Modern Britain

Phoenix Dance Theatre
Dance Theatre, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland, USA
April 4, 2006

by George Jackson
copyright 2006, George Jackson

Britain had modern dance before 1967 when Robert Cohan, a New Yorker who had studied and performed with Martha Graham, was invited there to teach, build a company and choreograph. A little of that before-Cohan modern was indigenous (Florence Mills, Penelope Spencer, anyone else?), a little more had escaped from Central Europa (Laban, Jooss, Leeder, Nirenska, Holger, et al.). It subsisted, whereas Cohan's work took root. Phoenix grew from one of those roots, and to honor Cohan the company has revived his "Forest" of 1977.

Initially, choreographing what became "Forest", Cohan hadn't intended to make a performance piece but simply a set of movement studies for the studio. When he decided to put these exercises on stage, he gave the choreography a predominantly lyric cast and some woodlands imagery. Undoubtedly the changes were meant to enhance the work's consistency and evocative appeal. To a certain extent they do, but not enough. What emerged doesn't make a seamless "artistic whole". Also, a sound composition (by Brian Hodgson) replaced silence, breathing and, probably, counting. I suspect that today "Forest" might be more convincing overall if Cohan had left his original alone and simply shown it to audiences as a collection of etudes.

Technically and theatrically this work is in the Graham tradition of sculpting the body, playing with anatomic volume and weight, and displaying the body's sensual charge. Particularly memorable are passages for the two deep-blue clad members of the seven dancer cast. Tiia Ourila (from Finland), with her tall and flexible stature, stalks thru the forest like Diana on the hunt. She has the insistent, larger-than-life quality of Graham's leading women, but also a pensive submissiveness when meeting her match. Yann Seabra (from Brazil), as Ourila's Endymion, seems a kouros formed by Phidias' hand as he models long, challenging balances. Hurtling himself into the air, Seabra is keen and out to explore, in addition to being buoyant. Ourila's and Seabra's solo moments require that they concentrate utterly. By comparison, their complex partnering seems easy. The rest of "Forest", the passages for others in the cast, has a modicum of invention but also contains clichés such as the stage-crossing deer leaps.

"Forest" was the centerpiece of Phoenix's mixed bill program and, all in all, had the evening's strongest choreography. "Signal", the opener, started rhythmically with slow, deliberately quirky movement that showed the body in its parts. Then came a switch to action that was acrobatic and fast. Henri Oguike's choreography kept signaling motion-for-motion's-sake for most of this piece's duration until the end when, suddenly, the dancers projected emotion. The accompaniment was Japanese drum and koto-and-shakuhachi music. In the closing work,"Eng-er-land"—a comedy—life in England/Britain is seen from the not quite native's point of view. Its star turned out to be its mobile decor, a lighting design that ranged from virtual reality to fantasy. This was the brainchild of Phoenix's departing director, Darshan Singh Bhuller, in collaboration with the visuals firm KMA. Humans are in "Eng-er-land" too, but their cartoonish characterizations and dancing made less impact. The aural infrastructure was pop music by disc jockey Blessed.

Phoenix is 25 years old and resides now in Leeds. Its 10 dancers are of diverse body types and racial features. Most of them move with confidence and strength, although only Ourila and Seabra showed star quality. The group look is not unlike that of working class Britain today—a mix of indigenous and immigrant. The company deserves better choreography than this first program contained, and music that provokes the dancing.

First: Phoenix Dance Theatre members Yann Seabra (back) and Tiia Ourila (front) perform in "Forest." Photo by Anthony Crickmay
Second: Kialea-Nadine Williams performs in "Eng-er-land." Photo by Chris Nash

Volume 4, No. 13
April 3, 2006

copyright ©2006 George Jackson



©2006 DanceView