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35 Years in the Making  

Phoenix Dance Theatre is one of the UK’s oldest contemporary dance companies outside of London. The Leeds-based troupe was founded in 1981 by three graduates, and has since evolved into a ten-member professional ensemble with a sizeable repertory—including works from the likes of Richard Alston and Didy Veldman—and bevy of stage credits around the UK and abroad. Its latest bill, devised to celebrate its 35th anniversary, revives a 1997 work from Dutch-Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili alongside two recent pieces from British dancemakers Kate Flatt and Caroline Finn—a selection that shows off the range of styles the company has to offer and the international talent it attracts.

Performance

Phoenix Dance Theatre: Triple Bill

Place

Laban Theatre, London, UK, November 18, 2006

Words

Sara Veale

Phoenix Dance Theatre in “Bloom.” Photograph by Brian Slater

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Galili’s “Until.With/Out.Enough,” a co-commission between PTD and the Royal Ballet, is edgy and fast-paced, the seven dancers pitched against a tense score. The abstract work is billed as an ‘emotional journey,’ but the why and the how of this never fully emerge. Elements of panic and fear crop up—there’s furtive whispering, gasping contractions, cautious gazes—but so do gestures at wonder, affection and exhilaration. This inconsistency carries through to the choreography, which veers from strict lines to wild chugs and contains a few incongruous sequences, like a girl dashing off stage and swapping her military-style top for a white dress and a balloon.

Such swerves demand a lot from the dancers, and the cast tackled them vigorously, though their timing occasionally suffered, particularly in the group unison sections. The best performances ensued in the high-energy second phrase, with its swift ripples and giant cabrioles, and during a moving duet between Carmen Vazquez Marfil and Prentice Whitlow, both of whom looked right at home with its melting, intimate tangles.

The two paired up again for Flatt’s “Undivided Loves,” which conceives Marfil as the subject of a Shakespearean sonnet and Whitlow as a dreamy reader lusting after the intimacy Marfil shares with her lover (Sam Vaherlehto). It’s a timely moment for a Shakespeare-themed offering, given that 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the writer’s death, though I can’t say this is an especially imaginative tribute; the mise-en-scène, with its kitschy costumes and dim lighting, is one-dimensional, and melodramatic antics abound, like Whitlow tossing aside his beloved poems and flopping onto his bed in anguish.

More refined is the contrast between coarse choreographic moments—abrupt chugs, scurries, tilts, contractions—and the silky score, with its courtly notes and honeyed recitations of famous verse. Adriano Adewale’s arrangement infuses splashes of his Brazilian background, like rattling jangles and wind chimes, lending depth and mystery, and the dancers—Marfil in particular—responded with an intensity of their own, balancing searing expressions with some lovely, supple partnering.

The highlight of the programme for me was Finn’s “Bloom,” a dark, delightful cabaret about the intentional and subconscious facades people hide behind. The surreal number kicks off with a band of ghoulishly made-up oddballs trilling, hemming and hawing at a dinner table. A masked man (Vaherlehto) steps into spotlight to perform a song, but he’s continually interrupted by capers from his audience: a couple’s mournful waltz, a grinning girl dancing to the macabre ditty “Miss Lucy Had Some Leeches.” His face remained covered up to the closing curtain, but Vaherlehto delivered an expressive performance all the same, vividly communicating his embarrassment and frustration with clenched fists and a crumpled torso.

Likewise impressive was the cast’s whole-hearted commitment to Finn’s athletic choreography and madcap farce. In one scene, a woman chases after her partner, a preening narcissist, jumping into his arms only to find herself unceremoniously plonked on her back; in another our protagonist strips to his underwear and drags his unappreciative viewers—now stupefied into inertia—one by one to into a pile. The finale, in which they resurrect to support his shining moment—a Sinatra-style rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep”—is a marvel of flash and wit, their sluggish, zombified lurches a hilarious contrast to his fine-tuned jigging. It’s a well-conceived, well-executed union of dance, music, theatre and comedy—a feat definitely worth celebrating.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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