Review: Phoenix Dance Theatre at York Theatre Royal

By Charlotte Holder

Formed in 1981, Phoenix Dance Theatre is one of Britain’s longest standing and most influential Northern contemporary dance companies. After creating their first narrative dance piece in 2018 to critical acclaim, they are back with a show in two parts: The Rite of Spring and Left Unseen, which I had the pleasure to view at York Theatre Royal. As a dancer myself, I was excited to see what this front running company, consisting of only eight dancers, could create. The show has a running time of around 90 minutes with an interval, and it began with Left Unseen, choreographed by Amaury Lebrun.

Left Unseen stages an exploration of inclusion and isolation, set to a mixture of tracks by Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Lebrun’s choreography was inherently musical, mixing repeated motifs and small step sequences to mimic the beats of the music beneath in fluid, lyrical and emotive ways. These sequences were often performed by the whole company, or by the majority of the dancers as an accompaniment to a solo or duet. This added to the sensory experience of the piece as the audience’s vision was drawn to various points on stage, keeping you actively engaged in the work. There was also a seamless blend of sections in both cannon and unison which were aesthetically pleasing, as well as technically impressive. The cohesive, yet subtly varied, costumes of grey trousers and blue/grey shirts, only added to this sense of collaboration and unison. However,  they occasionally emphasised any slight timing issues that occurred throughout these sections.

Phoenix Dance Theatre Left Unseen, Drew Forsyth

Breaking away from these whole company sections, Lebrun also included multiple pas de deux and trio elements. A highlight for me was performed by an all-female trio in the middle of the piece. During this sequence, the dancers covered their eyes and actively supported each other through a complex and interlinking section of choreography. This really drew the work together for me as it emphasised the underlying themes of support. The intensely close choreography incorporating various assisted lifts, falls and balances showed that with the support of our colleagues, families, friends and lovers we can create something beautiful. These moments also exemplified the value of trust while subverting traditional Gendered expectations of dance, such as the moments in which female dancers supported and lifted their male partners. However, the piece also explores what happens when this support falters. through an emotional pas de deux skilfully executed without music and only the breathe of the dancers to underscore the work. Lebrun used restricted vision once again in a routine in which a dancer was led to believe his partner was a friend, when in fact she was fighting him, thus demonstrating how blind trust or support from the wrong place can cause hurt. Evoking compassion from the audience, this technically stunning section was a true stand-out feature of the work.

Phoenix Dance Theatre, The Rite of Spring, photography by Tristram Kenton.

The second act moved to a performance of The Rite of Spring, choreographed by Jeanguy Saintus. This was Saintus’s UK debut. The work was based upon Stravinsky’s music and Nijinsky’s original piece, focusing on a pagan ritual in which a traditionally virginal figure dances herself to death. By combining Haitian folklore and the traditional tale, he subverted the concept of female sacrifice. Structured in a more traditional form than Left Unseen, the piece explored large company sections and then sequences performed by the male and female company members in turn. The Haitian elements of the work were apparent and blended beautifully into the more classic contemporary style of the piece. Costumed in stark white with additional coloured skirts designed by Yann Seabra, the work is a visual spectacle. Though this piece did not engage me as much as Left Unseen, it was still a highly enjoyable and technically excellent piece of dance theatre.

A scene from The Rite Of Spring and Gianni Schicchi, the double bill by Opera North, at The Grand Theatre, Leeds. Photograph by Tristram Kenton.

The evening truly was a celebration of Northern Contemporary talent brought to life on the YTR stage. Despite some extremely minor timing issues (such as a slightly mistimed unison hand clap and occasional audible squeaks from the specialist dance floor) Phoenix Dance Theatre stunned the senses and thrilled the dancer in me. I truly look forward to following this company and seeing what they create next.

The Rite of Spring and Left Unseen is running at York Theatre Royal from the 18-19 October 2019.

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