Phoenix reignited after a dramatic pause

A dance company will blaze its way back onto the Yorkshire stage next week. Nick Ahad on another new beginning for Phoenix Dance.

A NEW building, new dancers, a new ethos, a new plan for the future – essentially a total rebuild. Little wonder the world hasn't seen any new dance work from Sharon Watson in the past couple of years.

Watson is the woman who in May 2009 took over as artistic director of the beleaguered Phoenix Dance Company, which couldn't really have been blessed with a more appropriate moniker when it sprang into being three decades ago this year.

It has been down, out and reincarnated more times than many care to remember – Lazarus had nothing on Phoenix – but there is a feeling around the dance world that this could be the final incarnation of the company. At the very least it feels like this Phoenix Dance – as crafted by Watson – is the shape the company is going to be in for some time.

Part of the reason for believing so is the impetus behind the most pressing question when meeting Watson in the spectacular new home of the dance company. She's been in charge for 18 months now, but next week is the first time Phoenix, under her leadership will present a programme of work that will include a piece choreographed by the artistic director. So what took so long?

In her office, in a new 12m building shared by Phoenix and Northern Ballet, Watson laughs and acknowledges,

"it has been a long time coming".

A long time? It's been 18 months since she took over and audiences, fiercely loyal to Phoenix, still don't know what her work will look like.

Last autumn the company went out on tour with a programme that included new work – but nothing from Watson herself.

To be fair to the artistic director, when she took over in 2009, the company had been through yet another one of its by now infamous rocky patches. Controversial artistic director Javier De Frutos had taken Phoenix in a surprising direction that many loyal to the company found difficult to support. Then he left to pursue other work elsewhere.

"Realistically we needed time to rebuild the company. I needed to find other choreographers to work with the company. We moved into a new building, we have an entirely new line-up of dancers – there was a lot that needed to be done before I could even think about going back into the studio," says Watson.

"The most important thing was that it was done in the right way. I didn't want to rush into the studio and make something just so my work could go out on tour. The key thing to do was get the company back on track and on an even keel. That's why it's been 18 months."

When she arrives for our interview, she does so on crutches. Watson was teaching at Northern School of Contemporary Dance last year when she felt an achilles tendon snap and has spent three months with her leg in plaster. Having waited a year and a half to create a piece of work for Phoenix, a little thing like having to get around on crutches wasn't going to stop her. "It's been fine," she says brushing off the injury, before admitting that although it is serious, nothing was going to stop her choreographing this piece.

Melt is the dance Watson has created for the Phoenix dancers, which will receive its world premiere when the new dance programme, Reflections, is first performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse next week. Unusually for a contemporary dance piece, Melt was inspired by and has been choreographed to the work of a chart band – in this case the Leeds-based, Mercury Prize nominated band Wild Beasts.

Less than a fortnight before the new work is unveiled to the world, Watson displays no nerves at all, just a steely determination that under her tenure Phoenix will finally emerge as the company it deserves to be.

She says: "I hope when people watch Melt they will see the history of the company coming through the dance and the aesthetic.

"The bodies will look different, this isn't the Phoenix Dance from a decade ago, but it is a Phoenix that will celebrate and pay its respects to the tradition and history of the company while looking forward."

It seems that finally, after three decades of turbulence, Phoenix has not only entered a new building, but could be about to enter a new era – one marked by a well-deserved period of stability and success.

Phoenix Dance, West Yorkshire Playhouse, January 26 to 29, then touring. For tickets call the box office on 0113 2137700 or book online at

Three decades of Phoenix Dance

1981: Phoenix Dance formed by David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James.

1987: Neville Campbell joins as artistic director, marking a major expansion of the company using female dancers for the first time and a permanent base in Yorkshire Dance.

1991: Margaret Morris appointed artistic director, company begins touring overseas.

2002: Darshan Singh Bhuller appointed artistic director, company enjoys long period of success.

2010: With Sharon Watson at the helm, moves to new premises at Quarry Hill.