From flash mobs to flamenco, classical to contemporary, for the mind and for the masses … just how important is dance during such testing times? Former Phoenix Dance Theatre, artistic director, Sharon Watson, has just started in her new role as chief executive and principal at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, and talks about her passion for performance, a love of Leeds and aspirations for the arts post-pandemic.
Coronavirus has affected everyone and what a shame, that to some degree, life will never be the same again. But what an opportunity to leave behind what we don’t need, which I think is something this vicious virus has demonstrated, that there are things that we can step away from and not have to return to. What does concern me though is how do we get back to enjoying what we all appreciate in terms of the arts … dance, music, concerts, all of those things that actually require multiple people working and performing together. One prominent national theatre director, recently described the serious situation for the arts as being in the ‘premier league’ of the pandemic, as it will be the last to recover and return to any kind of normality. It doesn’t mean to say that our world can’t look very different or present itself with new opportunities, but in a literal sense with regards to the impact of social engagement and emotional contact the arts will take a massive hit.
Building confidence with performing artists and audiences is crucial going forward, as well as continuing to keep supporting and embracing how we are able to present our work.
If you look across the world with regards to what’s happening now, you can see the one thing that people are doing is dancing...by themselves, in front of screens, sharing dance on social media. Moving and articulating the body in some shape or form has so many benefits. The mental stability that dance can give you, even in isolation, is an emotional connectivity and we cannot let coronavirus rule this part of our art form out of our lives. I wish it had more respect for what it’s able to do and maybe when we come out of this long, unfortunate and unprecedented situation, the Government and gatekeepers will be able to add value to what they often call soft skills and will somehow realise that they are actually essential skills carrying a significant monetary value to the economy. Dance is definitely an important part of the conduit between what’s happening in the world with the coronavirus crisis and helping maintain people’s mental health through physical movement.
There is an amazing arts scene in Yorkshire, especially in my home town of Leeds. If you’re looking for dance, for inspiring art that’s new, different, traditional, with a view on the world, it’s here in the city’s DNA of dance. Which was put into Leeds way back when my former PE teacher at Harehills Middle School, (the late) Nadine Senior, had the insight to nurture this particular art form and we have not let her down since.
I couldn’t have pursued my career as a professional dancer when I was growing up in Leeds as there wasn’t a vocational training school then. Although Nadine was an inspirational lady and saw the talent in her pupils, developing their skills, but there was nowhere to present them for the next stage. The only option at the time was to go to the London School of Contemporary Dance, whose team would regularly come up to Yorkshire and work with us as young dancers. At the age of 16 I packed my bags and headed for the capital with Nadine’s help and the rest is history. I think it was the last year she sent students to London, before actually taking action herself in terms of building a vocational school for the talented dancers she was already nurturing. Nadine was the founding principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, where I am now, as chief executive and principal, one of her former pupils.
Taking up post at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, I never expected it to look like this, that’s for sure. The coronavirus situation means that I’m currently operating in a very different way to how I’d usually work. It is amazing though. I’ve walked into an organisation that has a can-do attitude, from staff and students. In days, weeks, months to come it will be my opportunity to have galvanised all of those different ways of working and thinking and that’s what I’m doing right now, with a lot of listening, sitting in the background and picking up conversations, because the immediate is making sure we don’t lose anyone along the way, no one is forgotten. It’s so encouraging, the energy here you can feel the drive to move forward is focused 100% in the direction of success. I’ll hopefully help build on that, looking at new opportunities this particular scenario brings. We’ve got challenges, of course we have, the same as anyone who is part of a people-based organisation, but what a beautiful challenge it is to have the voices and the thinking behind what the future of the school can be and will look like, keeping in mind the fact that we have a fantastic global reputation.
Windrush: Movement of the People was a real highlight in my eleven years as artistic director at Phoenix Dance Theatre. The last four years presented a real opportunity for me. The early days were a challenge of making sure the company was stable and getting itself back on the map, but as the confidence and belief in the organisation grew, it helped me to really think about the company’s USP. To try and maintain the distinctiveness of its history, three young black men who were inspired to make a difference to the dance scene and to really carry that philosophy, thinking through and maintaining that to today.
My first narrative piece of work, Windrush: Movement of the People, with the timing of and the presentation of the whole Windrush scandal wrapped around it, meant everything about this production made a statement, for me, for the company and for society. It was supported by some amazing people and made a great impact. For Phoenix moving forward, remaining current and relevant is so important. I hope it continues to be brave and courageous, as its history is its foundation and its strength.
When life is back to normal, whatever that is, I just can’t wait to be with people again. Knowing that when I wake up in the morning I will be walking into a building that’s buzzing with young, enthusiastic performers who are looking for their next opportunity. Seeing staff who are willing and able to help make the next transition for themselves and for the dancers coming through. That the music I hear coming from the studio, from various phones and devices, is inspiring people to create. All of these things impact my own development. I love being around people and encouraging them. AND I’m very much looking forward to getting out to my first music concert. I thrive on music, it’s the thing you can take anywhere, at any time and it can impact your mood at any given moment.
For anyone wanting to pursue a career in dance...feel the fear and do it anyway. There’s got to be something that gives you a buzz and drive. I think it is the most amazing career one can pursue and it has so many rewards in numerous ways. Sometimes I think, I did that, I experienced that. What is amazing is how you hear it reflected back to you, the way that you’ve impacted and changed lives from those that have engaged in dance, or had the pleasure of watching you dance or seen the dance that you’ve created. Those curtain calls can sometimes be the biggest, most rewarding experiences for an individual, knowing that the people on the other side have truly appreciated what you’ve done.
Dance in Leeds is flourishing. It adds to the economy, turns out amazing artists and some of the great works and companies are here. The Northern School of Contemporary Dance is developing some phenomenal individuals. We talk about the landscape of Yorkshire and how beautiful, versatile and transformative it is… which is very much reflected in our dance culture. There are those working in isolation, with dance companies or with portfolio careers. The work itself is international, so from our city of Leeds we are talking to the world with brilliant, quality art. It makes me proud.
This article was originally written for This Is Y magazine digital edition – June 2020. To view the full magazine, click here.