Right after her first ever dance class, nine-year-old Sharon Watson announced to her bemused parents that at 16 she would be leaving home for London to become a professional dancer. Sixteen came, and she did just that. Think what you will – and no doubt her parents did – but you have to admit the girl had staying power.
It has served her well. After training at London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS), she did indeed become a professional dancer for many years, notably with Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Company (now Phoenix Dance Theatre) from 1989 to 1997. Now she has just completed a decade as the company’s artistic director – another feat of staying power, considering that Phoenix had burned through so many changes of artistic and executive direction that people used to quip that it was simply living up to its name: rising up, bursting into flames, then rising again.
“Phoenix has certainly flown in many directions,” laughs Watson when I meet her in a south London café, fresh from guesting at Trinity Laban’s 2019 graduation ceremony, “but we’re a big bird now.”
That’s Watson’s story in a nutshell, but of course there’s more to it than that. Leeds born and bred, Watson (née Donaldson) came from a family of four girls and four boys, with parents who had come from Jamaica. Her older sister Dawn began dance classes at the local Harehills Middle School, where the now renowned teacher Nadine Senior (who later founded Northern School of Contemporary Dance) had made dance a compulsory part of the PE curriculum. “I couldn’t wait to get to nine, and start dance at Harehills,” remembers Watson. “When I did, it just put more fire in my belly! Nadine had a real way of capturing the imagination.”
The school became a veritable hothouse of dance talent: 40 of Senior’s students went on to become professional dancers, including David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James, the founders of Phoenix, and Darshan Singh Bhuller, a future director of the company. When 16-year-old Watson left for London, it was Senior who arranged the travel and initial accommodation, and applied for Watson’s grant to LCDS. “I call Nadine my second mum,” says Watson. “I really do.”
After graduating, Watson landed a sponsored three-year position as apprentice dancer with Extemporary Dance Theatre, directed by Emilyn Claid. “I’d been trained in Graham technique – actually, I considered myself a bit of a diva at Graham! – but it didn’t prepare me for choreography by Steve Paxton and Laurie Booth, or dancing with people like Yolande Snaith and Kathy Crick, who had a very different kind of training. It was an amazing opportunity to really broaden my skills.”
The turning point of Watson’s career – joining Phoenix – nearly passed her by. Founded in 1981 as an all-male company, Phoenix under Neville Campbell’s directorship decided to take on female dancers in 1989. “They weren’t going to call me!” wails Watson. “Apparently they didn’t want to interrupt my career that was starting to flourish in London. I just thought: that’s not on!” The message must have got back to them somehow, because she did then get the call inviting her for a new six-month project, along with three other women who had trodden the path from Harehills to London Contemporary: Pam Johnson, Seline Thomas, and Watson’s sister Dawn.
Those six months turned into a decade dancing – and also choreographing – with Phoenix. “It’s where I found my voice as a dancer and an artist. The narrative work was really important to me, and I felt I was getting in touch with the spirit of the company too. I was fighting against the labels of being a black dance company, because we are artists first and foremost. We were trained like any other dancer, and wanted to be respected for who we were. I spent a lot of time trying to unpick that. The other dancers would say I was bit gobby,” she laughs, “but I can live with that now!”
Watson left Phoenix to teach at Northern School of Contemporary Dance (where Senior was still principal), but in 2002 was invited by the latest Phoenix director, Darshan Singh Bhuller, to become rehearsal director. She jumped at the chance, and stayed throughout Bhuller’s directorship until 2006. “Darshan would always say: Sharon runs the company. He had to spend a lot of time travelling to and from London, and I was in Leeds as his right hand, managing the company.” The experience turned into a kind of rehearsal for the role of artistic director itself, three years later.
Yet like her first job with Phoenix, this one nearly passed her by. The post had come up while Watson was working as education director at Northern Ballet; she applied, but heard nothing back. It turned out the email inviting her for interview had been misaddressed, so the first she heard was the day before the interview, asking her why she wasn’t coming. “I went straight to Mark Skipper [chief executive at Northern Ballet], and explained the situation. He closed the door and did a mock interview on the spot. At the end, he said: Sharon, you’re ready.”
The next day she went for the interview. “I didn’t really have time to prepare, so I thought: I’ve got to say what I think. That was basically: the Phoenix vessel isn’t broken, we need to address the content. If that’s not going to happen, close the company. Afterwards I called my husband and said: I really have put my foot in it this time!” Watson got the job.
