We take a look back at Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre's 40 year history

I started writing about Phoenix Dance Theatre company twenty years ago.

The company turns 40 this year, which means I’ve been writing about the Leeds-based internationally-touring company for half its life and for a surprising number of those years the articles I’ve written have been about Phoenix Dance being in a state of flux.

It’s in yet another of those periods at the moment, with South African artistic director Dane Hurst stepping down at the end of this month, less than a year into his tenure as head of one of contemporary dance’s most important companies.

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The circumstances around the pandemic and Hurst’s need to return home to South Africa to be with family are being given as the reasons for the departure and who takes the once more available spot of artistic director is, it’s fair to say, a little up in the air.

Signal, one of the dances in Forty Years of Phoenix.

There’s no denying that it is a blow. After a lot of turbulence, the last decade saw the steady hand of former dancer Sharon Watson at the tiller. It was needed – turbulence is a pretty weak euphemism in truth.

It’s difficult to know what the future will hold for the company, but having seen it rise over and over from what looked like nothing but ashes, I would happily put money on Phoenix continuing to soar into the future.

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Before it goes into the future, though, this moment marks the perfect time to take stock of the company as it celebrates four decades in existence.

Family, one of the six dance pieces featured in Phoenix Dance Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebration. (Picture: Foteini Christofilopoulou).

This week the company staged a celebration of its anniversary at York Theatre Royal in a sold out performance but if you missed it, don’t worry, there will be much more to come and more opportunities to celebrate this most resilient of companies.

“It’s been an extraordinary privilege to curate Phoenix Dance Theatre’s 40th birthday celebration,” says Hurst.

“I began researching the Phoenix archive for this programme after I became artistic director at the beginning of the year, when the country was in lockdown. I wasn’t in Leeds at the time and had no access to the VHS tapes of many of the older works, but it was exciting to look through photographs, read the write-ups and to discover the works that were symbolic of the times under my seven predecessors.”

Those who know the history of the company might be surprised to read that it has only had seven artistic directors – it felt like there was, at one time, almost a revolving door. It might be something about the energy of this unique dance company that makes it seem like it’s somehow always changing.

It was set up in November 1981 by three young Black men from Leeds; David Hamilton, Phoenix’s first artistic director, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James.

At Intake High School they were encouraged in their ambition to form a dance company by Charles Gardener and John Auty and, perhaps the key person who had an indelible impact on the arts scene in Leeds, Nadine Senior, the woman who would go on to found the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, who they met via Harehills Middle School.

Within a year the company, which by then had expanded to include two other members Merville Jones and Edward Lynch, was invited to perform at London’s Battersea Art Festival.

It was a towering achievement to receive such an invitation within a year of being established and provided a hint that West Yorkshire had become home to a company that would go on to tour the US and take the name of Leeds into the world of contemporary dance.

Hurst says: “The early years under David Hamilton are not well documented, so many of those works are now lost. Even so, after 40 years, in which perhaps three to six new pieces have been created each year, there are still many works to choose from.

“It’s been a challenge to distill the full breadth and depth and richness of the company’s achievements into just five pieces. I feel that the final selection is of five essential works that display something of the scope and reach of what dance can achieve.”

The five pieces performed to the York Theatre Royal audience this week were Henry Oguike’s Signal, Pave Up Paradise created by duo Lost Dogs, Heart of Chaos by Phoenix former artistic director Darshan Singh Bhuller, Family, a piece by Shapiro and Smith that debuted in 1992, and Jane Dudley’s Harmonica Breakdown.

It’s an eclectic mix which, as Hurst says, demonstrates the scope of what dance can achieve.

“Dance moves us emotionally, it challenges us intellectually, it transports us. In dance, the human body reaches incredible heights of sheer physicality and precision of execution, in unison to music. Without a word being uttered, dance can communicate across so many different barriers; of language, of culture and also barriers of ingrained perceptions.

“When the body moves to music and a particular story is told without recourse to language it can reach and touch everybody.”

In the 40 years since Phoenix was first established, there’s no denying that dance has gone mainstream with an ever growing audience for the medium.

Who would have thought that a glitzy TV show about dance would dominate the weekend tv schedules not just of the UK, but globally?

It kicked off in 2004, but these days Strictly Come Dancing is a cultural behemoth and the cultural trickle down is one of the reasons for optimism as Phoenix flies into its 40th year – albeit preparing to face another period of interesting times.

“My hope is that the company will nurture its legacy,” says Hurst. “And continue to make amazing new work.”

Timeline for Phoenix Dance

1981: Phoenix Dance is born.

1987: Neville Campbell appointed artistic director, the company moves to Leeds’s Yorkshire Dance Centre.

1989: Female dancers join for the first time.

1991: Margaret Morris appointed artistic director, the company tours internationally.

2002: Darshan Singh Bhuller appointed as artistic director.

2009: The company’s first female dancer Sharon Watson becomes artistic director.

February-June 2022 tour celebrating the 40th will include dates at Leeds Playhouse and Cast, Doncaster. More details to follow soon.