The value of research: reflections from our CEO, Jennifer Coleman-Peers

19 Dec 2023

Phoenix CEO Jennifer Coleman-Peers reflects on 2023, our new company strategy and purpose, and the influential stakeholder engagement project which has informed where we are today:

As we approach the end of the year it is natural to look back and reflect on the year just gone. There’s something about the long nights and cold days that invites introspection. For Phoenix it has been quite a year, as we launched back onto the stage with Requiem: Journeys of the Soul, appointed a new Artistic Director, toured to South Africa, welcomed the company’s first ever Junior Dancers, engaged thousands of children and young people, and delivered our first community tour. All of this has been driven by our new strategy and clarity of purpose. We exist to create extraordinary dance, and what we do off stage is as important as what we do on it. That clarity has in large part been informed by the stakeholder engagement work we undertook last year, and now as I look back on everything we have achieved in 2023, I realise just how pivotal that work has been.

When we took the decision to pause our creative output to undertake a strategic review in 2022, we knew that we wanted to reach out to the widest group of stakeholders that we could. Phoenix has always been rooted in community and has had an outsize influence on the sector, so stakeholder engagement was a must. As one person we spoke to put it, “it always felt like Phoenix belonged to Leeds, that it belonged to the people of Leeds”. We knew that to do that effectively, however, we would need expert support to formulate our approach and capture, synthesise, and analyse the findings. When AKD Solutions was recommended to us, we knew that we had found the right partner for the project.

AKD Solutions had recently completed the landmark #TellYourStory report, on behalf of the UK Sports Council. The study highlighted experiences of racism across 38 sports in the UK and produced the Arts Council England leadership model (Allyship, Challenge, Experiment model) providing the framework for tackling deep seated issues within sport. With Phoenix’s heritage as a Black British founded dance company, and with issues of representation in the company still live, we knew that AKD could steer us through some challenging but necessary conversations. The study was designed and the data analysed by AKD’s Research Consultants, Reyss Wheeler and Dr Michelle Peter, who specialise in the lived experiences of Black and other ethnically diverse populations in the UK.

Together with AKD we designed a research study to engage with a wide range of our key stakeholders including company members, education partners, sector colleagues, communities and funders. Our aim was to better understand the impact Phoenix is uniquely placed to deliver and, as a result, to ensure that Phoenix has the focus, resources, culture, resilience and agility to deliver another incredible 40 years of dance.

Through this study, AKD consulted with 266 of Phoenix’s stakeholders, using surveys, feedback forms, focus groups and interviews to better understand who the organisation currently serves and who we could and should serve in the future. To answer the question about who Phoenix currently serves, AKD looked at demographic data of current audience members, the workforce, Board, and students to form a picture of the organisation’s reach.

The consistent view was that Phoenix needed to develop a clear identity and core organisational values that are transparent to all of those who work in the company. Representation at all levels across the entire company, leadership that is adaptable, collaborative, and committed to its implementation of supportive practice for its workforce, promoting progression, and reaching out to the local community were all seen as critical to the success of Phoenix’s future.

That said there were a wide range of views, so we knew that whatever we did we would never be able to please everyone. As one person put it, “The reality is that these organisations can’t be everything to everyone all the time. And it means that you have to, I find you have to be quite clear about what your purpose is”. Other comments made back in 2022 included:

