Sharon Watson, Artistic Director at Phoenix Dance Theatre on her transition from dancer, to choreographer to director, and why we need to shout louder about diversity


Sharon Watson is Artistic Director at Phoenix Dance Theatre, having originally joined as a dancer from 1989 to 1997 and re-joining in 2000 as the company’s Rehearsal and Tour Director, before subsequently being appointed as the 7th Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Theatre in May 2009. In 2010 she was named as one of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s Women to Watch, a list of 50 influential women working in arts and culture in the UK. Sharon is a trustee of Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, The Place, West Yorkshire Playhouse, and an artistic advisor for Central School of Ballet and Leeds Inspired.

Sharon Watson

Sharon Watson

“…I said to my mum and dad after my first dance lesson, “When I’m sixteen, I’m going to London to be a professional dancer.” And they both said, “OK!” as they do when you’re nine years old and they’re thinking, “You haven’t got a clue what you really want to do!” So they said, “We’ll talk about it when you’re older.” And sixteen came and I went! I said, “That’s it. I’m ready to go, Mum. I’m off to professional training!”…”

Sharon, we were trying to summarise your career and work history in three sentences and we struggled as your CV is so jam packed! Please could you help us out and talk us through your work to date?

Sharon WatsonWell I’m delighted that that’s been acknowledged because I do pride myself in being as versatile and as flexible as possible in the activities that I do. As well as being a choreographer, I’ve been a dance lecturer and I’m now an Artistic Director, which means that I have the pleasure of curating the programme for the company, which tours nationally and internationally.

I have an amazing education department that encourages, develops and nurtures young children from the age of three, right through to adults of all ages we do a lot of external work and that also involves a lot of my activity, my thinking, my creativity.

I do consider myself a cultural leader so I try to find new ways of inspiring and being inspired by others.

I guess in a way growing up, my main passion and my main job has been as a professional dancer up until the point where I decided my body had enough and I could do more with what I know and my knowledge. So I have been a dance lecturer at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and that was amazing. There’s a good five years of stories to be told about nurturing young talent.

I’ve also worked for the company that we house and we share a building with – The Northern Ballet. That was a maternity cover post, but it was an opportunity to bring something different into a classical organisation within their education department.

In 2006 I stepped away from Phoenix when I knew that my career really needed the next step, so I applied for the Clore Leadership Programme, which is a bespoke programme for cultural leaders. Part of that was a secondment, which I did at the Sage Gateshead in Newcastle.

If you know the building, it’s an amazing space and it houses quite a lot of musical aspects and it has a school within that. Across the way was Dance City, I figured they’d never worked together before. It was a case of, “Let’s see what composers and choreographers do when they work together in the same space.”

So I really just keep myself extremely busy! I have been freelance and run my own company. All of these things are connected in terms of the way that I feel about the job that I do inspiring other people.

When did you first discover your passion for dance?

It was at the age of nine, when my sister came home from Harehills Middle School, as it was then, and she’d had her first dance lesson with an amazing teacher – she was a PE teacher at the time – Nadine Senior MBE and she just inspired a lot of young people who are now in the dance sector.

So my sister came home and said, “I had this amazing lesson today,” and “I did this.” And she was like, “Well, can you do it?” so I said, “I’ll give it a try.” And then she did it again. My sister is two and a half years older than I am, so I had to wait two and a half years before I could experience that real sense of, “Actually, this is something I want to make a career of.” And I did.

I got to the school and I was blown away with the feeling that it gave me and that fact that I felt very good at what I could do. I said to my mum and dad after my first dance lesson, “When I’m sixteen, I’m going to London to be a professional dancer.” And they both said, “OK!” as they do when you’re nine years old and they’re thinking, “You haven’t got a clue what you really want to do!” So they said, “We’ll talk about it when you’re older.” And sixteen came and I went! I said, “That’s it. I’m ready to go, Mum. I’m off to professional training!”

My Mum and Dad didn’t take me to London, it was my dance teacher who got it all sorted and that’s how quickly it happened, I was 16 when my parents realised the intensity of what was going on in terms of the drive that I had. And I’ve never looked back since.

You’ve always retained a close connection to Phoenix. Please can you tell us about what makes it such a special place to work?

It’s an interesting organisation that is now 33 years young. It started off as an all-male, all-black company. However, the focus of the company back in 1981 was three guys who just wanted to dance and express themselves, and coming out of the inner city in Leeds, that was really unheard of – inspired by again Nadine Senior and the work that she had done within Harehills Middle School.

So looking at these young men doing the thing that they loved – and I knew what it felt like because I’d experienced it myself – and never thinking for one moment that there would ever be an opportunity for me, but knowing I could admire them, I could be part of them, I could talk to them, I could see their work.

For a while it carried on being all male, until 1989 when the Artistic Director which changed hands at that point, said, “You know what? It’s time for something else to happen with this organisation,” and they invited women. I was one of the first of four women to be invited to join the company, so it really was just incredible that opportunity landed when it did.

So after a while, I thought, “My body needs a bit of a rest!” But I was always choreographing alongside dancing. It was something again that we started at nine years old as creative expression [in school]. It’s been with me since day one.

