Life begins at 30 for Phoenix

THE story of Phoenix is now so complex and – as they celebrate entering their fourth decade – now so old, it has become the stuff of Leeds legend.

Many names have come and gone. Aside from the founding fathers and the likes of Nadine Senior who nurtured so much of the talent that went on to forge the contemporary dance company, there have been a few outstanding artistic directors along the way.

Most recently, Darshan Singh Buller's arrival appeared to bring an end to a bleak period for the organisation, while the controversy surrounding the tenure of Javier de Frutos sparked another crisis.

But Sharon Watson, who has held the top job for almost two years, has been a more unassuming presence since Phoenix was forged back in 1981. yet she's one of the company's most influential.

Born and raised in the city, she attended Harehills Middle school and joined the Harehills Youth Dance Theatre where she met with the aforementioned Senior and, when she was barely a teenager, started working with the guys from Phoenix.

Although it would be another eight years before she came to be employed directly for the company she was always inspired by their formation.

Sharon said: "The story I recall David Hamilton sharing with me was that he went to London to train for a year and he wasn't doing the work he set out to do. So basically he called in two of his mates to start their own company.

"Because they were just starting to get established they toured with the our youth dance theatre to get their profile built up.

"It makes me feel very special, I think I've been blessed not least because my contact with the company has come and gone, it could have been anyone really.

"What these three guys did back then was just amazing, you know, there wasn't a lot going on in Leeds then. There were lots of kids on the streets but there wasn't a lot of culture, so it was a very interesting beginning.

"And seeing black men like that, striving to make things happen at that time. You know, there were riots and all sorts going on and as the first of a new generation in Britain there was this cultural questioning and the company was the right thing to have grown out of that."

Throughout the 80s Phoenix continued to garner a reputation as a genuinely challenging contemporary dance company.

They featured on the South Bank Show and eventually moved from a base in Chapeltown to the heart of Leeds.

For much of the decade though they were also seen as a predominantly black, male organisation.

That started to change when, at the age of 22 Sharon came to Phoenix. From there the company started to broaden its scope further, right up to today when it is more mixed than it has ever been.

"When I came in '89 they really wanted to introduce women to the company." recalls Sharon, now 43. "Women had worked with the company before but they frequently came and went.

"As for the racial element, well, David always argued that they were just three men who happened to be black and we very quickly started taking in people from many different backgrounds.

"And that has continued right up to today where Phoenix is a multi-cultural company in every way. And there was once a time when I never thought we would be so mixed, but I'm glad to see that we are. We've matured."

Part of the maturing process has been reaffirming what Phoenix stands for. Sharon struggles to put their raison d'etre into words, but she knows what it isn't.

Under the leadership of Javier de Frutos the company produced several works which were considered too avant garde and, more importantly, not terribly Phoenix.

Explicit imagery in some performances seemed to typify a sensationalist approach at odds with the company's origins. This led to the last artistic director's departure under something of a cloud and the company went dark until Sharon came along in 2009.

"There was a change when Javier de Frutos came in, and a radical change which just didn't work. He was a great director but his vision was not of this company. It also radically changed the leadership which was left void for a while.

"In a way, everything worked out in my favour. There's something different about my journey through this, I know what works. I've helped to shape things and Phoenix shaped me.

"I think the thing to realise is that this company will always be bigger than the individuals within it. I know from my close experience that it just doesn't work the other way round."

As Phoenix moves into a new gleaming building and starts to face a future where companies must be more robust, there's a sense that Sharon and the team are creating a 21st century organisation which has evolved from humble beginnings.

They have overcome the turbulent years and been reborn as a more diverse body appealing to a broader audience. As a result the artistic director is confident that the much talked about review of arts spending won't result in them closing.

"Although sometimes I cant quite believe we're still here, I feel we've earned the right to be here. I think we're good value for money and we've been a part of really achieving something in Leeds.

"Now when people in the arts world and beyond talk about dance outside of London they talk about this city and that's because of organisations like the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Northern ballet and because of Phoenix.

"We are THE contemporary dance organisation for the north of England and that's an incredible thing to be able to say. So I would be gutted, and it would be a tragedy, if those who funded us felt we shouldn't go on. We should."

Instead they are looking to the future which begins with celebrating their past. Next week they will stage three performances of Reflected.

The varied bill includes two world premieres of two new dance works, Richard Wherlock's sensual and vibrant Switch and a new piece by Watson herself. There's also the UK premiere of Philip Taylor's What It Is and a welcome return for audience favourite Pave Up Paradise.

