Saturday, 11 February 2017

There's a reason why Phoenix was my contemporary company of the year

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Phoenix Dance Theatre, Mixed Programme, West Yorkshire Playhouse, 8 Feb 2017, 19:30

In Terpsichore Titles: Contemporary Company of 2016 31 Dec 2016 I chose Phoenix Dance Theatre as my contemporary dance company of the year. I wrote:
"I've seen a lot of contemporary dance this year: the National Dance Company of Wales and BalletLorent in Huddersfield (see Cambriophilia 19 March 2016 and BalletLorent 3 Oct 2016), Rambert at the Lowry (see Red Hot Rambert 1 Oct 2016) the Royal Ballet's Wayne McGregor triple bill at Covent Garden (see McGregor Triple Bill 18 Nov 2016) and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Nederlands Dans Theater 2 at the Bradford Alhambra (see Prickling - NDT2 in Bradford 1 May 2016 and Alvin Ailey in Bradford 29 Sept 2016) and the Lowry (see NDT2 at the Lowry 24 April 2016 and Alvin Ailey in Salford 8 Oct 2016). But for me, 2016 was the year of Phoenix."
There were three reasons for my choice:  its massive contribution to the culture of Leeds over the last 36 years, its creative genius which generates ever more impressive new work and its outreach work for young people everywhere but especially in Leeds and the North East.

Those three strands came together on the opening night of Phoenix's new tour which begins its 2017 season with performances in Leeds, Durham, Oldham and Edinburgh (see "What's On" on the company's website). The evening began with Calyx. a new work by Sandrine Monin demonstrating Phoenix's creative genius and propensity to create ever more impressive new work, Douglas Thorpe's Beast, a work from Phoenix's recent past and NightLife at the Flamingo, one of its earliest works, celebrating the company's past, present and future.

"Calyx" is a botanical term meaning "the sepals of a flower, typically forming a whorl that encloses the petals and forms a protective layer around a flower in bud." The calyces, in this case, were a number of boxes each containing a dancer representing a flower. And the flowers? Well, they allude to Baudelaire's anthology, Fleurs du mal which inspired both choreographer and composer, Roberto Busconi. I had seen a preview of Calyx in the studio before Christmas (see Calyx 8 Dec 2016).  In the last paragraph of that article I wrote:
"Even in a rehearsal studio Calyx was quite enthralling. In a theatre it will be breathtaking."
And so it was. Emma James's costumes instantly put me in mind of the illustration of the front cover of the first edition of the book which I reproduced in my write-up of the preview. Luke Haywood's lighting enhanced the sense of foreboding. The dancers were the same as in the preview: Sam VaherlehtoCarmen Vazquez-Marfil, Prentice Whitlow and Natalie Alleston. Not an easy work to digest but compelling to watch and hauntingly beautiful.

Thorpe's Beast was first staged in 2009, not long after Sharon Warson became the company's artistic director. In a contemporaneous video, Sharon described it as her first challenge. She acknowledged the work's robustness, its rawness, its quality yet still struggled with it wondering how, if at all, it fitted into Phoenix's repertoire. But the company did accept the work and it has strengthened them.  The work is about the rage that bubbles below each of us. Very topical with Trump and Brexit. A disturbing work. Uncontrolled hysterical laughter from Vasquez-Marfil. Wild explosions of movement from other dancers, Alleston, Monin, Vaherlehto, Prentice and Carlos J Martinez, the artist I had introduced as "Carlos" in my preview of Calyx. The score, a medley of work by Ben Frost, Matt Davignon, Aes Dana, Jaydev Mistry and Tam Tam, was skilfully selected and arranged. Once again, Haywood's lighting was in the old sense (that is to say not in the Hackneyed sense that it is used nowadays) awesome.

Th human spirit can only take so much beast and mal in one evening and NightLife at the Flamingo came as a blessed relief.  This was first staged in 1983 and shows the company at its very best. It opens with a single dancer to Gershwin's Summertime. Dressed as a waiter he opens the bar. Other dancers follow. The women in floral dresses or full-multicoloured skirts which must have been such fun to wear, Each of them performs a solo or party piece - one of the men pretending to be drunk helped to his feet by a waiter - cartwheeling and somersaulting girls. A party on stage, at one point, quite literally as the cast fanned into the stalls inviting audience members to join them on stage. The performers were drawn from three generations of Phoenix. Every member of the present company. Its veterans: Hughie Davies, Seline Derrick, Donald Edwards, David Hughes and Edward Lynch. And last but not least, kids from the Phoenix Youth Academy, stars of the future. A euphoric piece finishing in flowers for Sharon and ecstatic applause. One of my best evenings in the theatre. Ever.

I left the theatre floating 4 feet in the air. Mainly because it was such a good show. But partly because it is from the region in which I live. Phoenix started in Leeds. It is anchored in Leeds. Its dancers come from across the world. It is receptive to influences from everywhere. But it has never forgotten its origins. That's a source of pride.

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