Phoenix Dance Theatre

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Mary Brennan (5 - 6/3/16)


In 1981, three young black men – David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James – were so enthused by dance-making at school, they set up Phoenix Dance Company. Did they imagine that, in 2016, their initiative would still be on the go? Probably not, but here it is – now known as Phoenix Dance Theatre, established in a superb, purpose-built base alongside Northern Ballet in Leeds.

This 35th anniversary triple bill gave Saturday’s Festival Theatre audience a glimpse, after an absence of some years, of what Phoenix is out to celebrate. The current cluster of dancers, a tight-knit group of eight with – unlike those early days – more women than men, is well worth applauding. They shape up with a concentrated clarity of body line in the almost-militaristic ensembles in Itzik Galili’s Until.With/Out.Enough – yet, by the end, they’re going loopy and clowning like shades of Weimar cabaret groupies in Caroline Finn’s Bloom. There’s real personality on-stage, a capacity for acting convincingly as well as delivering challenging technique:they are engagingly watchable – just as well, given the repertoire they’re tasked with enlivening.

Galili’s piece uses a brooding Gorecki score as a prompt for itemising inner mood shifts. Unisex tunics, a tendency to march in regimented line, all speak to a pack mentality. Even the outbursts of exuberance to the sudden springy caprice of pizzicato phrases have an ensemble framework – all contrived to make the break-away solos and duets into statements of repressed yearnings for other kinds of togetherness. Somehow, the implied theory doesn’t manifest in practice, despite the dancers’ unstinting efforts. In Kate Flatt’s Undivided Loves, three of them – Marie-Astrid Mence caught between Sam Vaherlehto and Prentice Whitlow – attempted to express Shakespeare sonnets in movement while a muddy voice-over intoned quotations and a sometime tinkly, sometime percussive score further distanced the original “muse of fire” from this decidedly banal effort. Finally, Bloom was the quirky grotesquerie that majored on eccentricity – again, the dancers surrendered their bodies and their intelligence to choreography that had ambitions, but fell short of achieving them. Phoenix has a phenomenal back catalogue – if only they’d used that to celebrate their survival.