DANCE / It's not a knockout

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The Independent Culture
PUT A piece about boxing together with Phoenix Dance and you have a perfect fit: the company is as athletic as Lennox Lewis. In their thick red gloves and with rippling torsos, the men look every bit the part. And their pumping footwork as they darted round an opponent was a startling reminder that boxing, as well as being lethally violent, can be a dance.

Athleticism is the hallmark of this Leeds company, which has shown that you do not have to be based in London to launch an international touring career. Since it was founded in 1981, Phoenix has had a strong involvement in the local community, and later this month it will present work created with 135 Yorkshire schoolchildren. In the process, it has given young people the message that dance is cool. The company of black dancers has developed its own distinctive dialect of high-voltage, muscular dance which can flatten you with the force of its blast. That is the trouble: the dancers are far too good for the material they presented at Sadler's Wells last week.

In his piece Heart of Chaos, Darshan Singh Bhuller uses the principles of boxing - loose shoulders, small steps, interlocking bodies, jabs and hooks - and extends them into flowing choreography. A boxer lands his body blows to the thud of a bass drum. Smart men and women waltz to Rossini around the loser. Men spar and grip in a seedy training hall. But the piece is no challenge for the dancers; its charm is that it looks so good on them.

In Fatal Strategy, the dancers proved they were more than ready for Donald Byrd, the acclaimed American choreographer. They seized on his games of seduction, combusting its elements of suspense, danger, aggression, unpredictability, and coiling its energy so tightly that the piece almost sprang off the stage and landed in your lap. Byrd, an experienced choreographer who might be seen as an ambitious choice for a young company, proved no match for this one. They mashed him.

The weakest piece was Face Our Own Face by Pamela Johnson, a company member. Three large panels with wrought-iron lines become a jagged jungle gym and also a too-obvious metaphor for the obstacles black people have to overcome in their daily lives. A woman eases herself up and over the rough bars like a child in a playground - albeit a gymnastic child like the Chinese ones we see in the Olympics. No medals for this silliness.

Phoenix is crying out for a resident choreographer who will stretch the company and develop its language. Such a person is hard to find. At the moment, the dancers perform more like skilled entertainers than the artists they are.

(Photograph omitted)

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