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Think piece…

Perceptions of the
Phoenix Dance Company Phenomenon 

By Christy Adair

My first memory of Phoenix Dance Company is hearing about a performance in 1983 at the International Dance Festival at Dartington College in Devon. I was intrigued.

The dancers presented work which drew on street jazz and contemporary dance - a significant contrast to the culture of release techniques and experimental choreography of the festival. The fact that they had engaged such an unlikely audience caught my attention.  

My interest in Phoenix Dance Company developed further ten years later when I began teaching at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and discovered the close connections between some of the people involved with the Company and the School. Phoenix evolved in the context of a society coming to terms with changes through cultural diversity and multiculturalism, rather than expressionist models of identity. In this article want to catch something of the historical moment, the formation and subsequent development of the Company.  My research reveals an emergence of a remarkable group of dancers from their testimonies and records through reviews and official documents.

I think the Company was unique in a number of ways both within contemporary dance and the wider artistic and cultural contexts in Britain.

The Company members were in their teens when they formed in 1981 and gained recognition very early in their careers through an established television arts programme, The South Bank Show, in 1984.

They were skilful performers but had not received the usual formal three year dance training1; based in the north of England at a time when the majority of dance activity was located in London. In addition, they were Black British men, who had known each other from childhood and came from a tight knit community, working in an art form which was associated with femininity (Adair, 1992). All of these features were unusual for a dance company and contributed to a story of success which became legendary.

Phoenix Dance Company was founded by David Hamilton,2 Villmore James and Donald Edwards who were joined by Merville Jones and Edward Lynch in 1982. They lived and had been educated in Leeds. They were young people of African-Caribbean heritage who were committed to dance education as well as dance performance. They started the Company because they wanted to dance and make dances, ‘We were young, we did what we had to do. It was more of a creative process. We wanted to express ourselves, so we did’. (Hamilton, 1997).

A significant means for Hamilton in his quest for expression was the use of reggae music as an accompaniment to some of the dance works, notably Forming of the Phoenix (1982) (Hamilton, 1997). Paul Gilroy (1993) analyses how reggae music drew together people of the Caribbean who had very different cultural and political histories. The role of reggae music for Hamilton was that it was an important aspect of his creation of dance works which had cultural significance.  ‘The interaction of the people makes up the group. Behind that is the core of the idea which is, like the mythical (Phoenix) bird, taking from itself to develop, it dies and everything takes place within itself' (Hamilton in Holgate, 1997).

An early work which Donald Edwards choreographed for the Company was Ritual for Death (1982). Merville Jones described the work as, ‘a male bonding piece’ (1997). He went on to say: Once, in Scotland we were doing a tour and we got so much stick for being black and racial abuse was flying around in the auditorium. I remember saying ok let’s go and get them […]. The experience for me was one of the most positive that we’d ever done (1997).

In the early years Phoenix enjoyed their success and the opportunities which came with it.

The Arts Council funding which they received, however, arguably contributed to a loss of some of the unique aspects of Phoenix. There was a tension between the requirements of an accountable government body, The Arts Council, and the creative self-management of a group of dancers who wanted to explore their own artistic interests and to share their skills in educational and community settings.

Some of the statements of Phoenix dancers who shared the founders' background, offer insight into the Company, which for the Arts Council became merely another ‘product’. Martin Hylton said, ‘Phoenix is home’ (1999). Hylton’s remark illustrates the importance of the Company to the dancers and to those with aspirations to dance with Phoenix.

The Company at that stage was a small scale company. By granting it funding, the Arts Council gained political credibility and was able to satisfy its own agenda as stated in The Glory of the Garden Report (1984). Unfortunately, the Council did not put any mechanisms in place to enable the artistic practices of the Company to develop and expand.

The Board were the managers and the artists, therefore, no longer directly managed their work and became employees of the Board. The initial vision and the dance making practices of the founders ceased at this point. The dancers were angry about the effects of this imposed structure and the Arts Council were not sufficiently reflective of their own practices and structures to support the Company’s choreographic beginnings (Edwards, 1998; Barnes, 18 January 2001).

