Book Review: ‘Dancing the Black Question: The Phoenix Dance Company Phenomenon'
Author: Christy Adair
Publisher: Dance Books, England; Date: 2007
Reviewer: ‘Funmi Adewole Kruczkowska
Phoenix Dance Company has become something of a theatrical dance legend. All black, all male and all from Leeds, the original company, founded in 1981, sent ripples of excitement through the contemporary dance world. The founding trio, David Hamilton, Villmore James and Donald Edwards, soon joined by Merville Jones and Edward Lynch presented a choreography which was infused with Reggae, and informed by their bond as black men and engagement with their communities. They quickly achieved critical acclaim. They appeared to herald a new era at a time of race riots and politicized art. In the aptly entitled ‘Dancing the Black Question: The Phoenix Dance Company Phenomenon’, Christy Adair explains why the company was viewed as a paradox in spite of its success and continued to be viewed as such even after the founding artists left.
Famous for refusing the label ‘black dance’, Phoenix insisted on being described as a contemporary dance company. Their position would have startled sections of the black arts movement let alone the Arts council. They however were committed to their local community and drew inspiration from Reggae dance and music. Ambiguous as this might have seemed it is understandable considering their early dance experiences and their background. They were very active in the Youth groups at Harehills Middle School and Intake High School where dance was considered to be an important part of the curriculum. The community dance movement’s use of Laban theories promoted an idea of contemporary dance that was open to cultural influences and which allowed children from differing backgrounds work together creatively. Through interviews with Adair we find the founders of Phoenix did this with gusto, drawing on their ‘home culture’ in Chapeltown, Leeds where they grew up encouraged to dance and surrounded by narratives of their elders’ migration to Britain.
The Company’s aesthetics which was underpinned by these early dance experiences were at odds with the procedures and policies they had to abide by once they began to receive Arts Council funding. Adair’s conclusion is that the Arts Council’s policies of the time undermined the company. The company was expected to conform to what the Arts council considered to be the ‘norm’ in spite of the fact that the company’s origins, audience, remit was not ‘normative’. This effectively turned it into a site for the struggle between established and new notions of Britishness and ways of being.
‘Dancing the Black Question’ is a great contribution to Dance and Cultural studies. It provides a frame of reference for analysing artistic works that are often left out of the discourse of ‘dance as art’ because they do not continue in the vein of established theatrical dance narratives. The socio-cultural backdrop and historical context Adair constructs deepens the discussion around the aesthetics of British contemporary dance and how as a genre it relates to and reflects social dynamics.
The book traces the history of the company up to 2001 covering the introduction of women to the company and including the views of popular dancers such as Pamela Johnson and Sharon Donaldson. It also explores the challenges faced by three successive artistic directors - Neville Campbell, Margret Morris and Thea Barnes. A section of the book provides a critique of how the reviewers described the company and their reaction to the ‘dancing black body’. The appendices are full of leads for prospective researchers - the Company’s choreochronicle from 1981 to 2001, information on the dancers who performed with the company during this period, documents from the company’s archives and a selection of reviews. The book achieves its aim. It rescues the story from the mists of urban legend and its existence as a chip on the shoulder of the black community and acknowledges its contribution to British dance history.