The Phoenix that soared high again

Two-and-a-half years ago, Phoenix Dance company was facing oblivion. Now it is scaling the heights. Arts reporter Nick Ahad spoke to the company's artistic director, Darshan Singh Bhuller.

IT would be all too easy to ladle the puns on thick about a phoenix rising from the ashes, but the analogy could only be more appropriate if the headquarters of Phoenix Dance had literally burned down almost three years ago.

For it was then that the Phoenix of old died and something new was born out of the ashes of that company.

Phoenix Dance today, with artistic director Darshan Singh Buller at the helm, is going from strength to strength; recently it attended the International Arts Presenters' Conference in New York and has also been lined-up to perform in three separate arts festivals in Germany in November.

"The company has not done any touring internationally for a very, very long time," says Bhuller.

"We are embarking on something really significant for the company at the moment."

Bhuller is better placed than anyone to record the changing fortunes of the Phoenix Dance Company – he was there as a young man at its inception in 1981 and is responsible for making it the success story it is today, ever since his return to the Yorkshire home of the company in 2001.

After its inception the company gained a strong reputation as the place for contemporary dance in the North.

But things began to go wrong through the '90s to the point in 2001 where the company had just two full-time members of staff and was truly on its knees.

Bhuller admits that when he went in as artistic director two-and-a-half-years-ago, this perceived weakness of the company was something he saw as a strength – it gave him a chance to start all over again and virtually build from scratch, a challenge he relished.

He had been approached previously by the company, but never felt the time was right.

"They had been asking me for years to come on board, every time a directorship came up and I always said 'no' because I wasn't interested in moving back up to Leeds. But when it came around in 2001, I felt I was at an age where I wanted another challenge," Bhuller has said in the past.

It is a challenge he has accomplished. In the past two years, after the artistic director assembled a team around him, from administration staff to production team members and dancers, the new Phoenix Dance set about reclaiming its place as the leading contemporary dance company of the North – and succeeded.

In the past, Bhuller has been ready to wax lyrical about the achievements of the company – like anyone at the helm of an artistic organisation, the priority is to build up its status.

The Bhuller of today is less ready to talk about the success that he and the company are enjoying. It is a mark of confidence – the achievements of Phoenix Dance are there for all to see.

"I think it is for other people to judge how things have gone with Phoenix Dance since I took over," he says.

"I am just doing my job as best as I can and as long as the dancers and the work is being seen by people, that is as much as you can ask of yourself. The important thing for me now is that I am happy with the work we are producing."

Certainly, Phoenix is somewhere near, if not already eclipsing, the status and standard it experienced in its glory days.

Earlier this year, Phoenix Dance presented one of its most ambitious projects, 04, which brought together four pieces of work: one choreographed by Bhuller, one by Portuguese choreographer Rui Horta, another by Henri Oguike and another by Maresa Von Strockert, in a truly international collaboration.

Working with people from across the globe clearly whetted the appetites of those in charge at Phoenix and they performed at the International Arts Presenters' Conference in New York, an event which attracts producers from around the world.

"As a result of performing there a German promoter enjoyed what he saw so much that he came to see our show at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and this has led to us going to Germany in November," says Bhuller.

"We are also looking at the possibility of a tour in America."

If he was unforthcoming when asked to praise the company and his impact upon it, Bhuller suddenly loses any reticence and talks with an unbridled passion about his first love – dancing.

"What I loved about dancing with a company when I was younger was the opportunity to travel abroad," says Bhuller, who grew up in Chapeltown, Leeds before winning a place at the prestigious London School of Contemporary Dance at the tender age of 15.

"Experiencing different cultures was something I found extremely enriching and is something I consider a highlight of my career.

"It is wonderful that the dancers who are working at the company now are also being given that opportunity."

He feels that the opportunities are going to keep coming. The name of Phoenix Dance is being taken around the globe and re-building the reputation it had in its glorious past, as in 1988, when it last performed in Germany.

"Over the past two-and-a-half-years we have gone from virtually zero to where we are today," says Bhuller.

"It is happening in small steps, but significant things have been taking place. We have recently been approached by Sadler's Wells, something which took me back a little.

"We have been so used to going to people and trying to perform there that when they come to you it is a strange experience."

An experience which one feels Phoenix Dance can start getting used to again.