(Switch; What It Is; Pave Up Paradise; Maybe yes maybe, maybe no maybe)
Phoenix Dance Theatre
Pegasus Theatre, Oxford; March 18, 2011
Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre is on something of a roll. Not only is the company presently celebrating its 30th birthday, but last autumn it moved into plush new purpose-built premises shared with Northern Ballet. If the company’s latest vibrant programme, “Reflected”, is anything to go by, that move is already reaping rewards.
Most impressive of the four works on show was Ballett Basel Artistic Director Richard Wherlock’s compelling programme opener “Switch”. Wherlock apparently began by putting on a few CDs of minimal house music by Basel-musician B Free, and seeing what the dancers could do. The result is an enthralling series of intricate duets and trios that are not only packed with impressive contact work, but also show their equally impressive dance technique to the full.
While it is often fast and athletic, there are more sensual moments during which the dancers often twist and curl around one another, their limbs stretching out into the space before folding back like some hyper-mobile insect. All the dancers excelled with everything, even the quickest of extensions, clear and pin-sharp. Particularly impressive were the beautifully animalistic Azzurra Ardovini and Josh Wille. Ardovini especially has something about her that just compels you to watch whatever she is doing. Special mention too for Michael Mannion’s stunning lighting and Lorna Clayton’s simple yet hugely effective costumes that saw each dancer dressed in a different bright colour.
Running “Switch” a close second was “Pave Up Paradise”. Originally created by the Lost Dog duo Ben Duke and Raquel Meseguer, and danced by themselves, this comic take on sin and sexuality that mixes spoken word and dance is fast becoming an audience favourite. The duet is set just outside the Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve (Wille and Ardovini outstanding again) have just been ejected. Initially Wille tells the audience “It’s all her fault really.” After their arguing is illustrated by more impressive contact work, Wille also reminds us that God also told him, “Don’t get distracted by the naked woman.” Of course, before you know the clothes are coming off as he chases after Ardovini’s body. A few moments later he’s on all fours, almost pitifully declaring that “It’s definitely my fault.”
Ardovini and Wille’s verbal jousting was less strident than that of Duke and Meseguer, but then Duke was originally trained as an actor. They also imbue the characters with rather more tenderness, but one of the clever things about the work is that it does allow for such variations in interpretation without being any less engaging and importantly, without being any less fun.
Preceding “Pave Up” was Philip Taylor’s “What It Is,” which also tells a story, this time one of two men, a girl who seduces one, and the anguish the other suffers. With its Amy Winehouse music and easy to understand choreography in many ways it is an audience pleaser. But it is also very lightweight, the potentially powerful story being quickly lost in a sea of incessant gesture and repetitive dance. It all brought back memories of some of the less accomplished choreography on “So You Think You Can Dance.” Given the incessant beat of the music I half expected a floor manager to leap up and urge us all to start clapping along.
For much of the “Reflected” tour the final work is Phoenix Artistic Director Sharon Watson’s “Melt”. But it’s a work that explores the vertical as much as the horizontal. The tiny Pegasus theatre was never going to be able to take it, so instead we were treated to Aletta Collins’ “Maybe yes maybe, maybe no maybe.” There was certainly no chance of anyone enjoying a quick post-interval nap as Phil Sanger opens proceedings by yelling into a microphone dangled centre-stage. Even those who were awake got a jolt. The idea of using the dancers to create a percussive score leads to multiple possibilities, many humorous, if a little obvious. It kept everyone entertained though, and was a fun conclusion to an enjoyable evening of impressive dance. “Reflected” continues on tour to Salford, Buxton, Crawley, Wrexham, Swansea, Liverpool, Nottingham and Halifax. See http://www.phoenixdancetheatre.co.uk for details.
A version of this review, with images, will appear subsequently in the magazine.