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Dane Hurst has started his academic direction of Phoenix Dance Theatre with a bang. The company shares the stage with Opera North in a double bill celebrating Bernstein's music in the 1950s.

The opera, Trouble in Haiti, a satire on the American dream, takes the first half of the bill. The second half starts with a mixed performance of spoken poetry represented by all the Phoenix dancers in Dane's choreography.

Then follows his choreography to a suite made up of Bernstein's music for the West Side Story musical, albeit generic, divorced from the specific dramatic structure of the musical. The publicity beforehand promised mambos, waltzes and cha-chas but my overall impression was of visceral contemporary dance, some of it not that different from Robbins's own choreography for the musical and for the ballet that Robbins later composed for NYCB of dances from the musical. There was a mixture of relationships, some angry and conflictual ; Hurst says he was influenced by the tensions in his native South Africa. There are also varied emotional and sexual relationships but, like the musical, the dance culminates in a final climax of murder. There is clever use of scenery which the dancers frequently move round, often climbing up it or hiding behind it, reminding one of some of the scenes in the musical, indeed much of what takes place reminded me of the musical, whilst being entirely original. The dancers are excellent, dynamic and musical, helped by the stunning playing of the Opera North orchestra which brings out all the colours and rhythms of Bernstein's score.

Altogether a wonderful start to Dane Hurst's directorship. There are 10 more performances altogether. It can be seen at Leeds (the Grand), Newcastle Theatre Royal, The Lowry, Salford, Nottingham Theatre Royal. 

In addition Phoenix Dance Theatre have an interesting mixed bill touring and a gala in December celebrating their 40th birthday.

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If he is leaving at the end of November he may not even be present at the 40th year anniversary gala on 3 December.

I was very surprised at the opening night of West Side Story Symphonic Dances that he didn't appear to take a bow at the end, despite the rapturous applause for his choreography and dancers.  Perhaps the reason for his non-appearance is in some way connected to his decision to return to South Africa.

I am gutted. As a dancer he had the most wonderful liquid quality and I regretted that he seemed likely to give up dancing when he took over the directorship. But when you met him or read interviews with him his modesty and humanity were inspirational. Very sad for the company who tonight give the second performance of his new Bernstein work.

I had hoped that under his directorship there would be a closer partnership with Northern Ballet. The two companies share a building but, up to now, there has been little cooperation.

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  • 4 weeks later...

A friend and I saw this double bill at The Lowry tonight.


What can I say about the opera Trouble in Tahiti ... I found it banal in the extreme and am very glad it formed the first part of the programme.


The second half of the evening belonged to Phoenix Dance Theatre.


Their half of the evening started with Dane Hurst's Halfway and Beyond to words written and spoken by Khadijah Ibrahim and a percussive score that is not credited.  There was a structure in the middle of the stage that divided it in 2 halves and the dancers were able to move between doorways to cross to different sides of the stage.


This structure was also used in West Side Story Symphonic Dances again choreographed by Dane Hurst.  I agree with Sheila that the choreography is visceral and I found it enthralling to watch.  If you are at all familiar with R&J and/or West Side Story you can work out the gang warfare and the love affairs.  Scintillating stuff!  All the dancers were fabulous in both pieces.


The audience reaction to Phoenix was deservedly absolutely ecstatic.


What a shame Dane Hurst is leaving so soon after taking charge of the company - he has so much to offer and will be a great loss to British contemporary dance.

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