The directorship was never going to be straightforward. “Some Phoenix supporters want it to change with the times, so we don’t keep crashing and burning. Some want to look to its own history. Some want the company to be able to do anything. Some have a feeling of what it should be, or even what they want it to be.” Finding a route through these overlapping and sometimes conflicting agendas has taken time. “To some degree you want to respect the history. At the same time, I spent the first six years proving we can do what any other contemporary repertoire company can do. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve turned that round and said: yes, but those companies can’t do what we’re doing.”
What is that? “Bringing a black British perspective. That’s what we own. It’s the foundation that gave Phoenix its Unique Selling Point. Initially we looked to choreographers from the US, but now we own a lot of work from the UK.”
That word perspective is key. Because Watson definitely does not mean that they need restrict themselves to black British dancers, staff, or subject matter; indeed the company has for many years employed an international cast of multiracial dancers. When she says “we embrace a multicultural society and a multicultural way of working” she’s talking about a perspective, not a definition. I think of it this way: she wants to use the black experience in the UK as a resource to draw strength from, not a box to fit into.
The most direct result of this way of thinking was Watson’s first full-length piece in 2018, Windrush: Movement of the People, timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the arrival in Tilbury docks of the Empire Windrush from the Caribbean, marking the first wave of post-war immigration into the UK. The work followed the hopes and the hardships of Windrush generation and their descendents, and ended on an upbeat note. It got Watson invited to an event with Theresa May in Downing Street to celebrate the anniversary.
The irony, of course, is that Windrush premiered just as the Windrush scandal was beginning to break: the revelation that many legal UK citizens, overwhelmingly from the Caribbean, were being deported or threatened with deportation, with catastrophic personal consequences, by the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy, instigated by Theresa May herself.
“I told the Windrush story up to a certain point,” says Watson, “but the story itself continues. The hostile environment that’s been created is another part – and it’s heartbreaking. Stop sending people to places they don’t belong! Don’t do the damage and ask questions later. That’s not how it should work.”
It is perhaps a sign of our times that Watson’s latest work, Black Waters, has a darker, more rebellious edge to it – and that its tour overlaps with a revival of Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men Redux, with its own story about kala pani (“black waters”), slavery and colonialism. The idea emerged when Shambik Ghose, from the kathak-based Rhythmosaic company in Kolkata, approached Watson suggesting a collaboration between their two companies. They came up with a double story: the ruthless massacre of Africans on the British slave ship Zong as it approached Jamaica in 1781, a scandal that stimulated the movement for the abolition of the slave trade; and the deportation of activists for Indian independence to the remote Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, to be incarcerated in the Kala Pani prison. “Both stories are underpinned by colonial practice,” says Watson. “That was really our common denominator.” Premiering on February 12 in Leeds, Black Waters is on tour until June.
I wonder, cheekily, if Watson might have won any more awards by then? She laughs, but I point out that she seems to be on quite a roll: Sue Ryder Yorkshire Women of Achievement in Business Award, and Yorkshire Woman of the Year (2016); Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts Companionship Award (2017?); Top 50 Power List in the Northern Power Women Awards (2017); English Woman’s Award for Arts and Culture, and Honorary Fellowship of Northern School of Contemporary Dance (2018); Honorary Doctorate at Leeds Beckett University, and Arts and Media Winner at the Black British Business Awards (2019).
“I suppose they have snowballed a little!” she says. “It has made me stop and think. I realised I’m being seen, but these are not just dance awards, they’re also in culture and business.”
What does she attribute that recognition to? “I think of my job of artistic director as about more than programming work. It’s also about understanding how to diversify our industry. How we can connect with other businesses, find synergies with other people and organisations.” She gives a couple of examples: chairing the bid for Leeds 2023 capital of culture, which brought her into contact with a wide range of people working in culture and business beyond the dance field; and Ghost Peloton, a combination of cycling, dance, film and on-site event coinciding with the opening of the 2014 Tour de France. “My job is about much more than programming and income streams,” say Watson. “It’s about the value of culture. It may be cliché, but culture does change lives. It can have an impact, and it can magnify impacts. It makes my heart swell to see dance acknowledged in this way.”