Arts interview: Ben Mitchell

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He’s worked in one of the world’s most exciting cities, but as young dancer Ben Mitchell explains to Yvette Huddleston it’s great to be in Leeds again.

As Phoenix Dance premiere their new mixed programme at West Yorkshire Playhouse next week, there is one dancer in the company who is delighted to be performing in his home city again.

Leeds-raised Ben Mitchell, who trained at the Royal Ballet School and then worked with Northern Ballet for six years, recently joined Phoenix Dance after spending time in Brazil working with the internationally acclaimed Deborah Colker Dance Company in Rio de Janeiro. Now he is, temporarily, living back with his parents in Meanwood – and loving it. He admits that adjusting to life in Brazil was “really hard” and while it was a fantastic, fulfilling experience professionally, personally it made sense for him to come back to Yorkshire.

“I decided that as much as I loved the company and what they were doing – and the dancers were incredible – being away from Leeds and my family was maybe not the right thing for me. I just feel at peace here. Leeds is such an exciting city artistically – with two really great dance companies.”

On his return he got in touch with Sharon Watson, artistic director of Phoenix whose work he had always admired – and the timing was perfect. There was a space for him in the company so he started working with them in June last year. “Sharon is doing a great job and she is taking Phoenix to a really exciting place,” says Mitchell. “She is working with lots of different choreographers which keeps things fresh not just for the dancers but the audience too. She is really passionate about what she does and working for a director who is so passionate and cares about her dancers makes you want to come in every day.”

The dancers have been working for several months on the new mixed programme which features four pieces, a double bill by one of the dance world’s leading figures Christopher Bruce – Shadows created specifically for the company and Shift, a restaging of his energetic study of life in the 1940s – plus two world premieres, TearFall by Sharon Watson and New Adventures choreographer Caroline Finn’s Bloom, a comedy of manners centring on a dinner party that examines the various facades that people adopt in different social situations.

The preparation for and creation of TearFall, Watson’s third piece for the company, included a fascinating collaboration between the arts and science. Working in partnership with the Wellcome Trust and University of York academic Professor Sir John Holman the company explored the biochemical make-up of tears and how their appearance and molecular structure is affected by different emotional states.

“It was really interesting to sit down with a scientist and listen to what he had to say about it,” says Mitchell. “That gave us new ways of thinking on how we could develop our choreography. The scientific and human aspect of tears is such a complex thing to get across, but Sharon was really open to ideas and suggestions from the dancers – and because we all experience tears and emotions in different ways, that really enriches the piece.”

For some of the dancers who are beginning to develop their choreography practice this was a really useful process and it is all part of Phoenix’s commitment to nurturing and encouraging the next generation of top-class choreographers and artistic directors. “I’m just putting my toes in the water at the moment,” says Mitchell, “but it is something I would like to explore a bit more.”

In the meantime he is thoroughly enjoying what he is doing with Phoenix. “We feel like a family,” he says. “We are more than just colleagues. There is a genuine care for each other and we all inspire each other in our work. The standard of the company is really exceptional – we keep each other striving for more.”

West Yorkshire Playhouse, February 11-14. Tickets 0113 213 7700 or www.wyp.org.uk

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