We are thrilled to announce the appointment of Marcus Jarrell Willis as our new artistic director.
Marcus, 38, dancer and choreographer, was born in Houston, Texas. Following his passion for dance he moved to New York at the age of 16 to study at The Ailey School. He performed with Ailey II and in 2008 joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He stayed with the company for eight years, choreographing, teaching and performing in New York and on tour, and participating in outreach work in local and international communities. He has also performed with RIOULT, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater and Tania Pérez-Salas Compañía de Danza.
He received his first choreographic commission at the age of 23 and has since choreographed dozens of works for a wide variety of companies and festivals across America and Europe, particularly focusing on creating opportunities for young people in hard-to-reach communities. In 2008 he founded MJ Willis/Project-Inc., collaborating with like-minded artists on experimental projects across music, dance and the spoken word. In 2018 he was selected for a Leverhulme Choreography Fellowship at Rambert in London and decided to move to the UK. He was appointed as Resident Choreographer for Ballet Cymru in Newport, Wales, in 2021 and there went on to develop a number of new initiatives including Works In Progress which aims to bridge the gap between mid-career choreographers and venues in Wales.
From its inception, Phoenix Dance Theatre’s story has been one of opportunity, creating pathways for dance artists to perform and be represented, and offering young people the chance to access and experience dance, regardless of background or training. Our commitment to enabling opportunity is being extended through the professional pathways we create. Marcus will join Phoenix as artistic director on a fixed four-year contract which heralds our new touring and production cycle and artist development programme.
Delia Barker, Chair of the Board of Trustees said today: “We are delighted to make this announcement today of the appointment of Marcus Jarrell Willis. This is an exciting time for Phoenix as we are at the beginning of a new chapter for the company. Marcus’ appointment is key to a different way of working, nurturing and providing opportunities for talented individuals who may otherwise face barriers to securing leadership opportunities. Marcus’s depth of experience and his commitment to involving our many diverse communities, especially young people, match our ambition to create pathways for the development of artistic talent, particularly those from Black and other global majority communities. I am truly excited about what Marcus will bring to Phoenix, but also the role he will play in aiding Phoenix Dance Theatre to redefine leadership paths and development opportunities in the dance industry.”
Commenting on his appointment, Marcus Jarrell Willis, said: “I am thrilled and honoured to be chosen to lead Phoenix Dance Theatre at a time of tremendous opportunity for new creative thinking, and I am excited about what Phoenix is doing to shape the sector. From my childhood I have aspired to be involved in dance. Phoenix holds such an important place in the contemporary dance landscape of the UK and its commitment to remaining loyal to its roots and fostering opportunity is something I am passionate about. I want to do my best to share this passion and experience with the next generation of dance makers to help to open up new opportunities for them in their futures.”
Marcus takes up his appointment next month. His first global engagement with us will be in South Africa. We are overjoyed that Requiem: Journeys of the Soul will be performed at Artscape, Cape Town, from 12 – 14 October in a remounting of Opera North’s cross-cultural production which premiered at Leeds Grand Theatre earlier this year. These will be our first international performances since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Choreographed by Dane Hurst, Phoenix and South Africa’s Jazzart Dance Theatre will revive their performances, this time in collaboration with Cape Town Opera and Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.
Our new touring cycle will commence this autumn with a community tour in Leeds. Marcus’ first choreographic work for the company will premiere in Spring 2024 – we look forward to sharing further details later in the year!
Header, below left & right images: Hugo Glendinning. Marcus and Company Dancers images: Point of View Photography