Until recently, our Phoenix and Jazzart Dance Theatre dancers were creating Requiem: Journeys of the soul separately in Leeds and Cape Town. In Part Three of this blog series, we heard from half of the dancers about what the creative process was like working across continents. Now, having been united in Leeds for the past few weeks, and mere days away from opening night, we caught up with the remaining eight dancers to glean what this latest stage of the creative process has been like, uniting the two companies together and entering into rehearsals with the Chorus of Opera North and the four soloists.
PART FIVE: DANCERS UNITED
“The dynamic between Phoenix and Jazzart is similar to fire and air, earth and water, with both of us striving to meet the other. It is powerful.”
Q: WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE BEING PART OF CREATIVE PROCESS THAT HAS BROUGHT TWO DANCE COMPANIES TOGETHER?
SHAWN WILLIS (Phoenix): It has been a potent and profound process, creating but also leaving space to explore more. It’s been amazing as well as refreshing. The dancing dream is to travel through dance and experience different cultures. However, the reality is that when you’re touring, you are just insanely focused on working! This collaboration of mixing cultures has created a unique space to exchange different points of view and ways of creating the works I hope that this becomes a Phoenix trademark – rich cultural exchanges through dance. I have made some great friends and discovered connections that will stay with me.
Working together is about cultivating respect in the differences, interpretations, community and spirit! In the beginning it was easy to make comparisons between the two companies, but as time went on the melding and gelling of the dancing spirit, and the connections through interest and expressions of love for each other overflowed in the space.
LIHLE MFENE (Jazzart): The process has been really interesting and different. I found it relatively easy to connect with Requiem. Although you can’t know what happens when you’re dead, the music just took over and the choreography came together. Watching other dancers do the creative work made it clearer for me how to interpret the movement and the feeling behind everything.
After Tears had been more challenging because when the creative process started the music didn’t have words, it was just electronic music. That gave me a sort of mental block so I couldn’t come up with the movement, but having the two companies brought together in the space helped so much and I love how we all encourage each other and make it a safe space to explore movement as well as make mistakes.
Q: HOW HAS UNITING THE TWO COMPANIES IN THE SAME SPACE IMPACTED ON THE CHOREOGRAPHY?
TEIGE BISNOUGHT (Phoenix): Most of the work was created with the two companies separate from each other, meaning one group would have to learn material through videos. Knowing that the time we would have together would be short, the pressure was on to learn the parts as best as we could before Jazzart would join us here. Each group dances as a collective and individually in very different ways. Phoenix has a diverse group of dancers, each with a unique way of moving, and Jazzart has the same, so when we finally came together it was almost like having two completely different works.
The challenge has been bringing these two unique versions of the work together and integrating them. Going back and changing the choreography you’ve learnt is normal and is usually an expected part of the process, but integrating two companies with separate versions of the same work was a bit more complicated. It required us all to be open, flexible, adaptable, and most importantly switched on.
As challenging as I make it out to be, the opportunity to be a part of Phoenix for this process and working with the stunning dancers from both Jazzart and Phoenix is a blessing. To witness all of the dancers with their individual ways of moving in the same place, and working together, is something special and is not something I’ve seen done in this way before.
CHESNEY STANFIELD (Jazzart): It has been an amazing experience being part of this creative process. The work itself has been a living body, shifting and changing. The process has taken place across continents and so the work feels like it is constantly evolving. Working as a joint company of sixteen dancers has been such a celebration. There is so much to share and learn from everyone in the room.
The work has evolved and become what it is by having all sixteen dancers in the room. The piece is very much taken from our movements, some of it being our own choreography. Each dancer has left their individual mark on the work and inspired the group with their movement and interpretation. The dynamic between Phoenix and Jazzart is similar to fire and air, earth and water, with both of us striving to meet the other. It is powerful. It would not exist without us both coming together to ignite each other. I feel unbelievably grateful to be able to experience this.
Q: HOW HAS IT BEEN WORKING WITH THE SOLOISTS AND THE CHOIR OF OPERA NORTH AND HOW DOES THIS IMPACT ON YOUR PERFORMANCE?
CARINA HOWARD (Phoenix): I can honestly say working with the soloists and choir has been magical. To be dancing right next to the soloists, or with the full force of the choir around you, is an experience that is hard to describe, but I will try! The power of the voices generates an intense visceral reaction in each of us as dancers, which drives us to reach deeper into where the movement is coming from and pushes (often catapults) us to delve further into our emotional journey throughout the work. Whilst the singers’ precision and care over every breath adds an extra level of sensitivity to every breath that we take as dancers. The first time we heard the choir was unforgettable and brought a few of us to tears. I often have to hold back smiles during runs of the piece as I am still so amazed by the beauty of the voices. On a personal level, it has been a joy to work with the singers, combining our artistry and passion into something that feels like it could be extraordinary. Bring on the orchestra!
ABIGAIL OVERMEYER (Jazzart): I’d say working with the soloists and choir has been a beautiful journey and a beautiful experience. It has honestly really brought Requiem and After Tears very much alive. That’s not to say that it wasn’t before (!), but there’s definitely a different texture, a different feeling, a different emotion that is added to the work now.
To me personally, hearing the voices of the choir and soloists together making the work come alive, has had a huge impact when performing, especially for the ‘Lacrimosa’ movement in Requiem [which I perform]. It has a different meaning to me now; there’s a different texture and I feel different emotions. Before, it was a little bit tough for me to tap into those emotions and see where I could create a narrative for the work, but the soloists and choir singing has brought a whole different perspective and liveliness to it, awakening it. Working with the soloists and the choir, we are hearing their narrative and we are hearing their stories through the music now. It’s not just the dancers’ story that we are telling, the soloists and the choir are telling their own stories through the work and their singing. It’s honestly beautiful working alongside all of them.
Q: WHAT WILL YOU TAKE AWAY FROM THIS EXPERIENCE AND WORKING WITH THE OTHER DANCE COMPANY?
DORNA ASHORY (Phoenix): For me, a big thing I am taking away from this experience is now knowing the masterpiece that is Mozart’s Requiem. This process was what introduced me to it – I wouldn’t say classical music is something I listened to or danced to, but I now hold such a massive appreciation for this powerful piece of music, and I will live my entire life having a deep connection to it because of these past five months.
I feel blessed to have worked with such an inspiring group of people. Each person brings such a unique energy to the space, and the dynamic that we have created as 16 dancers has been unforgettable. The mix of culture and dance styles has been enriching and has brought a fresh perspective to my practice. Their energy has been happily welcomed and received by us – it will be really difficult when we have to part ways at the end of this process.
EMILE PETERSEN (Jazzart): I will be taking away an entire experience of hard work and commitment into a craft that I really love. Requiem has left a mark that will live on forever. This is my first time travelling away from home to another continent to perform. So that alone is just a huge milestone for me as professionally this was one of the things on the top of my bucket list.
My overarching feeling working with Phoenix is that I am amazed and grateful. The humans inside and outside the studio are really kind, lovely and worth listening to. Working on the piece with the dancers was really great. I had a more open heart going into the process of molding the work together. And Dane has been such a caring and gracious choreographer for this project and his energy in the work environment has been really pleasant to work with. So, I’m really grateful for the opportunity to work alongside a really great legend in the making.
Top l-r: Emile Petersen, Abigail Overmeyer, LIHLE MFENE, Dorna Ashory.
Bottom, l-r: Chesney Stanfield, Teige Bisnought, Carina Howard, Shawn Willis.
Phoenix headshots by Point of View Photography. Jazzart headshots by Robyn Walker.