There was a celebratory feel about the opening night of Triple Bill 2016 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. At 35-years-old, Phoenix Dance Theatre is the longest standing contemporary dance company outside of London, and the Quarry theatre was full to capacity.
Reworked with the current company of Phoenix dancers, Triple Bill is a mix of two older pieces and a world premiere of Undivided Loves, the latter from choreographer Kate Flatt.
Opening the evening is Melt, choreographed by Phoenix Dance‘s artistic director, Sharon Watson. The company are dressed in white, loose and light costumes and the music of the band Wild Beasts is arresting from the opening bar. The tracks chosen are incredibly evocative and the memory of seeing the work, in this very theatre in 2011, is brought sharply back to me. Five years have passed since then, and in that time I have often listened to the Wild Beasts album, the sense of the performance flickering in my mind and the image of dancers swirling in effortless synchronicity on high ropes.
The music is central to this work; the rich layers of vocals and rhythmic beats are expressed and brought to life by every movement, enhancing the mellow quiet moments and galvanising the senses to the building crescendos and emotional peaks in the lyrics. A recurring motif of two hands drawn apart and together, apart and together, runs like a thread between the different tracks. This engendered a wonderful space between the hands, where imagined lungs were breathing and hearts were beating.
Melt reflects on the elements of fire and water, but is scattered with moments of intimacy between dancers – this is about the melting of a human heart too. The work is at risk of responding almost too directly to the music at times, but the mixture of solos, pairs and company work both on and off the ropes creates a refreshing exploration of a distinctive soundscape.
Undivided Loves is the only piece with commissioned music in the bill, composed by Adriano Adewale who is present on stage for this performance, playing the percussion live. Shakespeare’s sonnets are at the centre of the work, with a ‘Reader’ as the main character, whose dream world brings to life the imagined lovers and inspiration behind the sonnets, heard overhead and in multiple languages.
Once again, there are many layers – the writer, the subjects of his words, the reader, the choreographic interpretation and the composer’s music (both live and recorded), not forgetting the dancers’ own interpretation and performance. The sensitive and often beautifully romantic choreography conjures jealousy, all consuming love, tenderness and betrayal. Adewale, initially seated on a mat, at times walks close to the dancers; also costumed and barefoot, he is very much part of the performance. His interaction with the company and the live percussion accompaniment, in particular the drumming, makes his role akin to that of a second narrator, emphasising and casting light and shade over each phase of movement.
The third work in the programme is Itzik Galili’s Until.With/Out.Enough. This was the strongest work of the trio. From the first march of dancers, single file, facing towards the rear of the stage, there was something haunting which had me gripped. The dancers mime unspoken words, and the subtle movement of their lips is unnerving. Their focus seems imperishable, until a sole dancer breaks the routine, falls to the ground or dashes off, out of view.
The performance conjured Orwellian worlds – workers marching, uniformed in costumes of stiff khaki-coloured shirts. The androgynous pack of dancers seem driven to the point of madness, exhaustion or delirium, as the passages of dance unfold. In the midst of all this, a human fraction of life cracks through these bleak landscapes; a dancer rubbing a groin against another’s leg, and a prop of a lone white helium balloon is walked across the stage creating a stillness in both the company and the audience. When this balloon is exchanged for a red one, the significance is incredibly powerful. It is in these moments of softness and grace created by the dancers and the superbly clever lighting from designer Yaron Abulafia that the work becomes vividly striking. The contrast brings a life and a brilliance to the piece.
Galili says in the programme: “A good work should move you emotionally and intellectually.” Until.With/Out.Enough unquestionably achieves both.
I spent much of the two intervals discussing just what audiences might expect from contemporary dance in 2016. A narrative? An abstract concept? Or just brilliantly talented dancers performing challenging choreography? But for me, Galili puts it perfectly – like any work of art, it should stimulate both the heart and the mind.
Photos by Joe Armitage
Triple Bill 2016 is touring until June 17, 2016. For tour dates and venues visit: www.phoenixdancetheatre.co.uk/news/triple-bill-2016-tour-dates-announced