Behind the Phoenix Dance phenomenon

Nick Ahad WHENEVER Phoenix Dance Company appoint a new artistic director, the headlines inevitably include the words "rising" and "ashes".

It's an all too easy clich, but when Darshan Singh Bhuller took over in 2002 it was by all accounts the most precarious time in the company's 21-year-history and the task ahead was a mammoth one.

Four years on, Phoenix is basking in well-earned limelight, enjoying both an international reputation and a fan base that is rock solid with admirers all over the world.

However, all good things must come to an end and when earlier this year Bhuller announced he was to leave the company, Phoenix desperately needed to find a replacement artistic director who could continue to fly the flag.

Enter Javier De Frutos.

The internationally renowned choreographer will take over this summer and when he does, he will inherit a company that is enjoying its best times ever.

The legacy left by Bhuller is something for which De Frutos is clearly very grateful.

"If I was inheriting a company with very much to be done, it would be quite scary, but Darshan has left a company that is 'done'. I just have to keep going in the right direction and I think the terrain is really ready for expansion," says De Frutos.

The new artistic director of one of Yorkshire's most successful and recognised artistic companies, De Frutos, who is in Chichester choreographing a production of Carousel, brings with him an already established international reputation and beat more than 30 other candidates to the job.

While still working down south, in between rehearsals he is looking for accommodation in Leeds, which in the usual London-centric dance world is a bold statement in itself – even Bhuller commuted to Leeds from his London home.

"Darshan knew the company, he had been working with the dancers for many years and he is a Leeds boy, so he could come up during the week and stay with family," says De Frutos

"I thought it was really important for me to get to know these dancers on a day-to-day basis and I wanted to acclimatise to being with the company and make the transition from Darshan to me as pain-free as possible. Transition is always difficult, but being physically here to oversee the change is very important.

"It is difficult to be out of London, but the opportunity to come and lead my own company was something I just couldn't pass on."

Now with so many positive reviews, it's difficult to imagine Phoenix doing anything but burning brightly, but before Bhuller came along, the company was in trouble. It had not produced work for two years, there were huge questions over its future and there are those who still find the difficult years hard to forget.

Although the company had been started by a group of male dancers in 1981, the woman who can claim to have had an instrumental hand in creating it is Nadine Senior.

A teacher of dance in Leeds schools for over 40 years, she taught Phoenix dance founders David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James and after giving them a space at a gym in Harehills to choreograph and rehearse, they eventually had a chance to perform in front of Jude Kelly – who would later become artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse – which led to the company's first professional booking.

Phoenix did have an amazing first couple of decades, producing work that was both critically successful and popular.

But the hard times arrived at the end of the Nineties.

Bhuller, the man who would turn the company's fortunes around, was another former student of Nadine Senior, who strengthened her links with the company in 2001 when she became chair of Phoenix Dance board of trustees.

Ms Senior said: "The company needed someone who was going to build it back to its former status. I have known Darshan since he was 10-years-old and he is a man and an artist of huge intelligence and integrity and he was the perfect person to have as artistic director.

"It was very sad when Darshan announced he would leave, but finding someone of Javier's quality is perfect for the company. When we were looking to replace Darshan, we wanted someone with a reputation for producing strong work and high quality work – Javier best met the criteria.

"He was also very, very keen and articulate about the ideas he had for the company, which was very important in the decision to appoint him."

For his part, De Frutos clearly knows his own mind about where he wants to take the company from here.

"If you had told me when I started out 25-30 years ago that I would be running a company, I would have said, 'Oh please'," he says.

"I didn't want to come into a company and just be a caretaker. As an artist that was the thing that I found so attractive about the company – that I would be able to make my own mark artistically.

"When I found out about the post, I thought about it, but I was looking for a sign to say that it was the right thing. That night I went to Sadler's Wells and saw the company perform and I was just blown away.

"That was when I knew it was the right thing to do."

Stories in Red, Phoenix Dance's tour, is at the following Yorkshire Venues: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds May 17 to 20; Hull New Theatre, June 8; Sheffield Lyceum, June 20 and 21, York Theatre Royal, June 27 and 28.

Javier De Frutos

Javier De Frutos, left, was born in Venezuela in 1963 (he celebrates his 43rd birthday on Monday), where he began his dance training, continuing at the London School of Contemporary Dance and at the Merce Cunningham School, New York.

