40 Years of Phoenix Dance Theatre

Birmingham REP
March 12, 2022

Founded by David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James, three young, black male dancers from Leeds in 1981, Phoenix Dance Theatre’s first professional performance took place the following year (for a total payment of just £10!). Despite many restarts under different artistic directors, each with their own ideas, it would go on to become one of the UK’s premier contemporary dance companies. It must have been quite a challenge to pick out just a handful of works representative of the company’s creativity and history across those four decades, but Artistic Director Dane Hurst has risen to the challenge with a very varied programme of five pieces.

40 Years of Phoenix opens with the powerful Signal (2004) by Henri Oguike. Inspired by the frenzy of the battlefield and set largely to the driving rhythms of Japanese taiko drums, the choreography moves effortlessly through solos, duets and ensemble sections. Initially danced to a backdrop of a venetian blind effect, but later against three large bowls of fire lit by one of the cast, the dance shows off the dancers’ strength and physicality. At times, whole bodies echo the percussion of the drums. Limbs slice through the air. There is much urgent running. But there are quieter, more reflective moments too.

Signal by Henri Oguike
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou

Harmonica Breakdown, set to blues music by Sonny Terry, was originally choreographed in 1938 by Jane Dudley and revived by Phoenix in 2008. The short but impactful solo (it’s less than four minutes), is a statement of the experience of ordinary African-American and white working-class people in the Great Depression of 1920s and1930s America. The work may be about struggle but it’s actually a rather uplifting piece that says as much about dignity and self-respect, exemplified by the superb Yuma Sylla’s stooping yet proud way of walking,

A change of mood brought the poignant and darkly funny Family (1992) by American choreographic duo Daniel Shapiro (who died of complications from prostate cancer in 2006) and Joanie Smith, who still continues as the sole artistic director of Shapiro & Smith Dance. Family, the couple’s first ensemble work, it’s about as accessible as contemporary dance gets.

The work considers the dysfunctional relationship between parents, children and other family members, who jostle for the occupancy of the single rather comfy-looking if slightly battered. armchair around which it all takes place. It is generally light and easy-going with lots of simple but effective acrobatics, all superbly timed, although there are darker moments that hint at rejection and even violence. Aaron Chaplin stood out as the Father, who, one felt, didn’t quite ‘understand’ the rest of the clan.

Pave Up Paradise by Ben Duke and Raquel Meseguer of Lost Dog
(pictured: Shawn Willis and Natalie Alleston)
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou

My personal favourite of the evening was Pave Up Paradise, a very early work by Ben Duke and Raquel Meseguer of Lost Dog that I first saw them perform at a choreographers’ showcase evening at the Rambert School back in 2004; a programme, by the way, that also featured a piece called Fragments, a first work by a certain Hofesh Shechter. I wonder what happened to him.

Inspired by the story of Adam and Eve, (it’s set after they have been ejected from the Garden of Eden), Pave Up Paradise is a compelling and witty duet full of what would become Duke’s trademark theatre meets dance, text meets movement and music approach. The Bible story on which it’s based may be epic, but the work hones in on the two individuals (played by Charlie Naylor and Melina Sofocleous), their love, guilt and sexuality. As well as feeling very personal, it feels very ordinary. They are regular people going through human emotions. The slight graininess of Andrew ‘DREUW’ Burke live music (acoustic arrangements of compositions by The Strokes, Jeff Buckley and Gomez, adds yet another layer.

The final work of 40 Years of Phoenix takes us from restaging to recreation, and an updated version of ex-Phoenix director, Darshan Singh Bhuller’s 1993 piece, Heart of Chaos. Inspired by the story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American to become World Heavyweight Boxing champion (1908-1915), and widely considered to be one of the greatest fighters of all time, it’s a cinematic work set largely to jazz music by Wynton Marsalis.

Aaron Chaplin as Jack Johnson and Melina Sofocleous as Etta Terr Duryea Johnson in Heart of Chaos
Photo Fonteni Christofilopoulou

Chaplin as Johnson and Matthew Topliss as Jim Jeffries, former world champion seen as the ‘Great White Hope’ and who came out of retirement to unsuccessfully challenge Johnson, look every bit the part. Their footwork and fast punches as they dart around each other prove that, in its own way, boxing is like a dance, just one with a decidedly violent side to it. The choreography really does flow.

Between the boxing, there are strong hints of the turbulent relationship between Johnson and his Brooklyn-socialite wife, Etta Terr Duryea Johnson, played by Sofocleous. Beaten several times by him and suffering from depression, she killed herself with a revolver in 1912. She and the ensemble also act as cheerleaders, egging on the two men in dance that frequently references the Charleston (in the original, they waltzed).

It was a fine way to end a fine evening. An evening of British contemporary dance at its best.

40 Years of Phoenix continues on tour to the end of May 2022. Visit www.phoenixdancetheatre.co.uk for dates, venues and booking links.