Dane Hurst – new Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Theatre

Dane Hurst.© Pierre Tapon. (Click image for larger version)
Dane Hurst.
© Pierre Tapon. (Click image for larger version)

Some earlier interviews with Dane Hurst

Dane Hurst – Dancer and Choreographer, on Rambert’s New Choreography bill (2014)
Dane Hurst – Choreographer, dancer with Rambert, talking about his Dulwich Picture Gallery Commission (2015)
Dane Hurst – Choreographer, dancer and artistic director talking about Exodus, his latest Dulwich Picture Gallery show (2016)
5 Questions to Dane Hurst about his creative life and dancing in Didy Veldman’s The Knot… (2018)

Dane Hurst – This Phoenix is already flying high

“Phoenix has always been embedded somewhere in my mind,” said Dane Hurst when we met over Zoom on the day that the identity of their new artistic director was revealed to the staff of Phoenix Dance Theatre. His affiliation with the Leeds-based company goes way back beyond Hurst’s brief stint as a dancer with Phoenix in the mid-noughties in origins that can be traced all the way back to his youth in Port Elizabeth.

The Phoenix name first entered his consciousness when another South African dancer, Warren Adams (now a well-known Broadway choreographer) came to the UK in the early 1990s on a Mandela Scholarship and joined the company: “As a student in South Africa I knew that there was a company called Phoenix somewhere else in the world and that one of my own people from the streets where I lived was dancing with them.”

Eight years’ later, Hurst followed Adams to the UK by a similar means, coming to train at the Rambert School with the support of a Nelson Mandela/Linbury Trust scholarship in 2003. In the following year, he joined Rambert Dance Company as the first recipient of the Sally Gilmour memorial trust bursary, and, excepting that hiatus as a dancer with Phoenix (from 2007 to 2009), he remained with Rambert until 2015.

Although most of his professional dance career has been spent in London, the three years’ in Yorkshire left an indelible imprint. “When I danced with Phoenix it was fascinating to learn the history of the company. At a time when Black Lives Matter has brought so much focus on issues of race and racism, Phoenix’s history and what it stands for, presenting powerful narratives for the under-represented and representing diversity in their staff and artists gives it a unique and strong position in the world of dance. The company was created in the 1980s by three Black British men (David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James) and it has been fascinating to see how Phoenix – true to its name – has morphed into different iterations over the last forty years.”

Hurst has had a stellar dance career, winning the Spotlight Award for Outstanding Male Artist in the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards (2007) and then the Best Male Dancer Award in 2013. Leaving Rambert was a calculated decision. “I had learned about the mechanics of a large repertoire company and I wanted to understand more about the freelance sector and what life was like in small dance companies. Going freelance meant that I was able to make more of my own work; understand how audiences see the work and how work is marketed; how things are budgeted and managed and to get an overview of how the sector works.”

Hannah Rudd and Dane Hurst rehearsing Terra Incognita.© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)
Dance Hurst and Hannah Rudd rehearsing Shobana Jeyasingh’s Terra Incognita.
© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)

As well as pursuing his own projects, Hurst has worked with several independent artists and small companies, including Didy Veldman, Yorke Dance Project, Company Wayne McGregor, Mark Bruce Company and Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company. “It has been interesting to see how they run their organisations and how work is informed by their cultural backgrounds and the different expectations depending on the amount of public funding they receive. I also got to understand the mechanics of how a touring company works, how tours are planned, how the wardrobe is managed and how the technical teams are set up.” Absorbing all of this information while giving his all as a dancer was deliberate preparation for Hurst’s transition to an artistic director role and so when the vacancy at Phoenix arose it was exactly the opportunity he had been preparing for. “My end-game was always to run something by myself with my own vision. So, the last few years has been fuelled by a strategic intention to gain as much experience as possible.”

In addition to these recent years as an itinerant dancer, Hurst has also set up and managed a charitable trust, Moving Assembly Project, which is designed to open up opportunities for young South Africans. “When I arrived in the UK, my aim was to develop a reputation that would enable me to return to South Africa and help young people realise their artistic potential. I knew how difficult it had been for me to go through the ranks and get a scholarship to come here, so I was always aware that I needed to make use of this opportunity to not just serve my own career but to be able to do something for young people back in South Africa.”

