While Ballet Black has been garnering the headlines for diversity in British dance, including a surprise appearance in support of Stormzy at Glastonbury just a couple of days after this performance, Phoenix Dance Theatre has been pursuing a quieter but nonetheless just as significant revolution to change the face of dance from its base in Leeds. The company is truly diverse with its eight dancers a heady cocktail of black, Asian, minority ethnic, Latin American and White European; and, there are only eight of them. Artistic Director, Sharon Watson has recruited well and here is a young company that pulls well above its weight, works incredibly hard and everyone is a star.

<i>Left Unseen</i> © Drew Forsyth
Left Unseen
© Drew Forsyth

This double bill of new work requires all the dancers to perform, all the time, and it’s a surprise that the interval isn’t much, much longer to enable their recovery. Quick ice baths would have been in order! They are universally strong and form a well-knit team, which is another good reason for being analogous with Ballet Black.

The company is also showcasing two choreographers who are unfamiliar to London audiences: firstly, Amaury Lebrun, a French national who has worked extensively as a dancer in Germany and Spain; and secondly, Haitian, Jeanguy Saintus, the founder of Ayikodans. An all-male programme but we can forgive Phoenix that integral bias given the success of Watson’s own Windrush: Movement of the People, in 2018; and Caroline Finn’s Bloom, remarkably dating back to 2015.

Carlos J. Martinez in <i>Left Unseen</i> © Drew Forsyth
Carlos J. Martinez in Left Unseen
© Drew Forsyth

The duo of works was reversed from the programme order with Lebrun’s Left Unseen opening the show. For me, it had some resonance with the choreographic style of Crystal Pite – without in any way being derivative – having a flowing whole which is something over and above the sum of its parts. On more than one occasion I found myself counting the dancers because it seemed improbable that there were only eight. This joyful work was set to a mixture of modern music by Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto (two tracks from the 2008 album utp_) and many more from two albums (Mount A and Without Sinking, respectively released in 2006 and 2009) by Icelandic cellist, Hildur Guðnadóttir . There were also sequences in silence, which enhanced the ideals of isolation within inclusion in this thematic representation of modern life.

The strength of Aaron Chaplin and Prentice Whitlow was the bedrock around which the quicksilver movement of the other six dancers’ flows, their harmonious patterns appearing to have an underlying mathematical or emergent structure, reasserted by regular vestiges of repetition. Lebrun was also responsible for the costume design of unisex grey shirts and trousers, which further emphasised the anonymity within the troupe. His choreography was complex, requiring smooth interactions amongst the group with any lapse in timing being cruelly exposed: but none were evident. The women are strong (Vanessa Vince Pang is Amazonian); the men are fluid. An ensemble that defies the norms gave a slick and impressive performance.

Phoenix Dance Theatre’s <i>The Rite of Spring</i> © Tristram Kenton
Phoenix Dance Theatre’s The Rite of Spring
© Tristram Kenton

It is a brave choreographer that takes on The Rite of Spring, given that some of the most impressive works of modern dance have been set to Stravinsky’s gargantuan score, and many more have fallen by the wayside in valiant but unworthy attempts. It is a braver choreographer still to attempt it with only eight dancers. Saintus deserves these two badges of courage for this interpretation created on Phoenix, set to the well-oiled recording of Le Sacre du printemps by The Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez (for my money, I would have opted for the more visceral attack of the Dudamel version for the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela).

It unlike any Rite yet seen, which is an advantage. Saintus’ reworking, unveiled in Leeds as part of a double bill with Opera North, gains its credence from the folklore of the choreographer’s native Haiti, featuring ceremony and celebration. Unfortunately, one needs to read the programme notes to appreciate this variation on the norm, explaining Yann Seabra’s unusually formal white costumes, with inexplicable transparent cloth-covered backs, matching the skin tone of the wearer; and the lack of an obvious tribal ritual leading to identifying a chosen one. In place of this, the production apparently follows three figures from Haitian folklore although this was unclear to me during the performance. The closing moments are defined by universal twitching and shaking by the dancers, at last invoking the idea of voodooism and hypnosis in a mesmerising finale that ends abruptly with an intriguing closing tableau.

***11