Artistic Director: Sharon Watson
Choreography: Christopher Bruce CBE, Sharon Watson, Caroline Finn
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Phoenix Dance Theatre were formed in Leeds in 1981 and have a varied and colourful past. Since taking the helm as Artistic Director in 2009, Sharon Watson has refocused the company on delivering an ambitious mix of new work in collaboration with diverse choreographers with choice selections from the company’s repertoire, with the aim of establishing them as the UK’s leading mid-size contemporary company. For the 2015 season Watson delivers a mixed programme of four brand-new works, two from Christopher Bruce CBE, her own new work and a prize-commission from New Adventures Choreographer Award-winner Caroline Finn.
The programme opens with the two Christopher Bruce pieces, which are presented as separate but opening piece Shift ultimately benefits from being contextualised with the second, Shadows. Shift is a simple piece strongly evocative of WWII armaments factories, with its 1940s costuming and women’s headscarves, and the movement, which is an accumulation of machine-operating gestures with flashes of social dancing, rooted in ballet-based contemporary dance, set to an energetic score by Kenji Bunch – all vigorous violin and mechanical piano. Enthusiastically danced, on its own it is enjoyable enough but reminiscent of the kind of work Rambert have often been keen on – period-costumed; vaguely narrative; as balletic as it is modern; gendered: safe and nostalgic.
Shift benefits in hindsight from Bruce’s next piece, Shadows. If Shift is unmistakably American in flavour, Shadows, set to Arvo Part’s gorgeous Fratres for Violin and Piano, is powerfully European in weight and shade. The similar-costuming clearly establishes this intimate drama in the same timeframe as Shift. Bruce’s view is that the work can be read literally or metaphorically but the staging and choreography seem inescapably to reference a group of people, a family, in a familiar place of waiting. Shadows has a haunting sense of inevitability and impending doom, exploring fractured relationships and emotions possible to express but not truly share. The choreography with its broken ballet and elegant staging is tightly danced with emotional compression by Ben Mitchell, Sandrine Monin, Vanessa Vince-Pang and Sam Vaherlehto. The ending, with its sense of fearful uncertainty makes a clear distinction between life in wartime for ordinary people in America and occupied Europe. Shadows leaves a powerful impression. John B Read’s dark lighting enhances both works.
Sharon Watson’s new work is Tearfall, which explores the complex body science and emotional expression of tears. Having worked with scientists to inform the understanding and choreographic movement in its creation, it seems unnecessary to start with spoken text explaining the scientific make-up of tears (although Prentice Whitlow’s rich, velvety voice is divine), while the cast represent molecules in short, white bodysuits. After the science bit, Tearfall largely concentrates on the expression of tears: loss, longing, laughter, pain. Watson’s choreography, driven by the varied score by Kristian Steffes with additional music by Valgeir Sigurdsson, assisted by dramaturg Lou Cope, is expansive and varied, with lovely solos and duets by Ben Mitchell and Sandrine Monin and Vanessa Vince-Pang and Sam Vaherlehto, and Carmen Vazquez Marfil. The staging is sparse and elegant with evocative use of balloons mirrored by Yaron Abulafia’s exquisite scattering of pendant lights and smoky lighting. Tearfall contains some moments of real power, and subtlety.
Finally comes Bloom, by New Adventures Choreographer Award-winner Caroline Finn, who is British but Munich-based and little-known in the UK. Bloom is extravagantly staged and costumed with beautiful and distinctive choreography, wonderfully performed by the company, especially Vince-Pang and Vazquez Marfil. However the concept, which appears to be an ambitious marriage of Pina Bausch drenched with Cirque du Soleil, is baffling and infuriatingly theatrical, arch and whimsical. The choreography has impressive moments and some genuine firepower but Bloom is ultimately a hollow experience, although inevitably it received the most enthusiastic audience response.
Phoenix continue to reignite. Following the recent departures of well-established and much-loved company dancers, Andreas Grimaldier, the increasingly-impressive Sandrine Monin, Carmen Vazquez Marfil, Vanessa Vince-Pang and Sam Vaherlehto have all blossomed and now give Phoenix a solid core; newer dancers and apprentices add further promise.
Always striving rarely boring, Phoenix endures, with a stronger 2015 programme than 2014.