As one of the first female Principal Dancers invited to join the all-male Phoenix Dance Theatre and having toured with the award-winning company for many years, it is fair to say that Sharon Watson is more than experienced in the field of dance and performance. After pursuing ventures of her own, including, but not exclusive to, creating her own company ABCD, Sharon returned to Phoenix in 2009 as their 7th Artistic Director. Having recently been recognised at the Northern Power Women Awards as part of the ‘Top 50 Power List’, Sharon talks to us about her upcoming programme for autumn and how she hopes Phoenix at Home: A Celebration of Female Choreographers will promote the diversity of talent that the north and Phoenix have to offer.
Phoenix Dance Theatre will play a key role in the upcoming Celebration Gala for Nadine Senior MBE, what impact and role did Nadine play for you personally in your professional dancing career?
I have often described Nadine as a second mum! Instrumental and intrinsic in helping me understand and navigate a career path. Working out the logistics in getting me through a complex process of applications to take the next steps. Her unprecedented actions have enabled me to see how thinking a little different can lead to positive change.
Would you say that you were inspired by any performers or dancers when starting out in your own career?
Certainly. We were introduced to London Contemporary Dance Theatre at an early stage of our dance development. The performers of this company were outstanding and inspiring. We had the added kudos of knowing one of the company dancers was from Leeds; Darshan Singh Bhuller. He later went on to direct Phoenix Dance – the company I now direct and I worked with him as his right-hand lady. Serendipitous maybe!
You have spoken previously about the lack of female talent within the field of dance and choreography, how do you feel this year’s programme and in particular, Phoenix at Home addresses this prevalent issue?
It’s not the lack of female talent but rather the lack of representation of the female talent that’s out there. What gives me pleasure in presenting this program is that we have 5 very different choreographic female voices. Some are at the beginning of a choreographic journey, others not so. At no point did we feel this was the wrong thing to present. I know the audience will appreciate, enjoy, question and be inspired by the variety of the offer. It’s a shame that in 2017 the question of opportunity and equality is still an agenda item. However, we cannot ignore that this is an issue in more ways than one.
As a dancer yourself, did you ever feel that there were any barriers to establishing a career for yourself in the profession?
Barriers have been prevalent throughout my career. The glass ceiling as I described it in the past was a real place of challenge. Having to manage overt stereotypes became part of the game plan for change.
Phoenix at Home gives us a first glance at Windrush, a major new piece of yours, to be premiered in the spring; what we can expect from this piece?
Having taken time to have an R&D process in the studio I’ve been inspired to showcase this journey to date. It’s quite an unusual move on my part as the work is by no means finished. What I hope to share is the beginnings of a journey that enables others to question and be curious of this moment in time that changes the way we see Britain today; It was an invitation from the the British government which brought the first migrants from the Caribbean to Britain. In 1948 the SS Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks with over 400 passengers. Those that settled created their own communities and were key in building their culture to sit alongside and integrate with the British way of life. Whilst there had been ‘ethnic minorities’ in Britain for a long period before 1948, Windrush is seen as the start of a process which changed the entirety of British culture and society.
The audience for Phoenix at Home will only see the moments where I start the journey from Kingston Jamaica and arrive in the UK at Tilbury Docks. The work goes on to challenge the unpalatable experience of rejection and racism. We go on to celebrate the contributions made in the 80s’ which has made an impact on British culture. The sound track alone is an inspiration. The full work will premiere at the WYPH in February 2018.
Leading on from this, what is it about this particular part of British history that stood out to you as a story worth telling?
In 2018 it’s the 70th year anniversary of the Windrush arrivals. Although my parents weren’t one of the first to arrive in the UK they are part of that history. They left family and friends for what they hoped would be a better life in the Mother Land. Young families had aspiration to help change and support Britain after WW2. I’ve listened to stories told by family members and friends, of feeling rejected and of displacement. This is going back 50/60/70 years ago. Look at what is going on in the world today. The results of the referendum have highlighted similarities and little change!
You have always remained a key part of Phoenix’s work, in many capacities, what is it that you love the most?
I thoroughly enjoy the variety of what we offer. I love the fact I have the pleasure of working with exceptional artist. We have a team who are committed to making art the focus of our business. Our education speaks to many from the very young to those who consider themselves ‘mature’. Staying connected to Phoenix isn’t difficult and the range of work we offer allows for different ways to engage. I love the fact people feel part of the Phoenix Family once connected
Finally, as the independent chair for the Steering committee, bidding for European Capital of Culture Leeds 2023, what do you believe makes Leeds a worthy contender for this title?
We believe our city can use culture to make change. Our BID is about people, giving opportunity to use culture to connect, to have a voice and to place ourselves at the heart of peoples thinking and connectivity. By engaging with the citizens of Leeds, our business, education, our political voices and addressing the social agendas, we know change is inevitable. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We need this more than ever and, although we are leaving the EU, we are still in Europe
Coming this autumn:
September 27 – 30: Phoenix at Home: A Celebration of Female Choreographers, Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds
October & November: Autumn Tour: Mixed Programme, Various dates and venues
February 7 – 10: Windrush: World Premiere at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. The first contemporary dance to commemorate the arrival of SS Empire Windrush, which brought the first large group of immigrants from the Caribbean to the UK, marking its 70th anniversary.