But beyond this year's celebrations Sharon has long term plans, part of those plans is the development of a school feeding local dance talent directly into the company, offering young people the opportunities and inspiration she received 30 years ago.

Although all arts organisations currently face an uncertain future, Phoenix refuses to consider death row, preferring to exploit their new lease of life to the max.

"I absolutely feel like that," says Sharon. "We have been reborn and we now want to bring our baby birds up as well as retaining our old feathers.

"We have develop a viable business, one that is creative and puts bums on seats. It's not about selling out it's about providing people with choices. You can't please everyone all of the time but we ought to offer as many people as possible something they appreciate.

"It's essentially about going back to doing what we did when we started out 30 years ago and focusing on dance – and that's how we'll move forward over the next 30 years as well."

From Wed to Sat, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill, Leeds, 7.30pm, 16 to 26. Tel: 0113 2137700.

The rise of the company

The Phoenix Dance Company was formed in Leeds in 1981 by David Hamilton (artistic director), Donald Edwards and Vilmore James.

These three young men had their enthusiasm for dance sparked by the tuition they received from teachers, Nadine Senior at Harehills Middle School and John Auty at Intake High School.

Senior pioneered an inclusive, creative approach to dance teaching, which built on students' strengths. She also taught more than 30 students who went on to pursue professional dance careers, including Phoenix's former artistic director, Darshan Singh Bhuller.

In 1981, Senior went on to found the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, and following her retirement in 2001, became Chair of Phoenix's Board of Trustees.

Initially, the three members of Phoenix performed mainly in education settings. However, their fresh approach to contemporary dance won them support among audiences and critics and they quickly built a following beyond their home city.

By the summer of 1982, Phoenix had danced in London's Battersea Arts Festival and acquired two other dancers, Merville Jones and Edward Lynch, also from Harehills in Leeds.

By 1983, Phoenix had acquired an administrator and the backing of the Arts Council of Great Britain and in 1984, a company technician and driver was appointed.

Colin Poole joined from the Laban Centre, London, in 1985 and an assistant administrator was appointed. In 1987, Neville Campbell joined Phoenix as artistic director; this appointment marked a major expansion of the company and repertoire.

In the same year, Phoenix moved out of Chapeltown and established a permanent base at Yorkshire Dance in Leeds city centre.

In summer 1987, Merville Jones and Colin Poole left and at this point Neville decided to increase the number of dancers. Douglas Thorpe, Gary Simpson and Junior Edwards joined the company.

In 1989, the company secured funding for Phoenix Plus, enabling four female dancers to join, giving Phoenix a new dimension and opening up larger audiences. The new tour was an enormous success and in 1990, the company became a permanent 10 dancer, middle-scale outfit.

In 1990, Phoenix won the Grand Prize at the International Choreographic Competition in Bagnolet for Aletta Collins's piece Gang of Five and was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for the Most Outstanding Achievement of the Year in Dance.

By 1991, Phoenix had again taken a new direction; Neville Campbell left to pursue a freelance career as a choreographer and teacher and in October, Margaret Morris was appointed as artistic director.

By 1993, Phoenix had grown to become an internationally renowned performance company crossing cultures and communities.

In 1995, the company travelled to America and Europe as well as working extensively both in the Yorkshire and Humber region and Britain.

By 1997, Phoenix had appointed a new artistic director, Thea Nerissa Barnes. With further changes afoot in 1998 and new funding for education, Dawn Holgate (education director) and Stephen Derrick (education officer) began to develop and install a five-year education strategy.

The year 2000 brought a new executive director: Jaqui Mckoy and new education officer Tracy Witney. It also brought a fallow period for the company, which was off the dance scene for two years, during which it could have been consigned to history.

That changed in 2002 when the company appointed the highly regarded Darshan Singh Bhuller as artistic director.

He turned the company's fortunes around drastically during his four-year tenure. In his time he commissioned eight new works from established and young choreographers and personally choreographed three new pieces.

In August 2006, Javier De Frutos became Phoenix Dance Theatre's sixth artistic director, but left after just two years.

PARTNERSHIP: Rob Cowling and Paddy Sturman of Irwin Mitchell with Robin Hawkes of West Yorkshire Playhouse. Photo: Anthony Robling.

Five-year sponsorship deal for Leeds’s £14m West Yorkshire Playhouse redevelopment