The rise and fall – then rise and fall and rise – of Phoenix Dance Theatre is a story of small beginnings, high-flying, and a couple of crash landings. Along the way, lots of people have had lots of views about what it is or should be, with the result that this company has had more incarnations than a Hindu deity.
It’s become obligatory to talk about Phoenix Dance Theatre in terms of its namesake, the mythical bird (as opposed to the capital of Arizona) that, once every 500 years, burns up and is born anew. In real life, Phoenix has so far averaged a four-year cycle. Here are its incarnations.
Incarnation 1. Phoenix Dance Company (as it was originally called) was founded in Leeds in 1981 by three teenage friends: David Hamilton, its founding director, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James. In 1982 they were joined by Merville Jones and Edward Lynch. All had learned dance at the local Harehills Middle School and Intake High School. The all-male, all-black group performed to reggae and club music, and although it lacked professional training had a fresh, raw energy that appealed to audiences. They rose very quickly: by 1984 they were already featured on The South Bank Show. But as the company became established, the fraternal spirit diminished, with cracks appearing between the dancers and the board.
Incarnation 2. Hamilton left in 1987, and was replaced by Neville Campbell, another former Harehills student. Campbell, who is mixed-race, had trained London Contemporary Dance School, and he directed the repertory more towards the modern dance mainstream. He also brought in female dancers (again all black, as well as former Harehills students) as well as some white choreographers, including Michael Clark and Aletta Collins. The company gained more mainstream recognition, but tensions over its identity simmered.
Incarnation 3. Those divisions surfaced after 1991, when Margaret Morris arrived as director – a white woman representing a company that was still closely associated with its black male roots. Nor was she a local to Leeds. Perhaps in compensation, the company voiced a more explicit concern to represent “the black British experience” – despite having more white dancers in the company these days, as well as commissions from African-American choreographers. Artistically, the results were iffy.
Incarnation 4. From 1996, a new director, Thea Nerissa Barnes, took over. An African-American woman, she was more inclined to the vision of Alvin Ailey, and to draw on black cultures as inspiration for dances with universal appeal, performed by a mixed cast. She produced a retrospective of Phoenix’s best work over the years, but the company struggled both financially and artistically, shutting down altogether for a period in 2001.
Incarnation 5. Darshan Singh Bhuller, a former Harehills student who had become a leading dancer at London Contemporary Dance Theatre, took over in 2002. The “identity” issue was sidelined and Phoenix Dance Theatre (as he renamed it) became a repertory company with a top-notch roster of international dancers. Bhuller is credited with turning round the company’s fortunes.
Incarnation 6. In 2006 Venezuelan-born choreographer – and loose cannon – Javier de Frutos took over. His programming mixed revivals of rarely-seen American modern dance classics, pieces of Phoenix repertory, and new works of his own – again with a superb international lineup of dancers. It was a bracing mix that made critics really sit up and watch – but his own works, especially, were far from safe choices for general audiences, and he was summarily sacked by the board. The dancers left too.
Incarnation 7. Former company dancer Sharon Watson inherited a shell of a company in 2009, and last year’s tour was of necessity hastily put together. So the first real results of her leadership won’t be seen until after the current tour is over. The company is about to move into a spanking new building in Leeds (shared with Northern Ballet Theatre), which bodes well for stability. So too does Watson’s intention to avoid the label of “black dance”, which has too often proved a poisoned chalice.
Watching Phoenix Dance Theatre
What to expect from Phoenix? In its current incarnation the company is still finding its feet, so it’s easier to say first what not to expect – namely, anything as confrontational as Javier de Frutos’s Los Picadores, which divided audiences and critics with its graphic violence and Fight Club-style choreography. Still, nor will you get those resurrected modern dance classics from a different era (by, for example, José Limón) that he also programmed.
What you will get, at the moment, is a smaller company and a very mixed bill of works that touches several bases (or hedges its bets); most people should like something, if not everything. The current programme includes a revival of Haunted Passages, an old Phoenix hit from 1989, and three new pieces; advance word on Aletta Collins’s Maybe Yes Maybe, Maybe No Maybe is good. Still, the current incarnation is still a new one. It’ll be interesting to see what it grows into.
Current artistic director is Sharon Watson (known in the early years of Phoenix as dancer Chantal Donaldson). One of Phoenix’s original five guys, Edward Lynch, serves on the board.
In 2003, Phoenix Dance Theatre’s publicity featured two nude dancers leaping like gazelles. But no such naked cavorting appeared in the show – much to the disgust of one theatregoer from Surrey, who had come to Sadler’s Wells just to see dancers in the buff. He made an official complaint, which was upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority. The following year, Phoenix performed a piece that actually did contain a duet for naked dancers, but the publicity showed them modestly clothed(in, er, their underwear). There were no complaints.
In their own words
“We were young, we did what we had to do. It was more of a creative process. We wanted to express ourselves, so we did.” – David Hamilton, on the founding of Phoenix, quoted by Christy Adair
“I’m a fashion queen, you see. I love all those stories, like Tom Ford comes to Gucci and suddenly it’s the hottest thing on the planet. I’m naive enough to think I can do it too.” – Javier de Frutos, interview with Jenny Gilbert, Independent on Sunday 2008
“We are not rising from the ashes, we’re … We’re an entirely new bird and from here we are going to build, and grow and get better.” – New director Sharon Watson, interview with Nick Ahad, Yorkshire Post 2010
In other words
“The Phoenix company from Leeds has, true to its name, survived with much ingenuity … Having been originally a black boys company, it became mixed-sex, mixed-race, Americanised, re-Anglicised, its dance style moving from Leeds street to political didacticism to high art-dance to dance-theatre.” – Ismene Brown, Telegraph 2005
“Let’s hope the Phoenix doesn’t get its wings clipped to suit corporate tastes.” – Stephanie Ferguson voices a recurrent concern, Independent 1996
“Javier de Frutos does few things by the book – and it may be that, as recently appointed director of Phoenix, he has not even read it.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian 2007
“What goes down must come up.”
“The phoenix hope, can wing her way through the desert skies, and still defying fortune’s spite; revive from ashes and rise.”
Now watch this
Early footage of Phoenix in the 1980s
Darshan Singh Bhuller’s Planted Seeds 2003 performance
Nopalitos (Javier de Frutos, 2005)
See Blue Through (Didy Feldman, 2006)
Paseillo (Javier de Frutos, 2007)
Rehearsal footage and interviews of Phoenix’s current rep can be seen on their YouTube channel.
Where to see Phoenix Dance Theatre next
See the Phoenix Dance Theatre website for performance dates.