Moving on from that it was one of those things where I left Phoenix to go and lecture at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and yet, I had an invitation to come back to Phoenix in a different capacity, which was perfect. I’d grown with the organisation in terms of what I could offer as a performer I’ve developed substantially, and so has the work I’ve presented with Phoenix.

Where has your work taken you?

I spent many years with the company as a performer, dancing and working with many choreographers, travelling the world. It’s been an amazing career in terms of where we’ve been and travelled.

The company has been all over. The men, before the women joined, were in Australia, they’d been to America before we joined, but then we had two extensive tours of America. We’ve done extensive tours of Europe and North Africa. We’ve had quite a lot of relationships and associations in The Caribbean and Jamaica.

It’s just endless really – there are not a lot of places where we haven’t been. Hungary, within Europe we’ve got a good association with France, Austria, Spain (Barcelona), Greece. You name it, we’ve been there! I think the Far East is probably the only place at the moment that I’m still gunning for because we haven’t quite found a relationship there.

We did Atlanta in 1996 for the Olympic Games. I had my work presented in Atlanta. We were part of the cultural offer there.

The company has met Mandela when he was here. There’s a lot of beautiful stories along the way that make this company really quite special. It holds a lot of positive history.

What is it like for a dance company who is based outside London?

Phoenix Dance Theatre - Bloom


I think it’s absolutely ideal [being based outside London]. We did have the offer to move into London many years ago, but we said, “Absolutely not!” We are a national asset here in the North of England and London is very saturated, so is the market, it’s very dense in what you’re trying to find and what you’re trying to search for, it gets a little bit diluted when searching for quality and if you’re not at the top of your game, you’ve got very little chance of really succeeding in a way that I think as having a meaningful existence.

Whereas I feel we’ve got our own space here, we’ve got some breadth, we go in to London – of course we do. We have to show London what the North can do and what we can offer, which is different. We have the space to grow, so it’s just that our reach is very different here. It’s great to be in the North of England. Leeds is fantastic for this company.

It’s one of the reasons Phoenix are here! Nadine Senior started the Northern School of Contemporary Dance to keep the talent in the city. I had to go to London because there was nowhere here in the city for me to train, so she started the Northern School of Contemporary Dance for that purpose. [She wanted] to make sure that young talent didn’t feel that they got lost in London, which a lot of them did. So the roots of dance are quite embedded in the DNA of the city.

How did you find making the transition from dancer to choreographer and director?

I think once of the beauties of what Nadine Senior did was she was never a choreographer herself, it was the young people who would devise and deliver the work, so from a young age we knew how to put movements together with meaning and we didn’t need to have names for them, we didn’t need to know that there was a formula that we were learning as we were doing it.

So as children probably do in their bedrooms you begin to structure things that feel right and when you start adding people to that you begin to build a piece of choreographic work. That’s the thing that really drives me. I’ve continued to do that with youth groups, with hard to reach young people, with professional companies, with my own company – I’ve just taken all those opportunities. It’s not always about finding a studio to make those things happen.

I recently choreographed for the Tour de France Festival, which was cyclists on bikes and that really was quite a phenomenal experience. People said, “Is that dance?” and I said, “Well, it’s movement.” So you can dissect it to a point. It’s choreography. When you look at that it’s a beautiful piece of 40 minutes of choreography. It comes in many guises. That’s what I do. That’s what I feel the power of dance and movement can do. It can be brought anywhere.

This year we’re aiming to bring 750 kids to Wembley for the Wembley Challenge Cup Final. This will be our second year at this event. We do it everywhere. Dance can reach every part of the city, every part of the world. It’s just a language that people really can understand, just by the visual experience there’s an understanding of how movement can play a part in their life.

We recently heard from Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England about the importance of diversity in the arts to avoid becoming ‘male, pale and stale’. Has there ever been a danger of this at Phoenix?

No, but we still have our challenges [at Phoenix]. I have to say it’s great that Peter’s talking about the diversity and perhaps we need to shout it bigger, louder and in more places because you can forget sometimes that it’s not just about those that have.

You’re creating for those that can and should. Having that opportunity to spread yourself, not necessarily spreading yourself thin, but not forgetting  about the smaller people, the little people, the people who are the nuggets and the gems. If you just put a little water on them you’d be surprise, which is exactly what happened to Phoenix.

It was a little gem back in the day and somebody took the time just to go, “There you go.” It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to get you spreading your wings and the whole thing about diversifying in terms of gender and sexuality, and all of those things, we hear it so often, but it is so important.

I mean, I sit here as a black female and sometimes I’m not seen as that because I’m the head of an organisation. You have to question, “Well, why can you not see that is what I’m doing?” and the other hand is that actually, it’s not my colour that’s got me here, it’s the work.

You’re fighting a double edged sword when you try to advocate for diversity when it comes to cultural difference, but at the same time, you know that if you don’t, it completely gets left behind, so in terms of the leadership role that I play, I sit alongside Peter and say, “Let’s not let that happen. Let’s make sure that the diversity, in all its aspects gets seen and noticed and supported.

