Hurst is the company’s eighth artistic director, taking over from Sharon Watson who was in post for 11 years before leaving last May to become Principal and CEO of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that he begins his tenure at Phoenix at a challenging time not only for the company but for the whole of the performing arts sector which, with theatres and other performances spaces closed again, has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
While acknowledging that it is not going to be easy, Hurst is sanguine about the task he is facing – and he knows that Phoenix is resilient. It has weathered storms before in its four-decade history – it has adapted, regrouped and, true to its name, risen again.
“There’s no doubt that it’s been a strange and difficult year and everything has been up in the air but Phoenix is still standing, it still has a company of dancers,” he says.
“And they have managed to continue doing their important educational work throughout this period, engaging with young people online. The company has been quiet over this time but I think everybody has had to go a bit quiet, slow down, take stock, think about the future and focus on what is really important.
"Obstacles always provide the opportunity to find a creative solution and we are looking at different ways of connecting with audiences including performing in outdoor spaces as we move into spring and summer.”
That can-do attitude chimes perfectly with the company’s inspiring beginnings. It was formed in Leeds in 1981 by three young black British men – David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James – whose enthusiasm for dance had been sparked by their teachers Nadine Senior at Harehills Middle School (Senior went on to set up the Northern School of Contemporary Dance) and John Auty at Intake High School.
“I spoke to one of the founders, Donald Edwards, the other day and I thanked him for what they started,” says Hurst. “The work they began back in the 1980s in Leeds has carried on right through to today, because of their passion and that they dared to follow their dream.”
Their belief in that dream was rewarded – Phoenix has since gone on to become one of the leading contemporary dance companies in the UK, championing diversity and presenting stories that are seldom told.
Hurst was a dancer with the company from 2007 to 2009 but his connection with it goes back much further, to his childhood growing up in the small town of Port Elizabeth in South Africa. “I first heard about Phoenix when I was about ten years old and training at the local dance school,” he says.
“One of the dancers who attended that school, Warren Adams, got a scholarship through the trust that Nelson Mandela set up with the former ballerina Anya Sainsbury.Warren had gone to the UK on that scholarship to train at the Rambert School in London and then he went to work with Phoenix.
“They were the first dance company I had really heard of and it was so inspiring to think that one of our own was out there and travelling the world with Phoenix.
"For me to see somebody who grew up in the same rundown neighbourhood as me in a segregated mixed-race area, who had lived through the same difficult time in South Africa under apartheid, to see that scholarship opening up those opportunities was so motivating. It showed the rest of us what was possible through dance.”
In 2003 he followed Adams, who is now a Broadway choreographer and producer, to the UK, winning a Mandela/Linbury Trust scholarship to study at the Rambert School. “That would not have been possible without the scholarship,” he says. “I was given my first job at Rambert and then after three years I auditioned for Phoenix.”
Following his two years there he went on to work with a variety of renowned dance companies receiving critical acclaim and a number of awards nationally and internationally for both his dancing and choreography.
Hurst’s career thus far absolutely fits with Phoenix’s aims, ethos and achievements. In addition to his success as a dancer and choreographer, in 2016 he founded the charity Moving Assembly Project to encourage international cross-cultural collaborations, with UK artists being invited to go out to South Africa to run dance and other creative workshops with young people.
He recognises the value of education – when he was at Phoenix as a dancer, he was involved in working on their community educational programmes which he says was a ‘pivotal time’ for him – and he knows that engagement with the arts can be transformative.
“I remember watching music videos of Michael Jackson and James Brown,” he says. “Seeing them on my TV was really such an inspiration. I remember doing my first performance to a Michael Jackson video – my mother had some ladies around at our house for a prayer meeting and I did this impromptu dance performance for them. At the end, when I’d finished, they all applauded, and I really enjoyed that.”
It was his grandmother who took him along to the local dance school. “She used to make their costumes and I would go with her sometimes. I remember sitting watching the students and seeing what dance could do. That’s when I got into ballet but then as a young teenager, ballet was not seen as something very masculine to do and your peers would laugh at you, so I also got into break dancing at that time and started entering competitions.”
Whatever the next few months hold, Hurst will be focussing on what is possible, rather than what is not, and putting together an exciting celebratory programme. He is creating a new dance piece to mark the company’s 40th birthday in November, there is a collaboration with Opera North slated for the autumn and he will also be reviving some of Phoenix’s most iconic pieces from their extensive repertoire.
“I feel so humbled to be taking on the role of artistic director of Phoenix,” he says. “I hope to honour everything that the company is about – to maintain the spirit and passion out of which it was created. I hope this year we can remind people just how special Phoenix is and why it is so great for the city of Leeds to have it here. I’m so looking forward to getting started.”
Phoenix Dance Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary in November. www.phoenixdancetheatre.com