Phoenix Fridays: Reflections with John-William Watson

7 Jun 2024

From February to April, we had the pleasure of hosting Leeds-based artist John-William Watson as one of our Phoenix Fridays artists.

As part of the programme, John-William and our other Phoenix Fridays artist, Akeim Toussaint-Buck, collaborated closely with our company dancers to create a total of four pieces. John-William contributed two pieces: a solo titled ‘Rules for Safe Lifting’ and a collaborative work with our dancers titled ‘For Me, It’s Shoe’. Both pieces were performed for an exclusive audience on Friday 26 April at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre. We asked John-William about their experience here at Phoenix and their solo work ‘Rules for Safe Lifting’.

How was your experience collaborating with Phoenix Dance Theatre as a Phoenix Fridays artist? 

The experience was incredibly nourishing, with arts funding as it is in the UK, the opportunity to make work at the moment let alone having an output-free space to simply explore your practice is rare. Being able to spend time in my hometown, researching my practice and developing my work aligned at a perfect time within my work at the moment.

I focused on my own practice and solo work and also how my work translates into an incredible ensemble company; which was exactly what that creative part of my brain needed!

The support, freedom and open communication with the programme from the get-go was so beneficial. Being able to share what ways of working are most useful and tailor it in this way allowed me to really gain as much as I could from my time in-house.

Can you provide insight into ‘For me, its Shoe’ and how you found working with our company dancers? 

‘For Me, its Shoe, the culmination of my research with the Phoenix company dancers, really started from nothing. I began by sharing my practice, the ways I like to approach movement, theatrically and music; from that, a desire to play with objects emerged.

Prior to Phoenix Fridays, I’ve only ever worked with mime principals, and objects within my solo practice, however, the dancers are so exceptional, open and (I feel like I need to say this because humour is so crucial to the work I make) hilarious that it felt like a natural progression.

Armed with 11 shoes we began exploring how objects can have minds of their own, how we can emulate autonomy within something so boring and mundane.

What resulted was, and in no small part due to the commitment, curiosity and down-right talent the dancers possess, a hilarious and surprisingly beautiful tapestry of a community of people trying to come to terms with the fact that their shoes are in essence, the ones walking in them!

Can you share the story behind ‘Rules for Safe Lifting’ and the creative process that went into its creation? 

‘Rules for Safe Lifting’ began in a theatre but not where you’d expect, the source material is a health and safety poster in the basement of Sadler’s Wells; describing how to lift a box correctly.

The work evolved as a surreal character study of the man in the poster, and explored the absurd imagined reality of a person whose entire existence is to demonstrate one simple task.

I went into the process very open ended, with no expectations on myself or the work, however, what developed was a bizarre 40 minute dark-comedy dance-play about this character’s relationship with time, consciousness and their attempt to prolong the inevitable.

What can our readers expect next from you in terms of your creative work?

I’m currently looking to fund and develop my first full-length work and establish my company here in lovely Leeds!

The new work entitled MOON FOOD is a surreal, sci-fi, retro-futuristic, dark comedy dance theatre work set in alternate reality where our development of space science occurs decades before it really did. The work follows a group of strangers in a departure lounge in 1969- as they are about to board the C.O.W., the first civilian spaceflight to the moon.

Although through a campy, retro-futuristic lens, this surprisingly contemporary work will be exploring themes of social polarisation, queerness, over-consumption, the environment and our modern departure from the nature world. Offering an albeit humorous but compelling and existential perspective on our relationships with one another, our planer, space and time.

So, keep those eyes peeled, and if you’re curious about the new work, get in touch!

Follow John-William Watson on Instagram 

Photography: David Lindsay