8 Questions with our new Artistic Director, Dane Hurst

15 Feb 2021

Dane Hurst was recently appointed as Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director. He is eighth person to have taken on the role, and his directorship follows Sharon Watson who departed the company in May 2020 after ten memorable years to join Northern School of Contemporary Dance as their CEO & Principal. 

He is a multi-award winning director, choreographer and dancer and joins Phoenix following a position with Jazzart Dance Theatre, where he was the Associate Artist in residence. He was also Artistic Director and founder of the Moving Assembly Project. Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, he trained at Rambert School in London, supported by a Nelson Mandela/Linbury Trust scholarship in 2003, and later joined Rambert Dance Company.

Dane Hurst joined us full time at the beginning of February. We sat down with him to discuss his career, his journey as an artist, and taking up this important role under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You were born and raised in South Africa. What do you miss about the country?

First and foremost, I miss my family. I have my mum and 3 sisters who have 8 children between them and two of their children have children, so we are a big family along with the extended family of cousins, uncles and aunts. I miss being able to just turn up at their house for tea. When I think about South Africa I think about the blue skies and the sun. I grew up in Port Elizabeth, a harbour city, so seeing ships sail in the distance on the horizon was a daily reminder of the wider world out there.

What inspired you to become a dancer?

My first memory of the feeling of being a dancer was when I saw Michael Jackson on TV in the late 80’s. I remember feeling the excitement of what he did in that moment, I copied what I saw and received an applause from family friends visiting our home at the time. I was about 5 years old and remember that incredible feeling of being appreciated by people, it felt good. Years after this initial moment I joined a ballet class and was inspired by an older boy who danced at the local studio and lived on my street. This dancer was Warren Adams who later joined the Rambert School and became a member of Phoenix in the mid 90’s. I was inspired by this journey and made it a focus to strive towards achieving that for myself. I knew about Phoenix as a possible destination from when I was a young teenager.

Where did you complete your training?

I completed my ballet training in Cecchetti Technique at the Toynbee Club, a small local dance school run by Gwen Mary Wells. We had an old disused municipal office as our studio that was built out of thin wood and eaten by termites. We had holes in the walls and floors everywhere, so the classical ballet music was regularly infused with music from the Spanish Flamenco and Jazz Dance classes. We later moved to a High School nearby that had a dance studio with mirrors as the Toynbee Club eventually fell apart. I would also include breakdance as part of my training as this informed much of my movement when I later learned contemporary dance technique. We learned our moves off VHS tapes from Battle of the Year compilations and taught each other in garages and street corners. We honed our skills in versing each other at Dance Battles around the different clubs in the city as well as later being invited to the Opera House to showcase our skills. After this period, I auditioned and joined the Rambert School in London 2003 and then my first company, Rambert in 2004 and later Phoenix in 2007.

What advice would you give to other aspiring dancers?

Find a goal, dream of something you really want to achieve for yourself. Understand what that would mean to you if you reached it or achieved it. Lock that dream or vision or goal firmly in your mind and say it over and over and over and don’t listen to what anybody says about reaching that goal. When you set upon the path towards reaching your goal, remember, you will get opposition or be ridiculed or tested. Don’t be side-tracked or discouraged, just follow you dream. When you become focussed and determined, things will open up for you. Just remain positive and hold onto your dream, it will give you a sense of purpose and help you through the toughest of times and challenges.

What made you want to apply for the role of Artistic Director at Phoenix Dance Theatre?

Firstly, as I mentioned, I knew about the company way back when I was growing up in South Africa. This was before the internet. The company gave off a vibration that travelled far and wide. Phoenix was embedded into my mind as a youth before I even knew anything about the company or what a dance company did. Later when I found out how it started with David Hamilton, I became inspired by the power of dance and the power inherent in a company and how it can change peoples lives. I recognise the power of dance beyond the stage and connect with and embrace the spirit of how the company started, with a dream, a vision held by a young man at 18yrs old. There is not one thing that made me want to apply for the position, there are many things that led to this moment in time that is far beyond and more complex than anything I can say in a few words. I think Phoenix chose me, it embedded itself into my spirit way back in South Africa and when the call came I had no choice but to stand up and put myself forward.

What advice would you give to early career dancers navigating lockdown?

Watch videos of other dancers, greater than yourself. Watch videos of the professionals at the height of their powers. It is important to take time to learn from those that are succeeding and doing well. This lockdown has forced us to stay at home and re-evaluate everything. During this time I would say study and practice in any way that you can. Set your mind on where you would like to go and what you would like to achieve. Practice your craft and when the time is right you will be ready for when things open up again. This is a time to prepare and focus on the future.

You’ve recently relocated to Leeds after living in London for a very long time? What will you miss about the capital?

London is a great city but so is Leeds. I definitely won’t miss the tourist crowds or commuting for hours and look forward to being able to walk to most places in Leeds. My partner, Romany Pajdak, is in London and of course I will miss her and miss seeing her performances at the Royal Ballet but we are only 2hr30 mins away so it’s not far at all.

What are you most looking forward to about living in Leeds (post-lockdown measures of course)?

I look forward to getting to know more of the people in the City, I’ve had such a warm welcome from everyone that I’ve come across and absolutely can say that I feel a real warmth and strong beating heart to the community here. I’m looking forward to visiting all the fantastic galleries as I love art and sculpture and then of course I look forward to seeing performances at the many great theatres in the city such as the Leeds Grand and newly renovated Leeds Playhouse Theatre. There’s so much culture here and a good dose of nature too. I think any city that has a river running through it has life and there is much life here in Leeds, I look forward to absorbing as much of it as I can and hope to give as much back to it as I can.