In 1981, Phoenix Dance Company was a group of three men in Leeds, using their administrator’s spare room as an office. In 2022, it’s a fixture of the UK dance scene, with its own building and a 40-year legacy being celebrated in this tour. So much has changed in that time, from a black, all-male company inspired by jazz and soul and the dance they learned together at middle school, to a multicultural, international troupe of male and female dancers. There have been multiple directors and shifts in tone, and more than once the company has seemingly risen from the ashes.
There’s nothing from the earliest years in this programme curated by the current director, Dane Hurst; the focus is on the 90s and 00s. We get the composure and controlled angles of Henri Oguike’s Signal, and intertwining family relationships and split leaps from the sofa in Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith’s Family. Jane Dudley’s Harmonica Breakdown is a three-minute gem, originally created in 1938 (mounted by Phoenix in 2008), a brief but heavy howl of a woman challenged by circumstance: proud, pained, determined, Yuma Sylla dancing with great purpose.
The second half of the show is strongest, with two theatrical pieces that connect more directly with the audience. In Ben Duke and Raquel Meseguer’s Pave Up Paradise the equation is man plus woman plus booze, which equals drunken contrition and tension that turns to tired tenderness. It feels very human.
Darshan Singh Bhuller led Phoenix during a successful period from 2002 to 2006. His piece Heart of Chaos is based on African American boxer Jack Johnson (Aaron Chaplin), the world heavyweight champion, beating James J Jeffries (Matthew Topliss), to the consternation of white America, in 1910. In this moody biography Johnson spends as much time on seduction as sport – he KOs a few beautiful flappers and has a more complex relationship with Melina Sofocleous as his wife – but Singh Bhuller creates effective action in the ring, especially when Chaplin and Topliss branch off into solos, really fighting battles with themselves. There’s strength and complexity in Chaplin’s portrayal – it’s not a straightforward victory for Johnson – and it’s good to be reminded of this rich, well-danced work. Here’s to 40 more years.
At the Peacock theatre, London, until 30 March then touring.