When David Hamilton left the Company in 1987 and Neville Campbell directed it, there was a shift in focus including gender composition. In 1989 there was a change from an all male company to a male and female company which made Phoenix less unique in the sense that this is the familiar composition of a contemporary dance company; all-male companies are rare. The significance of incorporating women into the Company in such a context was clearly multi-layered and complex.

The founders viewed themselves as contemporary dancers but drew albeit sometimes unconsciously on their black subjectivities to inform their work. The description of a ‘black contemporary dance company’, however, came from the press, the funders and the management of the Company at specific times in its history.

Campbell’s drive was to establish Phoenix as a successful, middle scale, contemporary dance company without a label such as ‘a black dance company’ being attached to it.

His ambition was to reach the audiences in the larger venues. His approach to dance was influenced by his training at London Contemporary Dance School and he developed the technicality of the Company. Moreover, differences between Hamilton’s and Campbell’s choreography were identified in an interview with Campbell, conducted by Ramsay Burt in 1989. The early work tended to be constructed around the dancers’ physical qualities and incorporated their dynamism and vigour and Hamilton conveyed the ‘emotions of the people performing’ (in Holgate, 1997). This style was modified, with Campbell’s arrival, to express political and social issues of contemporary relevance. Whilst he developed the institutionalisation of the Company; building the Company so that it became a permanent, ten dancer organisation and bringing in more outside choreographers, it was Margaret Morris who built on their international success.

It seems that it was during Morris’ directorship there was overt acknowledgement of what was recorded in Company notes as the ‘Black British experience’ (2 March 1992: 2). Undoubtedly, this was partly because of the pressure she was under, from funders, critics and audiences, to justify her position as a white director who was also female, whose professional dance experience was primarily in the US. She was the exact opposite of what the Company was famous for - that is, black and male - which created identity problems which she had to unravel and attempt to solve.

Morris’ position was a difficult one not least because some of the dancers in 1991 wanted an all black Company and although the Black Arts Movement of the 1980s no longer had the same impact, there were legacies of those philosophies that leaked into expectations of the Company. She was attempting to lead a contemporary dance company without ignoring the political tensions of their perceived identity as a, ‘black dance company’.

In 1992 Morris invited Bebe Miller, an African American, to create a work for the Company. I was invited to review the world premiere of this work, Spartan Reels. This was my first introduction to Phoenix behind the scenes. I watched the Company in rehearsal and had an opportunity to speak to Miller about the working process. She was interested in choreographing for people she did not know and who had a different background to her own. She realised that Phoenix had a good deal to offer but were constrained by expectations of ‘the old Phoenix’.

This work was part of the repertoire when Thea Barnes became artistic director. Her desire to develop the Company artistically meant that she wanted to create a repertoire that would be diverse and allow the Company a fluid rather than fixed identity. A step towards this aim led to her decision to create a retrospective programme of excerpts of popular works from the Company repertoire.

This work enabled Barnes to stay within the budget and to satisfy artistic goals3. She came from a background of dancing in US dance companies where she suggested there was more familiarity with the concept that the ‘black dancing body’ Gottschild (2003) could dance a range of material. 

The retrospective provided the ground from which to depart from the past work of Phoenix and to take a new direction in which the repertoire deconstructed what the ‘black dancing body’ was symbolising  in performance (Barnes, 2 September 2004). She was attempting to subvert the tendency for the Company to be discussed only in terms of ethnicity which has been problematic throughout its history.
Barnes considered that the Phoenix of 1981 provided an inspiring model after the images of chaos and looting and of uprisings in the cities in Britain at that time and she had no wish to negate that legacy. She proposed, however, that whilst the past should be acknowledged it was important, ‘to be more concerned with developing a future’ (in Holgate, 1997: 36).

As Natasha Bakht pointed out in an article concerned with the difficulties of overcoming stereotyping, ‘Essentially, we are asking for the freedom to be unpredictable’ (1997: 9). These comments and arguments are concerned with artists' demands for recognition and cultural equity rather than being categorised under the label of cultural diversity. The latter term condemns the diverse to be diverse rather than to have equal rights to the same resources for cultural development. Despite Barnes insights the Company experienced a number of difficulties which resulted in its closure for a number of months.