Hurst’s new appointment at Phoenix is due to start in February 2021 and he has three months to prepare to lead a company that has been without an artistic director since Sharon Watson left to become Principal of Northern School of Contemporary Dance, last April. Of course, during these eight months there has been little need for hands-on artistic direction and Hurst’s first job will be to reorganise a schedule that has been postponed from 2020, including Watson’s Black Waters, a collaboration with Kolkata-based Rhythmosaic; The Girl of the Golden West by Aletta Collins, another collaboration with Opera North; and work by Phoenix’s artist-in-residence, Jamaal Burkmar. “Those existing projects need to be picked up again and rearranged with the theatres.” Phoenix will celebrate its fortieth anniversary in November 2021, a date that is also likely to mark the beginning of Hurst’s own personal artistic vision for the company.

Rehearsing Dane Hurst's Exodus at Dulwich Picture Gallery.© Dolly Brown. (Click image for larger version)
Dane rehearsing his Exodus at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2016. (From an earlier DanceTabs interview)
© Dolly Brown. (Click image for larger version)

We talked about what new dimensions he will bring to Phoenix and if this will include presenting his own work. As a choreographer, Hurst has been commissioned to make work for several companies and has already picked up awards for both staged and filmed productions. “When I applied for the job, I had to do provide a five-year artistic vision,” he explained. “My view is that under Sharon Watson, the company has achieved incredible things, honouring the past and continuing the company’s tradition of making works that have a really strong narrative, relating to stories that are in the public consciousness such as Windrush: Movement of the People. It was incredibly evocative and really connected with the public. I would love to continue in that vein because I feel that the art should engage people both mentally and emotionally.” It will be part of his role to choreograph new works. “I’m not sure how soon I will be able to step into that space, but I have already proposed some ideas that have strong narrative foundations. Because of existing responsibilities from the past year it might be a little while before I get to create my own work.”

Phoenix Dance Theatre in Windrush: Movement of the People.© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)
Phoenix Dance Theatre in Windrush: Movement of the People.
© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)

On the subject of whether he will once again dance for Phoenix, he is less certain. “It will be really difficult to continue dancing because it is such a big job and my responsibility will be to ensure that the company’s dancers have interesting repertoire that challenges them. As a dancer I have always aspired to reach high levels of technical ability and performance quality and I would like to pass that on to inspire the Phoenix dancers.” This resolute view wavers a little when he added: “When I was at Rambert, I looked in the archive and saw Chris Bruce doing cameo appearances in his own works and so I think if there is space for me to make a cameo, I would absolutely love that because once a performer always a performer. However, my focus has to be on the dancers of the company and giving them a really interesting and challenging repertoire.”

He certainly intends to take a hands-on approach to coaching. “Because of my work with Moving Assembly Project it is just natural for me to want to go into that role so I look forward to coaching this fantastic group of dancers.” And, at a time when many companies are reducing personnel due to the economic issues forced upon them by the pandemic, Phoenix is expanding and Hurst will have the chance to audition for two new dancers. “This is testament to how effectively the staff have been able to run the company over recent times. To be in a situation where they are bringing in a new artistic director, a new executive director (Charis Charles) and additional dancers just shows how successful they have been in terms of managing the finances.”

Dane Hurst.© Pierre Tapon. (Click image for larger version)
Dane Hurst.
© Pierre Tapon. (Click image for larger version)

His experience with Moving Assembly will also have a bearing on his new role at Phoenix. “I hope to push this idea of cross-cultural collaboration because the world has become a lot smaller and collaborating with different people from different parts of the world will just expand our own world view. I believe that on the international scene Phoenix could be an incredible representative of the face of Britain today. I do think that the company can be a real beacon for dance in Britain as well as outside.”

