Phoenix Dance Theatre
Until.With / Out.Enough, Tearfall, Bloom
London, Linbury Studio Theatre
11 November 2015
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
The Linbury Studio Theatre is fast becoming a London outpost of dance’s “Northern Powerhouse”, now regularly featuring seasons from two of Yorkshire’s finest exports, Northern Ballet and their housemates, Phoenix Dance Theatre; both companies sharing state-of-the-art studios in Quarry Hill, the thriving cultural centre of Leeds. Here, it was Phoenix’s turn to impress and they did so with a classy, entertaining and diverse programme of new dance. These three unfamiliar pieces had little in common, other than arresting performances, innovative choreography, a strong design ethos and balloons; all cumulating in an evening of outstanding entertainment.
Phoenix Dance Theatre is a company that has sometimes travelled a rocky road, since it was formed in 1981, but under Sharon Watson’s inspired artistic leadership it is currently in a very strong place, punching at above its weight in the very top tier of contemporary dance performance in the UK. They unveiled their latest stall of new (or newly refurbished) work to a London audience with a palpable sparkle of confidence and élan.
The oldest work came first with a brand new staging of Until.With/Out. Enough by Dutch/Israeli choreographer, Itzik Galili, which was originally made back in 1997 and still plays havoc with grammatical correctness. I can’t determine whether Galili’s title is stupendously intelligent or simply irritating, especially since the intent seems to be ruined by the typesetting on tickets and programme that makes this appear as two separate works (Until.With and Out.Enough).
Galili’s eclectic content is powerfully driven by the towering, often sorrowful, music of Henryk Górecki, who – alongside Andrzej Panufnik – gives good reason for the claim that Polish composers led the mid-twentieth century avant garde movement (although Górecki did it from inside the iron curtain and was little known in the west until 1989; and conversely Panufnik – knighted for his success – composed in London, after escaping the post-war grip of communism, and was unknown in his home country until the thaw). It is fruitless to suggest it and impossible to implement – for economic reasons – but how wonderful it would be to see these accomplished dancers perform to this monumental music, played live.
The work begins with what appears to be a line of convicts at exercise, walking away from the audience: one woman falls to the side (a common motif throughout the 30-minute work); the dancers periodically step and squat in deep pliés; and the mood flits from dark melancholy to whimsical skittishness. A female in a tight, white shift dress (Carmen Vazquez Marfil) crosses the stage a few times holding a single balloon that changes colour from one journey to the next; and there are subtle nuances of playground games (tag and hide and seek).
Galili creates fascinating patterns for the group (seven dancers) within which there is an ongoing cascade of solos, duets and trios. One early duet for Vanessa Vince-Pang and Sam Vaherlehto was particularly memorable. My only quibble is that the whole is perhaps a tad over-indulged with just too many ideas in the pot, although this is ameliorated by frequent changes of tempo and mood.
Sharon Watson’s Tearfall premiered last year (in Leeds, of course) and it opens with a spoken explanation, well articulated by Prentice Whitlow, about the biochemical make-up of tears. The 20-minute work is riven with allusions to the “liquid pearl” of the eye and to the emotions that make humans cry, accompanied by sundry sounds of sobbing and laughter.
With dancers dressed in white vests and pants, ornamentation comes in Watson’s florid and fluid choreography that keeps resolutely to its theme. And, there are more balloons, many of them, this time, but fixed upon weighted, rigid wiring, like giant eyes connected by the nervous system’s wiring to the brain; the imagery of the balloons facing upwards fixed by gravity to the weights on the floor, reverberated into the downward facing array of lights, at varying heights, to create a memorable visual effect.
And then the balloons gave way to Bloom. An astonishing work of physical theatre that seems to play on the traditions of Commedia dell’arte – not the least in the grotesque melancholic mask worn by the solitary figure of the “performer” (or, perhaps, the over-anxious “MC”) – but composed within an innovative and extraordinary package.
Caroline Finn – recently appointed as artistic director of National Dance Company Wales – seems to have both a profound, refreshingly new, choreographic voice and a holistic, rounded vision of the overall theatrical structure that is oiled by her movement. She has the courage to punctuate activity with moments of stillness and reflection and mixes humour and pathos in a punchy cocktail of anarchic, witty episodes that are both beguiling and hugely entertaining.
Her eclectic musical tapestry achieves the same extraordinary synergy with the activity onstage as we came to expect from the work of Pina Bausch, in this case ranging from the horrifically barbaric, medical sarcasm and linguistic ingenuity of Emilie Autumn’s Miss Lucy Had Some Leeches to the hilarious “big-band sound” rendition of Radiohead’s Creep by Frank Bennett (the singer’s stage name is a deliberate mix of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett). And, the same synergy is present in the work’s style ethos from the aforementioned mask worn by Vaherlehto’s central, clown-like figure to the bun-head, cloth hats of the other performers (first encountered at a bizarre squeaking, chattering dinner party; some strange hybrid of human Meerkats and alien invaders).
Here is a work that succeeds from a holistic approach to integrating every element, thus enhancing the integrity of an overall artistic vision. Bloom is greater than the sum of its parts, each of which is already first-class!
One essential factor in the current success of Phoenix is a cohort of excellent dancers, amongst whom Andreas Grimaldier, Sandrine Monin and Vince-Pang are especially striking. However, unlike many other companies, this is an egalitarian group in which none of the dancers are the “star turn”. And, like any good director, Watson uses all nine in Tearfall. British contemporary dance is in fine fettle, just now, and Phoenix Dance Theatre is a vital part of that enduring success.