Darshan Singh Bhuller was then appointed artistic director in 2002 after the Arts Council decided they did not want to lose a northern repertory company. Bhuller was a contemporary of the founders and studied at both Harehills Middle School and Intake High School, later training at London Contemporary Dance School and becoming a key dancer in London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

Like, Campbell and Barnes before him he wanted a more flexible image for the Company not fixed to ethnicity. He modelled the Company on LCDT and when he left in 2006 Phoenix was acknowledged to be a challenge to the other key British repertory Company Rambert (Craine, 2006).

Javier De Frutos now takes over from Bhuller and offers influences from his Venezulan background and his experiences as a solo artist and as choreographer for a range of companies.How De Frutos will develop Phoenix is yet to be seen but he will have to negotiate restrictive funding, issues of how artistic excellence is judged and stakeholders’ expectations of the Company.

The complex narrative of this repertory company and its development from a small scale regional company to an internationally acclaimed company has many interwoven strands. One of the paradoxes which the Company faced was that of the ‘burden of representation’ (Mercer, 1994).

The dancers were expected by the funding bodies, critics and audiences to be a community’.  Such expectations contained and constrained these artists who were expected to represent an imagined ethnicity.

The experience of Phoenix raises questions about the politically driven funding of contemporary dance in Britain and the implications for artistic development of funded companies. The issues raised above highlight the lack of reflection and insight of the funding bodies and the critics and have serious implications for any evolving Company and for the development of contemporary dance in Britain.

Dr. Christy Adair is Subject Leader for Dance at York St John University. She studied at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance and in addition to teaching in a number of higher education institutions has also facilitated dance and performance projects. Christy writes for a range of magazines and journals and is author of Women and Dance: sylphs and sirens (Macmillan, 1992). Her current research interests focus on gender and ethnicity in relation to dance studies and performance.

* Adair, C., 1992. Women and Dance: sylphs and sirens (Basingstoke: Macmillan)
* Arts Council of Great Britain, 1984. The Glory of the Garden Report (London: ACGB)
* Bakht, N., 1997. ‘Shobana Jeyasingh’ Rewriting the Culture Dance Theatre Journal, v. 13, n. 4, pp. 8-9
* Craine, D. 2006. ‘Rekindled Phoenix burns brightly’ The Times Online, 27 February
* Dixon Gottschild, B., 2003. The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool (Basingstoke: Palgrave)
* Gilroy, P., 1993. The Black Atlantic (London and New York: Verso).
* Holgate, D., 1997. Phoenix Dance: Resource/Study Pack (Leeds: Phoenix Dance Company)
* Mercer, K., 1994. Welcome to the Jungle (London and New York: Routledge)

Interviews and Personal Communications:
Thea Barnes 2001, 2006
Merville Jones, 1997
Donald Edwards, 1997, 1998
Company Documents (from uncatelogued archive PA),
David Hamilton, 1997
Company Notes 2 March, 1992
Martin Hylton, 1999

1. Merville Jones stated in an article in Animated, ‘I decided to work with Phoenix for a year whilst I was at school […] I decided that if I wanted to continue with dance, the best way was to stay with Phoenix and not go into vocational training’ (in Taylor, 1997: 13). This comment indicates the confidence the young dancers had in their ability to gain the physical skills they needed for performance without undergoing the typical three year training. Such training was offered at London Contemporary Dance School and included daily technique classes in Graham technique and choreography classes.
2. David Hamilton’s equity name was Leo Hamilton and he is frequently referred to as Leo.
3. Part of Barnes’ vision was for the dancers to continue to benefit by retaining their fifty two week, yearly contracts but this entailed difficult financial decisions. The Arts Council only provided the Company with part of its funding requirements and the Company was responsible for raising the remaining funding. When the next director, Darshan Singh Bhuller was appointed the dancers lost this financial security and were employed on nine month contracts (Barnes, 18 September 2004).