His vision includes a space for digital dance. “What the pandemic has shown us is that we need to diversify how we show our work to the public. We carry the world in our pockets and anything can be accessed on our ‘phones. Creating dance productions for film, not in the sense of creating work and then filming it but created specifically for film, is definitely a permanent part of the future.” Hurst has contributed to the plethora of dance films during 2020, not least as associate artist with the Jazzart Dance Theatre, working remotely from London to create a series of films that were offered to the public to watch digitally. “This is a way to connect to large and diverse audiences not just in the UK but across the world and I will be looking to create more digital content.” But, he is adamant that the first duty is to honour and perpetuate dance as a live art. “Dance need to be shared in a space with people,” he argued. “Audiences need to sense how dancers move the air as they walk into space but I think that because of the lockdowns we have to develop a digital programme alongside the live programme.”

During the pandemic, Hurst has led a Dance a Day project, making video every day during lockdown to inspire his South African students to continue dancing, creating a heart-warming film (Beyond Borders) featuring 75 dancers from all over the world contributing the dances that they had created during lockdown. However, his students face significant problems with access to this work as he explained: “In South Africa access to the internet is expensive and watching a Zoom video takes up so much data from ‘phone contracts that it costs an enormous amount of money just to do a 30-minute class and so dance has become inaccessible for most of these kids.”

Hurst will relocate to Leeds in the new year and looks forward to introducing himself to the arts leaders in what he calls a “vibrant city full of fascinating cultural institutions,” and he is keen to find ways of working with them. He likes the fact that Phoenix is small enough to get to know everyone in the company personally. “I have the sense that there is a real heart in the company, what it stands for and its relevance in the community. It’s a people business being in the performing arts; it’s about providing a service and it’s about human contact and I sense that these things are really important to this company.” Although it is a small company, Phoenix is part of a much bigger hub, sharing state-of-the-art modern facilities with Northern Ballet. “This is particularly inspiring because I don’t think there is anywhere else in the UK that has this format of ballet and contemporary companies sharing the same building.”

Although he is moving from London to Leeds, when we talk, Hurst’s thoughts are very much back in his South African homeland. His aunt recently passed away as a victim of covid-19 and other members of his family have been infected. Flights home have been cancelled due to the coronavirus restrictions and now his family is advising Dane not to return because if he gets there and the borders are closed he may not be able to return.

Dane Hurst.© Karl Schoemaker. (Click image for larger version)
Dane Hurst and the Moving Assembly Project. (From an earlier DanceTabs interview).
© Karl Schoemaker. (Click image for larger version)

Moving Assembly Project will continue after Hurst takes over the helm at Phoenix. It is now a registered charity and the board has been expanded to six trustees. “We have spent the past four-and-a-half years developing our model and our reach and so it is not a good time to slow down any of our work.” He hopes to appoint an associate artist to propose projects that Moving Assembly can facilitate to further the ethos of inspiring and developing young people.

It occurs to me that there is an exact parallel between what Hurst is doing in South Africa and the similar charitable support being inspired by Carlos Acosta in Cuba. “Our ethos is the same, to give everyone the opportunity to learn an artistic skill and to try it out. That’s how I got into dance. We had a small dance school that was held in a disused swimming bath office and the teacher didn’t charge us for classes. If that little studio wasn’t there I wouldn’t be sitting here today and so what we do is to just try and offer these classes of dance, photography or film to young people and then they might take it and run with it and have a completely different life. It needs to carry on. We have spent too many years fighting for it to exist for it to slow down now.”

“The origins of Phoenix exemplify the power of a dream, the power of dance,” he says as we conclude our chat. “Three black guys started a company, regardless of whether they had support or not and 40 years’ later the company they began is now a celebrated and established part of the British dance scene. And for me to be appointed to run the company after starting as a kid taking free dance classes in South Africa is also evidence of the power of a dream. I’m really humbled and honoured to be given this opportunity and I hope that I can stay true to the spirit of how the company was founded because it’s about dreams, it’s about inspiration, it’s about moving people. I’m inspired to take up the challenge.” One thing is certain. This phoenix is already flying high!

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