40 Years of Phoenix

Phoenix Dance Theatre
York Theatre Royal

Aaron Chaplin, Alabama Seymour, Shawn Willis, Reynaldo Santos and Natalie Alleston in 40 Years of Phoenix ('Signal') Credit: Foteini Christofilopoulou
Yuma Sylla in 40 Years of Phoenix ('Harmonica Breakdown') Credit: Foteini Christofilopoulou
Aaron Chaplin and Matthew Topliss in 40 Years of Phoenix ('Heart of Chaos') Credit: Foteini Christofilopoulou

Phoenix Dance was founded in Leeds in 1981 by a group of three young black dancers, David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James. Over the four decades and eight artistic directors that followed, the company has grown from its small-scale, local roots to become one of the premier companies in the country, touring nationally and internationally and building a significant repertoire of work.

This retrospective selection, curated by current artistic director Dane Hurst, cannot hope to represent the full breadth of that history—works from the first decade of the company’s existence were only patchily documented and most remain only in tantalising photographs, some of which are reproduced in the programme. But the pieces presented are a delightful cross-section of powerful, humorous, and athletic works.

While the choice congregates around a period of intense creativity between 2000 and 2010, it manages to reflect a longer lineage of dance: the remarkable "Harmonica Breakdown" was originally choreographed in 1938 by Jane Dudley and revived by Phoenix in 2008. And the show gestures to contemporary times, too, with an also stunning updated take on 1993’s "Heart of Chaos".

The evening broadly moves from the most abstract to more narrative works, reflecting to some extent the evolution of the company itself, which in 2002 added "Theatre" to its name. It starts with "Signal", a vigorous ensemble piece set to the intense sound of Taiko drumming. Swooping circles of bodies ebb and flow as the choreography shifts from unison to duets, moments of synchronicity and apparent chaos, offering intense, sinuous physical shapes and full-body gestures which invite interpretation even while resisting it.

Next comes the aforementioned "Harmonica Breakdown", a solo work performed with focus and control by dancer Yuma Sylla. Responding to Sonny Terry’s looping, hypnotic piece of music of the same name, "Harmonica Breakdown" uses effortful but everyday gestures which are made strange by their repeating patterns and mechanical qualities. These are juxtaposed with moments of wilder abandon, to paint a picture of repression and rebellion amongst women—particularly black and working-class women—in America during the Great Depression. It is a short, compelling and remarkable historical artefact which still speaks to us today; for me, it was the memorable highlight of the night.

Reintroducing almost the full ensemble, the last piece before the interval, "Family", brings levity in the form of a domestic set-up, as a group of dancers assemble themselves on, around and over a single armchair in constantly shifting dynamics, as if jostling for position in the family portrait. Not without its darker moments of rejection and violence, this is nonetheless the lightest of the works presented, and we see the sheer imaginative range of combinations and configurations that can emerge around a single simple prop.

Following the interval is "Pave Up Paradise", the only piece with spoken text, which shows us the roots of ideas that choreographers Ben Duke and Raquel Meseguer would go on to develop in their work with their own company, Lost Dog. Like the later paradise lost (lies unopened beside me), "Pave Up Paradise" weaves Biblical themes—of forgiveness, responsibility and guilt—into a contemporary setting, and treats the epic as the interpersonal. The live soundtrack, provided by an on-stage musician, evokes the indie hits of the era of its first performance, though I found the guitar sounds themselves—aiming to replicate a busker’s impromptu backing—gratingly tinny in comparison to the rich scores of other sections of the show.

The final piece, "Heart of Chaos", offers a fitting climax. Originally choreographed in 1993 by Darshan Singh Bhuller, it has been extensively reworked by him, so the evening dress and ballroom dancing of the original become flapper outfits and Charleston-inspired moves. In both original and new versions, the movement vocabulary thus draws on popular dance of yesteryear, juxtaposed with more contemporary physicality—as well as the explosive athleticism of boxing. The set shows a corner and two sides of a boxing ring, and hosts two male fighters as they exchange fierce-seeming blows and occasional moments of respite. They are surrounded, lauded and goaded on by women, who are sometimes exuberant, sometimes spectral. The aim of reworking the piece was to reflect the story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight champion. At a time of fierce, open racism, Johnson drew fire both for his enormous success as a boxer and for his relationships with white women. This performance hints at the attention and aggression he faced, but ultimately sees Johnson (Aaron Chaplin) emerging defiant from the fight and the flashbulbs of press attention.

Overall, then, this is a varied, energised selection of works embracing a range of styles and histories, danced with commitment by this talented and flexible troupe. In "Signal", flames rise from the fire-pits lined up along the back of the stage—an apt image for a phoenix continuing to rise and reinvent itself, ushering in new talent while honouring the past.

Reviewer: Mark Smith

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