In 1994, he established the Javier De Frutos Dance Company, which toured to great acclaim around the world. His work is in the repertoire of many dance companies including: Rotterdam Dance Group (The Fortune Biscuit), Ballet Shindowski (E Muoio Disperato...), Rambert Dance Company (The Celebrated Soubrette, Elsa Canasta), the Royal New Zealand Ballet (Milagros and the re-staged The Celebrated Soubrette), Candoco (I hastened through my death scene to catch your last act and Sour Milk) and Gothenburg Ballet (J. Edna and Mother Tolson, By the Heavenly Grass).

Javier has received two nominations for the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards, a nomination for the International Theatre Institute Award, the 1995 Paul Hamlyn Award, the 1996 Bagnolet Prix d' Auteur, the 1997 South Bank Show Award and a two-year Arts Council of England Fellowship in 2000. In 2004, Elsa Canasta was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award and Sour Milk won the Time Out Live Award. In 2005, Milagros was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award. That year Javier won the Critics' Circle National Dance Award for Best Choreography (Modern). In 1999, his achievements were recognised with an hour-long South Bank Show.

The Phoenix Dance Company cv

The Phoenix Dance Company was originally formed in Leeds in 1981 by David Hamilton (artistic director), Donald Edwards and Vilmore James.

These three young men had their enthusiasm for dance sparked by the tuition they received from teachers, Nadine Senior at Harehills Middle School and John Auty at Intake High School.

Senior pioneered an inclusive, creative approach to dance teaching, which built on students' strengths. She also taught more than 30 students who went on to pursue professional dance careers, including Phoenix's outgoing artistic director, Darshan Singh Bhuller.

In 1981, Senior went on to found the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, and following her retirement in 2001, became Chair of Phoenix's Board of Trustees.

Initially, the three members of Phoenix performed mainly in education settings. However, their fresh approach to contemporary dance won them support among audiences and critics and they quickly built a following beyond their home city.

By the summer of 1982, Phoenix had danced in London's Battersea Arts Festival and acquired two other dancers, Merville Jones and Edward Lynch, also from Harehills in Leeds.

By 1983, Phoenix had acquired an administrator and the backing of the Arts Council of Great Britain and in 1984, a company technician and driver was appointed.

Colin Poole joined from the Laban Centre, London, in 1985 and an assistant administrator was appointed.

In 1987, Neville Campbell joined Phoenix as artistic director; this appointment marked a major expansion of the company and repertoire.

In the same year, Phoenix moved out of Chapeltown and established a permanent base at Yorkshire Dance in Leeds city centre.

In summer 1987, Merville Jones and Colin Poole left and at this point Neville decided to increase the number of dancers. Douglas Thorpe, Gary Simpson and Junior Edwards joined the company.

In 1989, the company secured funding for Phoenix Plus, enabling four female dancers to join, giving Phoenix a new dimension and opening up larger audiences. The new tour was an enormous success and in 1990, the company became a permanent 10 dancer, middle-scale outfit.

In 1990, Phoenix won the Grand Prize at the International Choreographic Competition in Bagnolet for Aletta Collins's piece Gang of Five and was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for the Most Outstanding Achievement of the Year in Dance.

By 1991, Phoenix had again taken a new direction; Neville Campbell left to pursue a freelance career as a choreographer and teacher and in October, Margaret Morris was appointed as artistic director.

By 1993, Phoenix had grown to become an internationally renowned performance company crossing cultures and communities.

In 1995, the company travelled to America and Europe as well as working extensively both in the Yorkshire and Humber region and Britain.

By 1997, Phoenix had appointed a new artistic director, Thea Nerissa Barnes. With further changes afoot in 1998 and new funding for education, Dawn Holgate (education director) and Stephen Derrick (education officer) began to develop and install a five-year education strategy.

The year 2000 brought a new executive director: Jaqui Mckoy and new education officer Tracy Witney. It also brought a fallow period for the company, which was off the dance scene for two years, during which it could have been consigned to history.

That changed in 2002 when the company appointed the highly regarded Darshan Singh Bhuller as artistic director.

He turned the company's fortunes around drastically during his four-year tenure. In his time he commissioned eight new works from established and young choreographers and personally choreographed three new pieces.

In August 2006, Javier De Frutos will become Phoenix Dance Theatre's sixth artistic director.

He will continue the development of the company's repertoire through prestigious commissions as well as creating work for each Phoenix season.

Phoenix is firmly established on the UK and international touring circuit, with recent visits to Germany, Holland, Ireland and a five-week tour of the US, with the support of the British Council. This was Phoenix's first Stateside visit since the 1996 Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta, where it was the sole representative of British dance.