Standard YouTube Licence
Phoenix Dance Theatre A Celebration of Female Choreographers Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre, 28 Sept 2017 19:30 and Celebration Gala for Nadine Senior West Yorkshire Playhouse, 8 Oct 2017 19:00
Phoenix Dance Theatre does not have a large number of dancers and only half of them are women, yet it can stage a whole evening of top-class dance in celebration of female choreographers created entirely by its own artists. How impressive is that? How many other companies many times its size can do anything like that? Yet that is what that company presented in Phoenix At Home on 28 Sept 2017.
That is why Phoenix was my contemporary company of the year in 2016 despite competition from Alvin Ailey, Nederlands Dans Theater 2, the National Dance Company of Wales and, of course, Rambert (see Terpsichore Titles: Contemporary Company of 2016 31 Dec 2016).
When I started to follow Phoenix I learned about Nadine Senior and everything that she did for that company:
"Phoenix Dance Company was formed in 1981 by David Hamilton (Artistic Director), Donald Edwards and Vilmore James, three young men who had their enthusiasm for dance sparked by the tuition they received in school, particularly from teachers John Auty at Intake High School and Nadine Senior at Harehills Middle School who went on to found Northern School of Contemporary Dance, and following her retirement in 2001, was Chair of Phoenix’s Board of Trustees for six years."Nadine Senior died in 2016 and Sharon Watson, Phoenix's Artistic Director, penned this beautiful tribute to her. Last Sunday her former students, colleagues and friends as well as folk like me, who had never met her but acknowledge an enormous debt of gratitude to her, assembled at West Yorkshire Playhouse to celebrate her life and work.
Thus we had a double celebration within a few days of each other. First, a celebration of the enormously creative female artists of the present. Then, a celebration of a remarkable woman of the recent past who created so much and inspired and continues to inspire so many.
The celebration of female choreographers began with Sandrine Monin's Calyx which I reviewed in There's a reason why Phoenix was my contemporary company of the year 11 Feb 2017 and previewed in Calyx 8 Dec 2016. I have always been impressed by the work ever since I first saw it in rehearsal but I appreciated it only on a superficial level. Watching it a second time certainly increased my understanding. I saw the parallels between limbs and shoots or roots from the moment Sam Vaherlehto's leg emerged from the box in which he had germinated. These were not houseplants or flowers from the garden but weeds and perhaps toxic ones at that.
Tracy Tinker's Elemeotary which she created with Vanessa Vince-Pang was a welcome relief after all that Japanese knotweed and deadly nightshade which we had just seen. Vanessa Vince-Pang, who is in reality at the very top of her art, presented herself for an audition as a nervous young dancer. We heard disembodied voices off stage. "Would you like me to do some tap?" volunteered Vanessa. "Would you mind removing your top so we can see your number?" came the reply. Not even a name. Just a number. Then commands were barked out as in Gauthier's Ballet 101: "fall", "recover", "feel the space". Vanessa threw herself around the stage with considerable grace disappearing in what appeared to be a shower of lemons.
Next came Page 24 by Carmen Vasquez Marfil to music by Paganini and Arvo Pärt. A solo work by the choreographer with an outsize chair as a single prop and a screen upon which appeared images of the dancer. Clad in a simple flowing dress Marfil seemed to interrogate first the chair as though it were alive and then the screen. I see from my programme notes that film was made by Ana Zamorano and Prentice Whitlow. Now I know Prentice. He is a hugely talented and impressive dancer who can now add filmmaking to his catalogue of accomplishments but I don't know Ana Zamorani. So I googled her. The only Ana Zamorano that I could find was the author of a children's book called A Comer about a family with a little girl called Alicia who looks and is dressed very like Carmen in this performance. Now I may be barking up quite the wrong tree (in which case apologies all round) but this fascinating piece made me think very much of growing up. Just like Alicia in Zamorano's story.
The first Act was rounded off by Vanessa Vince-Pang's Kerenza which was my favourite piece of the evening. The stage was full of joyful energetic young people who are the pre-vocational students of Phoenix Dance Academy. A few movements from the piece appear in the YouTube video that you can see above. I love the music which was written by Oliver Davis - or so my programme tells me. I felt uplifted as I do when I see anything by Chris Marney or Ernst Meisner. Kerenza and Elemontary have left me eager to see more work by Vanessa Vince-Pang.
Everyone I spoke to was excited by what we had seen but the best was yet to come in Act 2. The whole of that Act was devoted to a preview of Sharon Watson's Windrush which will be premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse in February. The piece was named after the Empire Windrush which carried 497 passengers - mainly young men of African heritage - from Jamaica at the invitation of the government to ease the post-war labour shortage. They were by no means the first Afro-Caribbean or African people to come to this country. Many others had studied here, served in two world wars or settled in great port cities like Cardiff and Liverpool. However, the Windrush is a symbol of an event of enormous significance for this country as it is of course for those who made the journey and their descendants.
Introducing the piece, Sharon told us that the work will be in two parts - first the preparation for the voyage and the voyage itself and then what happened upon their arrival. We saw the first part which was harrowing enough as it showed the separation of families. And as we know what happened afterwards - Notting Hill, Smethwick and Enoch Powell - the second part may not be a bundle of laughs either.
But, of course, this was not history but dance and I don't think I had ever seen, or would ever see, Phoenix dance better. But that was before I saw them perform Robert North's Troy Game. This is a work originally performed by men. It was created for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre in 1974 and has been staged by the Stuttgart Ballet, Scottish Ballet and many other companies. The performance that we saw last Sunday was restaged by Julian Moss for Phoenix, the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Phoenix Dance Academy and pupils of Harehills Modern School. The cast was twice as large as in the original show and, for the first time, there were women in the show.
Troy Game was the pièce de résistance in a glorious evening that included a solo by Darshan Singh Bhuller in his own work The Path, David Hughes's performance of Siobhan Davies's interpretation of L'Après Midi d'un Faune, Northern School of Contemporary Dance's Ocean, RJC Dance's Soca Jambiez and ACE Youth's State of Mind. There was poetry from Khadijah Ibrahim and tributes from the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Janet Smith, the Principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Peter Gruen and, of course, Sharon Watson.
Long though this review is it does not begin to do justice to the Nadine Senior Gala when we saw some splendid and unique things. Think of the last two paragraphs as an appetiser, folks. I shall review the gala properly just as soon as I can. I have seen some great dance over the last few weeks and I am burning to write about it all.