Phoenix Dance Theatre in Christopher Bruce's 'Shift'.  Photo © Tony Nandi

Phoenix Dance Theatre in Christopher Bruce’s ‘Shift’.
Photo © Tony Nandi

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, UK; November 27, 2014

Stuart Sweeney

Leeds became a centre for contemporary dance principally through the inspired work of two pathfinders: John Auty at Intake High School, and Nadine Senior at Harehills Middle School who also went on to found Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Originally named Phoenix Dance Company, the company was born in the city as a direct result of the fine young dancers developed. For more than 30 years the company has had its share of success and sometimes trauma, but like the mythical bird has arisen under the leadership of Artistic Director, Sharon Watson, now with eight young dancers including an apprentice. They also enjoy beautiful new premises shared with Northern Ballet and the Northern Ballet Academy.

For this Linbury visit, they brought four contrasted works by three choreographers. “Shift” by Christopher Bruce depicts a US wartime armaments factory. Women’s liberation is to the fore with equal numbers of men and women performing the same tasks. I remember the film “Rosie the Riveter” describing the rise of American women from waitresses to skilled industrial workers and back again to waitresses after the War to make way for the returning soldiers. In this 8-minute piece, Bruce sticks to the wartime period of equality with a powerful women initially pulling on levers and turning knobs on widespread legs and the moves picked up the other five dancers as they enter. This is a cheerful celebration of labour and later the relationships that arise in a mixed gender factory as the choreography moves on to duets. Kenji Bunch’s “Swing Shift” drives the action at high speed. I particularly enjoyed Sandrine Monin’s forceful, confident dancing.

'Shadows'.  Photo © Tony Nandi

Photo © Tony Nandi

In sharp contrast, Bruce has created “Shadows” for the company. He describes Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres”, here in the variation for cello and piano, as a product of “…a thousand years of human experience and frequently suffering” and how the “…turbulence of the 20th C. has influenced my own reaction to [the music].” We see a family sitting around a table, presumably parents and a son and daughter. From stasis, the intense, rapid opening cello solo provokes a hysterical solo for Vanessa Vince Pang, redolent of terror as she rushes around the stage executing hundreds of movements in 60 seconds. Returning to her place as the music assumes a melancholy, slow pace, our attention turns to the parents in a duet and then the Mother’s solo, both less fevered but still expressing pained anxiety. Finally the son, dynamically portrayed by Andreas Grimaldier, explodes into action hurling furniture around in desperation. What has caused these reactions: perhaps a desperate home life or a recent tragedy? After righting the stools and table and calming him, the enigma is resolved as the family slowly rise, put on their coats and pick up suitcases hidden in the shadows, ready to leave; bound for the concentration camps or perhaps exile from their home in Bosnia or a similar tragedy. This eloquent work of only 13 minutes again shows Bruce’s concerns for humanity recognised in some of the honours bestowed on him listed in the programme, including a well-deserved “Honorary Life Membership of Amnesty International” for his portrayal of human rights abuse in “Ghost Dances, “Swansong” and other works.

Igvi & Greben's 'Document'.  Photo © Tony Nandi

Igvi & Greben’s ‘Document’.
Photo © Tony Nandi

“Document”, by the Israeli-Dutch choreography duo Ivgi & Greben, opens with a trapezoidal walkway of light, unchanged throughout the performance, leading to a group of five dancers at the rear of the stage dressed in torn, dour clothes. They move in slow, closely gathered, irregular movement which resolves into an arrowhead pattern and unison small bouncing steps reminding me of a heart beating. Slowly the group moves forward gathering pace and urgency, but clearly these are people stretched to breaking point and dehumanised, underlined by the collective choreography. The dancers sway, stretch and judder to Tom Parkinson’s sound-scape and in the final stages some dancers fall to the ground and eventually only one remains standing. Although very different from “Shadows”, this second angst filled work made for a very dark centre to the evening. In some ways they show a coincidental succession: “Shadows” the start of a journey to a nightmare and “Document” in the throes of a most desperate situation. But the former with its character differentiation had a greater emotional charge for me.

Darshan Singh Bhuller’s “Mapping” closed the show on a vibrant note. In the programme Bhuller describes the inspiration as his father’s journey from East to West. The choreographer is renowned for gritty dramas often based on traumatic events, but his father’s journey was clearly a happy one. Initially we see a dancer in a duet with a small sphere, the world, which travels independently around him and the stage and Ben Mitchell’s dynamic movement and playful interaction with the sphere immediately captures our attention – perhaps he is a God ordering things here below. The company’s full complement of eight artists, unisex dressed in all white loose jackets and trousers, move in fast steps with jetés and windmilling arms adding to the feeling of excitement. The attractive score, assembled by Warren Cuccurullo, includes music by Shankar, reflected in elements of Indian dance. From time to time, a video filmed on-stage is projected onto a rear screen providing a different perspective on the dance but generally adding little. However the most effective use comes in a section with a ceiling mounted camera which allows the dancers stretched out on the floor to seemingly defy gravity. I’ve seen it done before, notably by Philippe Decouflé and William Forsythe, but it’s still great fun.

Phoenix Dance Theatre in 'Mapping'.  Photo courtesy Phoenix Dance Theatre, © Tony Nandi

Phoenix Dance Theatre in ‘Mapping’.
Photo © Tony Nandi

Bhuller was Artistic Director of Phoenix from 2002 to 2006, so the commission was a welcome return to the company. A joint interview with Watson and him in the programme describes their long-term contacts: students together under Nadine Senior; Watson dancing in the company when Bhuller created works for them in the 90’s; plus she acted as Rehearsal and Tour Director when he was AD. It must be a great pleasure for them both that “Mapping” has proved a success: full of positive vibes and providing technically demanding, speedy choreography for the full company. The audience cheered long and hard.