going to get through that period." Phoenix did go out on tour, though it was with little fanfare and there was no pretending that the company was doing anything other than fulfilling contractual obligations by taking work on the road and into venues.

Since the tour ended, last autumn, Watson has had the time and breathing space to step back and take a look at the company – and, importantly, to decide what its next move will be.

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"We have a new rehearsal director, I have brought in new choreographers and new dancers," says Watson.

"What I want to do is get back to the vision of Phoenix Dance. The company became an internationally touring dance company because of the quality of its work and we need to get back to that."

Watson knows a thing or two about the company. Back in 1989, she was one of the first four women to dance with Phoenix.

She is well aware of the proud history of the company, and how much being a Yorkshire based dance outfit informs the work. "We tour internationally, but we tour Phoenix out of Leeds. That's part of the success, part of our aesthetic. It's something about the energy of Leeds and us being very rooted here that is a really important part of why Phoenix has become internationally important."

And why it might rise again. Like a bright colourful bird.

Phoenix dance tour dates

The Lindsey Theatre – Cleethorpes, September 26.

The Riverside Theatre, Hull College, October 7.

Harrogate Theatre Royal, October 20.

York Theatre Royal, October 21.

Bradford Playhouse, November 4.

The Riley Theatre – Leeds, November 6 and 7.

The Square Chapel – Halifax, November 19.

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