40 Years of Phoenix Review

Birmingham Rep – 12th March 2022

Reviewed by Amarjeet Singh


As a novice of dance performances, 40 Years of Phoenix reverberated through to my very core. I was dumbstruck by the intensity and power of the performances, the skill and the storytelling through movement and music.

Phoenix Dance was founded in Leeds in 1981 by three young black dancers, David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James. Over four decades and eight artistic directors, the company has grown from its small-scale, local roots to become one of the elite companies in the country, touring both nationally and internationally and building a significant body of work.

For tonight’s 40th Celebration, artistic director, Dane Hurst appears to have chosen iconic pieces to represent the past forty years and expertly express the breadth, depth and richness of what dance can achieve. The selected pieces are an amazing cross-section of powerful, humorous, and athletic works.

Highlights for me were the remarkable Signal, Harmonica Breakdown, and Pave Up Paradise.

Signal’ assaulted your senses as soon as the curtain lifted. The intense, loud drumming fills your ears and chest. Dancers leaped, undulate, and wrestled to the drumming and fire which was lit on stage and inducing a primitive fugue state. The choreography shifts from synchronicity and apparent chaos, offering intense, sinuous physical shapes and full-body gestures which leaves you bereft of logic, just emotion.

Harmonica Breakdown’ is a solo piece performed with intensity and repetitive control, accompanied by an entrancing piece of music of the same name. Harmonica Breakdown paints a picture of repression and rebellion amongst women in America during the Great Depression. It is a short, captivating and thought-provoking, historical piece which resonates still.

However, it was “Pave Up Paradise“, that stole my heart. The only piece with spoken word, “Pave Up Paradise” presents us with a modern-day Adam and Eve story which weaves Biblical themes of forgiveness, blame and guilt, into a contemporary setting. You feel as if you have stumbled upon the middle of a drunken night out which then, surprisingly, unfolds into a touching, evocative and beautiful piece of hybrid dance and theatre. Joined on-stage by a guitarist playing indie hits, you are drawn even more into the drunken night out scenario with the conjuring up of an impromptu busker’s soundtrack, but this is juxtaposed by the sudden undress, melancholic movements, subtle ape like grooming and the fateful bite of the apple. Such a clever, witty, and stunning piece, it has stayed with me.

Varied, enigmatic and breath-taking, this selection of works from 40 Years of Phoenix, danced with commitment by this talented, skilled, and flexible troupe, beautifully highlights the reason why this company are elite in their field and deserve to be celebrated.