  • “There hasn’t, I don’t feel, been a very strong creative voice coming from the company.”
  • “I think it’s imperative that the company that has been grown out of a cultural situation and circumstance remains true to its force. Even though it has to grow with the future, it definitely has to morph and change, but it shouldn’t really lose its identity in saying that there’s a space there for people of colour.”
  • “the office space and the admin staff, it’s actually very much less diverse in terms of ethnicity.”
  • “I would like a predominance of Black and brown-skinned people on stage, off stage, and around the organisation. But I do not want it to be exclusive.”
  • “Who else is telling those… global majority stories, you know…Phoenix has always had a very strong narrative underneath its amazing expression of dance.”
  • “You guys need to re-establish your touring network again. You need to get back to Sadler’s Wells. You need to get back to Edinburgh Festival Theatre.”
  • “Getting audiences to take that risk, you know, risking that money for that ticket rather than something that they know that they’ve been to and seen before, and that they know that they enjoy…that’s probably going to be the biggest thing.”
  • “Having teachers who spoke more about their experiences, like on stage because they were Phoenix dancers, that was really helpful…being surrounded by professional dancers, people like working as artists…it just exposed me to that and it was like, yeah, I could also do that.”
  • “…having a bursary [from Phoenix Dance Theatre] and coming from somewhere that…doesn’t have so much money and is you know a very like predominantly working-class community…I felt like I could have a very clear conversation about it…There is no shame in it.”
  • “The education department has a huge part to play in terms of access.”
  • “whoever the artistic director is…I don’t want one person to hold so much power.”

Some of the feedback was hard to hear, and we didn’t agree with every point of view, but we knew how important it was to truly listen to what was being said, and more than that, to then take action.

Having analysed all the data for key trends and insights AKD pulled together a series of recommendations, including diversifying the workforce, improving data capture processes, having a Black focus, deep and embedded community engagement, championing and leading on socially conscious practices and widening the education offer. These recommendations were reviewed and then adopted by our Board of Trustees.

Armed with this information and with the support of organisational change consultant, Marshah Dixon-Terry, we worked as a company to develop our new forward strategy. A key part of this was defining our values, as they will underpin everything we seek to achieve:

We then identified three key themes that run through everything we do: a focus on creating opportunities, just as our founders did from the very beginning; a deep rooted commitment to our heritage as a Black British Caribbean founded company and a focus on how we can work today to deliver impact in relation to race, ethnicity, gender and class; a commitment to supporting children and young people and providing pathways for their development.

We have redefined our touring and production model and have now moved to a two-year cycle that allows us the space to connect with our local communities as well as make a return to main stages across the UK and beyond. We have also reshaped the Artistic Director Role, with a focus on providing a platform for exceptional talent and passing the baton to emerging ADs, and have appointed our first new Director on a four-year model.

The past few years have been challenging for Phoenix Dance Theatre, and it may have seemed to some that we had lost our way, but thanks to the generous input of our stakeholders, the support of AKD Solutions and the dedication of our Board and team we are now in a really strong position for the future.

I am incredibly proud to lead this organisation and am aware of what a privilege it is to be a guardian of such an important legacy. It’s hard to sum up everything that Phoenix is and does but with our newfound clarity we have tried to do just that:


Phoenix Dance Theatre makes contemporary dance that is audacious, imaginative and adept. We take seriously our wider responsibility to the company’s Black heritage, our communities and the sector. That is why we seek to create opportunities for artists and audiences, to create a meaningful dialogue with our communities and to create space for diverse voices and perspectives. With Phoenix you will see work from those who don’t ordinarily have a platform, you will see us create and collaborate with out of the ordinary partners and you will see an extraordinary commitment to learning and development opportunities for young people, both on and off stage.

We are Phoenix Dance Theatre.

We create extraordinary dance.

As the year winds down, we are all ready for a well-earned rest. The team has delivered an incredible amount this year and 2024 is set to be even more exciting, as we gear up for the premiere of our mid-scale tour BELONGING: Loss. Legacy. Love., prep the launch of our new Phoenix Fridays initiative to support creative talent in the region, deliver a new digital programme, expand our new annual Community Engagement Tour programme, begin creation for our 2025 main-stage tour, and support thousands more children and young people. With all of that on the horizon you’ll forgive us for closing down over the Christmas week and giving everyone the chance to recoup, reset, and reflect on just how far we have come together.

Before I sign off then, I would like to thank everyone who contributed to the AKD research study. Each and every one of your insights and ideas has helped inform our thinking. We won’t get everything right, particularly as we test new ideas and try new models of operation, but we will always strive to reflect, learn, and adapt to ensure that we deliver the greatest impact possible. And with clearly stated aims and values you will always be able to hold us to account. Phoenix would not exist without our extended community, and it is only together that we will create extraordinary dance. Long may that continue.

Photo Hugo Glendinning