U.K. Review: Phoenix Dance Theatre's "Mixed Programme 2018"

Adam Bruce

  • United Kingdom Critic

As a genre and style, dance theatre has a striking presence on the landscape of theatrical storytelling. There’s something special in the way it employs a firm sense of fluidity in its storytelling as it conveys a piece’s concept, narrative and themes to an audience. Phoenix Dance Theatre in Leeds has long established itself as a leading company in the form, telling sets of vibrant and eclectic narratives through their Mixed Programmes, inspiring and thrilling audiences with their dynamism and energy. With this in mind, I looked forward to taking my seat in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre for their latest Mixed Programme, with Phoenix Artistic Director Sharon Watson’s new piece Windrush: Movement of the People acting as the centrepiece. Completing the evening’s trio of pieces are Aletta Collins’ Maybe Yes Maybe, Maybe No Maybe and Christopher Bruce’s Shadows.

In Windrush, Phoenix bring their trademark energy and sensitivity to conceptual storytelling to the stories of the Caribbean migrants who made their way to the UK aboard the SS Empire Windrush, presenting us with an emotional collage of the loves, lives and losses that occurred during one of the most important events to weave the multicultural fabric of the country. Being Watson’s first narrative work, there is an air of nostalgia, longing and promise amidst her choreography; her ensemble of dancers shine in emotive sequences that connect with those aforementioned values, and bring to bear the series of tempestuous emotions that buttressed the arrival of the migrants. Watson sensitively and effectively represents the varying attitudes of the nation to the arrival of the migrants at the time: racism, disorientation, and joy, with the choreography piecing together to weave a collage of emotions amidst the moving story.

The ensemble of this piece remain on form with precision and clarity, with their energy bustling and pulsating throughout Eleanor Bull’s set, primarily consisting of a mountain of wooden boxes and luggage, representing an overarching attitude of determination and courage amidst everyday lives being lived in the shadow of an uncertain home. Exemplifying this notion is Luke Haywood’s lighting design, with the silhouette of the luggage mountain reminding us of this uncertain horizon and poignant moments in the narrative being illuminated with precision and narrative clarity.

The fusion of original music and popular songs underpinning the sequences is certainly welcome, though at times the emphasis on the music becomes slightly overbearing and distracting from Watson’s intentions. Having said that, Windrush evolves into a highly watchable piece of dance theatre, and while occasionally slipping in terms of its narrative clarity, and losing some of its nuance and sensitivity as a result of trying to encompass too large a quantity of themes, the piece remains moving and respectful of the important cultural event.

The evening was made slightly jarring, however, by the inclusion of the two accompanying pieces. Collins’ Maybe Yes Maybe, Maybe No Maybe seemed entirely irrelevant to the concepts explored by Windrush, since its vague concept involving an ensemble of dancers having their voices generate a soundtrack through the presence of a hanging microphone just came across as unfocused and confusing. With contemporary work of this kind, it is of course entirely up to the audience to interpret a meaning, although in this particular instance the opportunities for interpretation appeared opaque and out of reach.

Bruce’s Shadows offered such opportunities for interpretation, but while the dancers did execute a piece surrounding themes of fear and longing with grace and sensitivity, the tenuous link made to Windrush during the programming of this selection of work somewhat numbs the poignancy of the centrepiece. Windrush is a poignant and thought-provoking piece, but its inclusion in this Mixed Programme of other contemporary works presents a Phoenix that appears divided in the direction it wishes to take itself in.

Phoenix Dance's Mixed Programme is on tour. For more information and tickets visit: https://www.phoenixdancetheatre.co.uk/tour/mixed-programme-2018/