You’re a trustee of Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures. For those who aren’t familiar with the company, please can you describe the company’s productions?

Lord of the FliesMatthew Bourne is an interesting company. It’s pretty big in terms that people would perceive it as a commercial dance company because of the types of productions he produces.

Matthew Bourne is famous for his male swans and that is probably about 20 years old now, if not more. It was quite a phenomenal thing back in the day that you can take a classic like Swan Lake and have a completely innovative twist on the story.

He continues to do that. He continues to create that in Sleeping Beauty, Edward Scissorhands. He’s got numerous productions, all of them large scale, so when you’re talking about Matthew Bourne he’s within the same conversation and the same circuit as the classical companies, The Northern Ballets, The Royal Ballets. They’re on that scale.

They bring a word that I’ve adopted to mean such a wonderful and passionate thing, they’re accessible for someone who doesn’t understand dance can go and see Matthew Bourne’s company and actually go, “I get that! That’s dance.” He doesn’t dumb it down, but he does make it so people can engage with it on many levels.

We’ve just done an amazing, amazing project with Matthew Bourne – Lord of the Flies. Phoenix partnered up with them at the Bradford Alhambra to help them present that production. I believe they delivered 15 productions up and down the country and Bradford performed the last one.

The statistics have just come through – I’ve just been glancing at them – the amazing results that they have delivered in terms of engagement, in terms of opportunity, in terms of satisfaction, connection. Those who have never danced before in a massive production like that had a phenomenal experience – they’re building a legacy around all of this work, so there’ll be hundreds and hundreds of kids and young people who have not necessarily been on the stage, but have connected with the production so they can continue to build on their positive experience.

Phoenix were out delivering classes right across Bradford and Yorkshire, trying to engage young people, even if they’re not part of the final product, they were there watching the show, which means there’s a connection there. There’s a connection to the story. There were so many aspects to it. We pride ourselves in finding quality partners that enables us to sustain the high standard of work that we do.

Since the recession hit and grant funding has been hit, how have dance companies had to change the way they work?

There been a lot of fallout from that. The thing about the whole recession is that now more than ever, I believe the arts play a bigger role because it’s one of those things that can inspire you to do something different, just to step out of your front door and to try to be part of any artistic opportunity that’s being offered by numerous organisations.

It does bring in to the economy, so whatever people assume, we are playing our part. It’s hard when those cuts happen and the arts tend to be the first things that get knocked or gets a really massive shave. We’ve had it. We’ve had to struggle with a really massive reduction, but if you believe in your product, you can start looking at where the cracks and the creaks are and begin to get yourself involved and to open things up.

You have to be creative, which is what we do, to find funds and to find people who say, “OK, well you’ve suffered here, but maybe we can have a look at something over here.” You’ve just got to keep your head above the water and keep going. Keep those legs swimming!

What is your advice for getting into dance as a career? (We have fond memories of watching ‘Fame’ growing up. Is it like that? Is there a woman with a big stick saying. “Fame costs and right here’s where you start paying…”?)

Metaphorically, I think yes! It’s a hard profession, but it’s so rewarding. Like I said earlier, in our education we encourage from three years old, right up. Not everyone is going to find it’s the profession for them, but I do feel that once you step into it, you’ve got to drive yourself, you’ve got to listen to the experts because you know, they’ve done it, they’ve been there, they’ve seen it and that wise information can just avoid you hitting the pitfalls that have happened previously.

The world of dance is getting more knowledgeable in terms of how you can sustain a career. Again, it’s diversifying when and where appropriate. You need to be the best that you can be so you have those opportunities and I think if you’re in vocational training, keep your head down, get on with it, and forget about the distractions.

The tool that you have is the tool that’s going to help you survive, so look after it. So like I’ve experienced, it pays off and it allows you to do more than you can anticipate at this stage of your career, so it’s hard, but it’s a beautiful career to be in.

What projects do you have coming up with Phoenix and how can our readers get involved?

We are just about to premier at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on the 11th February. There’s two new works. One from me – I worked with a scientist and have been supported through the Welcome Trust to develop a new work, called TearFall, around tears and the scientific make-up of tears and crying.

We also have one of Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures choreographic award winners, Caroline Finn, who is also premiering a new work titled Bloom. That will be at the West Yorkshire Playhouse starting next week, opening on the 11th February and that will tour for the rest of the year, right through to November.

For education we’re working on the Rugby RFL and Rugby League Cares [World Cup Challenge at Wembley]. Last summer we had 150 kids at Wembley with the first delivery of this partnership. We’ve got numerous projects. The touring company will be heading off to Germany – that’s not necessarily for our UK audiences, but our German audiences will get the pleasure of us for three days.

We also have a rural tour, which is taking edited works into hard to reach locations delivering in venues like church halls, community centres to give them the production of Phoenix, but on a smaller scale. The quality isn’t compromised, but we are able to connect with those who perhaps wouldn’t otherwise engage. And it goes on…!

There’s numerous ways you can connect with the company through social media, our website. Please engage and stay abreast of what we do.

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