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Stepping out of our own shadow and allowing the city I love to shine – Sharon Watson, Artistic Director at Phoenix Dance Theatre

Sharon Watson

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. In September 2015, Sharon was invited to chair the steering group that will spearhead the European Capital of Culture 2023 Leeds Bid.

Sharon Watson
Sharon Watson

“…I love my city. It’s the city that’s made me, the city that’s given me so much, and it’s now my job to do as much as I can to voice the cultural offer for Leeds…”

Phoenix Dance Theatre taking to the road on tour

Sharon Watson in Fatal Strategy
Sharon Watson in Fatal Strategy – 1993

Well, in 2015 we’ve been pretty busy as an organisation. We continue to fulfil our ambitions for the company. Phoenix has been on tour. We had our London visit, which was incredibly successful, and the dancers continue on the road.

Moving forward into 2016, Phoenix becomes 35 as a company, and we will have new work premiering at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Fundraising for Phoenix

We are funded nationally by the Arts Council, and we’re funded locally by our local council, but they can only give us so much – a lot of our activity is sourcing other funds – charities, trusts and foundations. We are looking for philanthropic offers and engagements. We also work with corporates. We need funds to keep us sustained and to keep our activity going and to help us with a broader reach.

We can only go so far with what we are awarded from the Arts Council. That does take care of core activity, but as expenditure goes up, everything else goes up, we have to match that. We have a company of full time performers, and that’s the way I want to keep it because a lot of dance companies have part time dancers on freelance contracts, but I just find it so unnerving that it should be an issue about dancers being on full time salaries – that they shouldn’t have a life outside dance and they should have to work freelance.

The gem of the North

We have to keep and maintain our company to a good standard. It is the gem of the North, and the organisation is the flagship company for contemporary dance – so let’s set a good example of how that works.

Melt - Phoenix Dance Theatre
Melt – 2011

We source money in many guises, and we’re always fundraising. Sometimes we don’t know quite when to ask. It’s one of those areas where we’re a little bit apologetic about asking for money as a culture here in the UK, but the scenario abroad is very different, especially in America, where they don’t have the support from government in the same way. They’re a bit bolder and a bit braver about saying that they need help and support.

I like to think we make it was easy as possible. Keeping up with social media almost tells you how it needs to be happening. When you look at the messages and the information that’s being shared on social media you begin to see, “Ah! This is where the trend is,” and we can drive some of our information that way. It’s so quick – it’s instantaneous. It’s disposable as well – it comes in and it goes out before we’re on to the next thing, and you can get left behind very quickly.

Chairing the steering group that will spearhead the European Capital of Culture 2023 Leeds Bid

I’m glad to be part of a team that is enthusiastic and ambitious. We want to bring people along with us who are going to be courageous about our city. The timing seems to be right. It’s about stepping out of our own shadow and allowing ourselves to shine, because we have everything. We have everything in the right places – we have the art world, we have the voices. It is about the ambition and about the change we can make to life, through culture and leaving a legacy.

Carnival Ballet
Carnival Ballet

There’s a combination of jobs that this role entails for me. It’s a massive job and a huge responsibility, which I’m embracing, but I can’t say that it’s not a little daunting, because it is! But I love my city. It’s the city that’s made me, the city that’s given me so much, and it’s now my job to do as much as I can to voice the cultural offer for Leeds.

It’s quite an eclectic group, so we have very strong people heading up finance for example, communications and engagement and artistic of course, and we have partners within the university too, as we’re conducting a lot of research. It really is an unbelievable journey that is going to happen – the unfolding of the city, as we find the key messages and we find the stories.

Galvanising research and factual evidence

All of these are underpinned by factual evidence of engagement in some shape or form, so we can’t just assume that we know our diversity and the demographics of the city. We really need to know this, so we need to be able to galvanise all of that research before we can say, this is the city, this is how it’s going to work, this is what it’s going to look like.

The bid is for 2023, but we don’t find out who has been successful until 2018. We put the bid forward in 2017 and then it isn’t until the following year that we find out. What I think is interesting, and I don’t want to dismiss the fact that it is a competition and we want to win, there’s no question about that – but alongside this work we are building a cultural strategy for the city, so whether we are successful or not, there will be a cultural offer that everyone can buy into. Taking nothing away from our bid for 2023 though, the journey will be about manifesting what this cultural offer is, so it’s a win / win situation.

The MOBOs coming to Leeds

Sharon Watson and Susan Piter at the MOBOs in Leeds
Sharon Watson and Susan Piter at the MOBOs in Leeds in November 2015

I felt that experience for Leeds, and for me, was phenomenal – celebrating success in a way that I don’t think Leeds has recognised before and had the bravado to go and say, “Actually, we want this in our city.” I was so proud to be in that space with such talent, and such diverse talent. I stood in the middle looking at the stars – including of course Lenny Henry, being such an inspirational leader in his own right – and I turned round and looked at that audience appreciating what it was like to be involved in such a historic moment, and I thought, “Someone’s really smiled on me this evening!” I was blown away by the experience.

Coming up for Phoenix in 2016

We’ve got a lot coming up in 2016. We’ll be premiering new work again, as we always do, because we want to showcase the company and our creativity to our city, who appreciate it no end, but we need them it the seats buying the tickets, so that would be great if we could have them in the West Yorkshire Playhouse during the week commencing the 15th February 2016.

Sharon Watson and Lenny Henry
Sharon meeting Lenny Henry at the MOBOs

We’ve got a massive production we’re beginning to plan for Carnival Ballet, celebrating 50 years of the Leeds West Indian Carnival, so listen out for how you can get involved in that opportunity.

We’ll also be taking part in the Yorkshire Festival – as you’ll know we hosted Le Grand Depart in 2014, and it will come again in 2016, so there will be lots to look out for there. We’re also celebrating our 35th birthday throughout the year. Turning 35 and thriving the way that we are, I think there’s a pat on the back to be had so we can showcase to all our audiences why we are so successful and why we love what we do.