Artistic Director: Sharon Watson
Choreography: Sharon Watson, Richard Alston, Douglas Thorpe, Jose Agudo
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Phoenix Dance Theatre has the expressed aim of being the leading middle-scale dance company in the UK. Proudly based in the north – Leeds to be exact – Artistic Director Sharon Watson, appointed in 2009, reinstated the company’s policy of creating diverse mixed programmes of work by new and established choreographers. Recent tours have seen a mix of brand new work, recent favourites and selected classics from the company’s extensive repertoire – they formed in 1981. This new show, Particle Velocity, makes the bold move of presenting four brand new pieces of work, although the ethos of supporting new and established choreographers is well maintained.
The show opened with All Alight, a new work by one of the UK’s most respected choreographers, Richard Alston, who only occasionally creates work for companies outside his own. Alston’s choreography takes a classical approach to contemporary dance and is generally accessible and appealing. His work is characterised by a detailed focus on musicality and movement, so sometimes the nature of the work is determined as much by the choice of music that it is set to as to any tendency on Alston’s part to create bold or innovative new styles. On this occasion he has taken a lead from the individual and distinctive performers within Phoenix’s ranks – they are a company blessed with an ability to allow and encourage individuality and personality.
For All Alight, Alston has chosen Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, and while much of the piece is immediately identifiable as typical of Alston’s work – light, lyrical, flowing – the music contains elements of darkness and drama that encourages some interesting sections, notably the duet between the generally wonderful Josh Wille and Azzurra Ardovini and a beautiful trio between Phil Sanger, Glenn Graham and Jitka Tumova. The piece is recognisably Alston through and through but contains some unexpected interest that makes it a delightful opener to the programme.
The middle section of Particle Velocity boldly features a solo, KI, choreographed by Jose Agudo and performed by Josh Wille, and a duo, Tender Crazy Love, choreographed by Douglas Thorpe and performed by Phil Sanger (surely the cornerstone of Phoenix’s performing troupe) and Sandrine Monin. Ki is based on the idea of the young warrior that became Genghis Khan. It is a ten-minute piece of growing intensity set to a building, looping soundtrack by Vinz. The martial arts-inflected choreography has echoes of Akram Kahn, Ohad Naharin and Hofesh Shechter, and is a compelling demonstration of strength, focus and control, masterfully performed by the charismatic Josh Wille; he starts off intensely introverted before working to an electrifying explosion of physical realisation.
Lighting by Andy Waddington and costume by Lorna Clayton give the piece added intensity and sense of place. Tender Crazy Love is very different and an expected delight. An exploration of an intense relationship driven by desire and conflict set to a Tarantino-esque medley of classics and silence, Tender Crazy Love is tightly and vividly choreographed, intensely focused, physical, passionate and wonderfully realised by Sanger and especially Sandrine Monin, who seems utterly submerged in the piece. Waddington and Clayton’s lighting and costumes add to the dark sense of corrupted normality.
Finally, the company presented a new work by Sharon Watson herself, created in collaboration with composer Kenneth Hesketh and performed by Psappha – Repetition of Change. This work is an examination of DNA and the ‘complexities of our genetic code’. With its forensic scientific concept the expected impression was one of cool modernity and strange precision, but the fabric set design by Becs Andrews, Lorna Andrews’ bold and flowing tunic costumes, Andy Waddington’s dark lighting and Hesketh’s rather hard-to-like, jagged contemporary classical soundtrack created a sense of something much more organic and ancient. A sense of expectations confused. The movement was not without layers of interest and there were worthy moments but Repetition of Change seemed ultimately confused in expressing its intentions.
Phoenix continue to be ambitious and accomplished. They have an extremely attractive set of dancers – in talent and individual character and charisma – and a refreshing commitment to producing and presenting state of the art new work. Particle Velocity lost a little of its velocity by the end of the fourth piece but they remain a company worth seeing and supporting.