Phoenix still flying high thirty years on
Sharon Watson is an impressive woman.
Marked out as a future leader soon after her on-stage dance career came to a close, she fulfilled the ambition of her talent two years ago by becoming the artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre.
Sitting in her office, discussing the history and legacy of the company which celebrates a significant anniversary this autumn, today she seems more like a student at the feet of a zen master than the bold and determined leader she is.
This is not because of the presence in her office of David Hamilton, the man who actually founded Phoenix 30 years ago, but because of what he represents – the history, legacy and heritage of the company she now leads. Watson is clearly filled with respect for the heritage of the company of which she has taken charge.
As Hamilton talks slowly and deliberately through each step of the company’s three decade history, Watson sits quietly, soaking it all in. There are several moments when the interviewer might as well not be in the room, as she takes in each stage of the story of Phoenix it is a though she is being reminded of just what she has in her care and animatedly asks Hamilton about the significance of various moments in the company’s history.
Phoenix’s history is a turbulent one, to say the least. Most articles written about the company usually include at least one line about the fact that Phoenix is an apt moniker because it has nearly been burnt out of existence many times only to emerge once again from the flames.
Today is not about dwelling on those difficult times – of which there have been many – but celebrating the good times when Phoenix has blazed at its brightest. Watson says: “I feel like I have my hands around something so precious and I am holding it incredibly carefully because if I drop it and it breaks, then it is not just the company, but all that heritage and history we would lose.”
The history of the company is remarkable. Although the man who ‘woke up one morning and knew it was what he had to do’, David Hamilton, is careful not to say so explicitly.
“I am grateful the company is still here,” he says, when I ask him to express what it must be like to be sitting in a multi-million pound building that now houses the company he woke up one morning and decided to set up, three decades ago.
“It is still here. That is enough.”
It might be enough for Hamilton, but what he doesn’t say is that not only is Phoenix still here, but that ‘here’ is a multi-million pound building which it shares with Northern Ballet, an appropriate home for a contemporary dance company that hit magnificent highs during its career, performing all over the world.
And it all began with the idea of David Hamilton.
He was 18 and had come through a remarkable school and through the hands of a truly remarkable woman. Nadine Senior, a sports teacher at Harehills Middle School was the woman through which most of the early Phoenix members had passed and she had a strong influence in all of them taking up dance.
Hamilton says: “I call her the ignition. She was the woman who provided the ignition for Phoenix to become something.”
In 1981 he woke up on the fateful morning and set up the company along with Donald Edwards and Vilmore James. The three Chapeltown born and raised Harehills schoolboys created work and performed it locally, mainly in schools.
It took little time for the company to catch fire and soon they were performing across the world and with such success that in 1984 The South Bank Show made a programme about the contemporary dance troupe from an inner city suburb of Leeds. In 1987 the company increased to ten and four women became the first female dancers – including the company’s artistic director, Watson.
Tonight many of the artistic directors will come together at the new home of the company to see the new building and celebrate the 30th anniversary. Audiences will also see the original three Phoenix dancers, along with Neville Campbell, dancing together for the first time since 1995. Watson will also perform a piece – which she confesses is a ‘terrifying’ idea.
It will also be an exhilarating experience for the director – and not just because she will be on stage.
“That Phoenix has reached this point is extraordinary. The challenge for me personally is to make sure that I also leave a legacy that will allow the company to continue to flourish for the next 30 years.”
The History of Phoenix Dance
1981: David Hamilton forms Phoenix.
1987: Neville Campbell joins as artistic director, major expansion of the company and its repertoire.
1991: Margaret Morris becomes artistic director, takes the company overseas, which in 1996 performs at the Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta.
2002: Darshan Singh Bhuller takes over, begins touring into larger venues.
2009: Sharon Watson appointed artistic director.
2010: Moves into its new home at Quarry Hill.