Behind the Scenes: Dancer Q&A

9 Jun 2022

With another tour under their belts, we caught up with dancers Matthew Topliss (pictured above – bottom right) and Aaron Chaplin (pictured above – top right). The sparring partners in Heart of Chaos reflect on the 40 Years of Phoenix programme and give us a little insight their progression as a dancer and life on tour. 

What did it mean to you, as a dancer, to be a part of Phoenix’s 40th anniversary tour? 

MT: Being a part of the 40th anniversary was a great privilege. Phoenix has a long history of successes and has produced memorable works that are still being performed today, and to be a part of that history is truly an honour. 

AC: It was great to be a part of Phoenix’s 40th birthday programme. It feels like a great contribution to an incredible 40 years. 

Which of the works was the most challenging and/or rewarding to dance and why? 

MT: I would say that Signal was the most challenging for me because it’s quite a stamina piece but getting to the end of it you do feel a sense of achievement after working so hard! Heart of Chaos was also another hard one to do because the character I needed to portray (Jim Jefferies) was a personality that I am so very not! 

AC: Family was the most challenging work for me as it requires pinpoint precision getting on and off the chair with six other dancers moving around you whilst also trying to stay in character. 

What was it like working with some of the original choreographers?

MT: I had the chance to work with Darshan Singh Bhuller on his piece Heart of Chaos and it was a wonderful experience. Working with the original choreographers is always so important and such a great experience, because you really start to get the same understanding for the piece as the choreographer did when they first created it. 

AC: It was great to work with some of the original choreographers as they gave us insight into the original intentions for the works. But it was also lovely to be given permission to update movement for today’s audiences.  

What was it like being a dancer and touring in the shadow of the pandemic? 

MT: For obvious reasons it was incredibly challenging. Things like adapting a show last minute or potentially having to cancel a performance has become a regular thing for many performing companies. There were a couple of instances where we had to change and rework the show but, fortunately, we never had to cancel due to the amazing dancers and touring team pulling together! 

AC: It was tough. Getting back into the groove of company life after an 8-month break meant that nothing was on autopilot, so everything was a lot harder. But that was to be expected. Throwing myself back into the work helped a lot.  

How have you developed as a dancer in the last year? 

MT: This is always such a hard question because development can often be based on the physical aspect of what we do, but for me it’s just as important to have developed mentally. I would say I have become more adept at dealing with sudden changes which is something we had to do a lot due to either injury or Covid.

AC: I think I understand my body a lot more. Coming back into the dance world after so long away gave me time to reflect and appreciate what it is that I do.  

Which venue were you most excited to visit and why? 

MT: For me it was Leeds Playhouse. I absolutely love that theatre and have a lot of great memories there.  

AC: I was most excited for London as it’s my hometown and the audiences are always great.  

Did you find that the audiences and audience reactions varied from venue to venue? 

MT: Yes, I think so. Dance is very subjective, and everyone is naturally going to enjoy some things more than others. But on the whole I felt the audiences loved seeing the variety of pieces and the athleticism the dancers brought to them. 

AC: I didn’t!  

We know what happens on tour stays on tour (!) but share with us a moment on tour that made you laugh or is particularly memorable. 

MT: There were definitely a lot of hilarious moments on tour! For me the best moment was one that wasn’t fun, but proud. Unfortunately, one of the dancers was injured just before the performance and we were close to having to cancel. But one of the Professional Placement Dancers – Charlie (Nayler) – stepped up and saved the show. He went from performing in one piece to four, and the first time he had even wore the costumes was in the performance! Well done lad! 

AC: There are too many to mention but the backstage changing room shenanigans are always fun.  

What is your overwhelming memory of the tour that will stay with you for years to come? 

MT: Over the course of the tour the dancers and touring team created a special bond. We laughed together, cried together, but most importantly stayed together. Everyone gave an abundance of energy and commitment to each other, and the tour, and that kind of togetherness is priceless. 

AC: How connected we were as a group despite the challenges we faced. We really held it together. And I’m thankful for the connections I made on this tour.  

Heart of Chaos image:  Foteini Christofilopoulou. Headshots: Camilla Greenwell