Getting to the age of 40 is definitely cause for a song and dance, when you are Phoenix Dance Theatre the latter part of that duo is bound to be something special, and it is!

I had seen Phoenix Dance Theatre only once before and that was as half of a double bill with Opera North of Leonard Bernstein compositions. The work was West Side Story Symphonic Dances and was spectacular. When I was invited to see this current show celebrating 40 years of the company I jumped at the chance, although nowhere near as high as the performers. The programme was curated by Phoenix’s Artistic Director, Dane Hurst, and comprised works performed over the years by the company.

As is always the case at all the best birthday celebrations, things do not always go to plan and this was the case on Wednesday night when one of the pieces had to be cut due to the lead dancer injuring themself during rehearsal. This did mean, however, that unlike the worst parties, there would be no fighting as the axed dance was called Heart of Chaos and concerned the first African-American World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.

Although we were not informed of the injured party’s name, I assume it to have been Aaron Chaplin, the person listed as dancing the renown boxer. The upside of the situation was that replacement dancer, Charlie Nayler was given the opportunity to step into the other roles assigned to the casualty. It was not until after the show that I worked out who the substitute was as I had approached it with my normal open mind as to what I was supposed to be seeing, thus ignoring the programme notes until I began writing this review. Now that I am better informed I must say that Charlie Nayler acquitted himself so well that I would never have guessed that anyone was an understudy had I not been told.

Signal. Picture by Foteini Christofilopoulou.

The evening began with a work called Signal, choreographed by Henri Oguike, from 2004. It was performed to the rhythms of Japanese Taiko drums which were amplified to 11 on the volume control in order that the vibrations could be felt to hit the dancers in the chest. There were three cauldrons at the back of the stage which were lit by one of the dancers, thus providing a fiery backdrop. It was a very physical piece and seemingly full of conflict interspersed with quieter moments. The sections included duets as well as full ensemble parts. I found this to be more visceral than narrative and was a great way to start the programme. The red and black costumes were designed by Elisabeth Baker-King with atmospheric lighting by Lucy Carter.

Yuma Sylla in Harmonica Breakdown. Picture by Foteini Christofilopoulou.

The second dance, and I must say my favourite of the evening, was Harmonica Breakdown from 2007. It lasted a mere three and a half minutes but said so much in that time. The music was the song of the same name performed by Blues legend Sonny Terry, who was renown for adding ‘whoops’ to his guitar and harmonica playing. The choreography was by Jane Dudley and danced by Yuma Sylla. The performance screamed ‘struggle’ and was so evocative of the Dustbowl era of early 20th Century America when people were fighting a losing battle against the elements, especially the winds which were literally blowing the soil off their farms in the Mid-west. The costume, designed by Jane Dudley and realised by Sasha Keir, was minimalist but bang on.

I found the way that Yuma Sylla walked across the stage to be absolutely incredible. The manner in which she held her body in a kind of half strut and half stoop summed up pride battling against the setbacks. The more athletic parts were also superb.

Shawn Willis and Natalie Alleston in Pave Up Paradise. Picture by Foteini Christofilopoulou.

After the interval we were treated to a more amusing offering, Pave Up Paradise (2004) which had extra elements in that the two characters had lines of speech to deliver, and they were accompanied by a live musician on stage – Andrew Burke on guitar – playing works by The Strokes, Jeff Buckley and Gomez.

Pave Up Paradise was the updating of Adam and Eve with the characters succumbing to temptation and then realising that they have probably made a monumental mistake. This was a two-hander featuring Charlie Nayler and Melina Sofocleous. As you might deduce from the caption on the above photograph, the dancers alternate during the tour. I suppose that there is only so much temptation a dancer can endure without it taking a toll.

Compared to the first two dances it was lighthearted but equally demanding of the performers. The choreography was by Raquel Meseguer Zafe and Ben Duke with costume design from Lost Dog, who were also responsible for the lighting with Ed Railton. This was another most enjoyable piece.

The ensemble in Family. Picture by Foteini Christofilopoulou.

To end the evening’s show there was one of Phoenix’s earlier works, Family from 1992. This dance revolved around a large armchair which acts as a refuge and bone of contention for the family. The music was Wendy by Kamikaze Ground Crew and Mi Refugio from Astor Piazzola with choreography by Daniel Shapiro and Joanie Smith and lighting realised by Phoenix Dance Theatre.

The interaction between the dancers was incredible, they were throwing themselves in perfect synchronisation across and upon the chair meaning many ‘near misses’. There was the repeated ejection from, and occupation of, the chair by various family members and a motif of the forced head banging of one member by another. No matter how I tried I could not erase the vision of the video for Our House by Madness from my mind, although Family was a lot more sophisticated, not difficult!

As a newcomer I have not yet learned the language of dance but that doesn’t prevent me from both appreciating the art form and enjoying it, albeit on a superficial level. I liken it to watching a French film with no subtitles. I have a knowledge of the language from my GCE ‘O’ Level days in the 1960s so can follow the story, but nothing like enough to grasp every nuance and nicety. Should I get a future invitation I will read the programme first and hopefully become more fluent.

Meanwhile I would like to thank Phoenix for my invitation to the party and wish them all the best for the future. In the words of that old record by Sophie Tucker, Life Begins at 40, so there is everything to look forward to. Sophie can provide the song and Phoenix the dance.

To watch trailers for the dances and read about the history of Phoenix Dance Theatre please go to https://www.phoenixdancetheatre.co.uk/news/new-40-years-of-phoenix-trailers/

To book for this programme on Thursday, 10th or Friday, 11th February click on https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/40-years-of-phoenix/ or, for the very special Phoenix Dance Theatre: 40th Birthday Celebration Gala, go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/phoenix-dance-theatre-40th-birthday-celebration-gala/ but hurry as places are limited.

Feature image from Leeds Playhouse

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