by Neil Nisbet
Phoenix Dance Theatre are now in their 21st year of creating and performing work. The company has often been mired in politics and controversy for all the wrong reasons. Darshan Singh Bhuller took the reigns last year, Article19 ventures south to find out how the company is changing and to learn more about Planted Seeds a disturbing look at the Bosnian war of 1993.
Article19: Why have you decided now is a good time to revive planted Seeds?
First of all it’s a good piece and I think when we toured it a few years back I would have loved it to have more exposure. So I thought it was a good opportunity to do that with this company and to have a few more bodies in the piece. It was also about 10 years since the Bosnian war had ended so I thought that was appropriate.
That’s it really. I want to encourage, like I was saying in the intro [prior to the showing] bringing older work back. In the contemporary field we do new work, new work, new work, and basically disregard as you go so I would like to encourage bringing pieces back from the past.
I know there are a lot of pieces that I would like to do from Robert Cohan but we don’t have [enough] bodies at the moment. Eventually I would like to tap into the historical side of modern dance but that’s going to take a while. So I thought I would start with Planted Seeds because it’s my work and that makes it a little easier.
Article19: Would you like to re-stage works from London Contemporary Dance Theatre
I’d like to but it’s very difficult to say what and how. People in political places may be alarmed by that. But I have ideas of maybe one or two pieces, not only by Robert Cohan also Siobhan Davies who I worked with, we have spoken and it would be nice to have that kind of contribution and by people who have historically brought modern dance to Britain. I would like Phoenix to have that link.
Article19: Is there a record of LCDT’s works?
Yeah there is, it’s all in the archives. Obviously I was in LCDT for over 16 years so I’m kind of ingrained in it. But I’ve just recently directed a documentary on Robert Cohan. I was looking back on all the archives and I thought it’s such a shame, a lot of it is disregarded now and rubbed out of history in a sense. Everybody thinks modern dance was started here by Richard Alston, which is not the case.
I saw some work in the States recently done by Martha Graham’s company. There was a duet and a solo choreographed in 1930’s that I think would be wonderful. There’s a piece called “Lamentations” which is just as modern as you can get, it’s never dated. So it would be nice to have those links, it makes the company feel more substantial as well. Dancers want to work with [choreographers] who are at the top of their field also [so] it would be nice to bring some of that in, but it’s a long process.
This year we have four brand new works coming along so I’m not going to go back into the old rep. until we are well established.
Article19: What was it like looking back at your work with LCDT?
It’s very emotional because I went there as a kid at the age of 16 to London and I spent most of my life in that building. It’s only recently in the last 5 years that I actually left and I have had to find my own feet. When I was making the film on Bob [Cohan] I had to be very clinical about it and remove my self from any feeling and it was a film more about him than just the dance. It’s fun to interview someone and find out what’s underneath the skin, what he really likes and where he comes from and where are the roots of his philosophy.
Article19: Planted Seeds is based on some very traumatic events, how do you translate those events into choreography?
I have no idea! I don’t know what the theory is behind it but It’s something instinctive. I’ve found that if I immerse myself with enough information, reading books, endless journals, books on Bosnia, watching films and then finally going there, for me, was probably the biggest research element. In the media the image is always softened in the photograph or on film or video.
We really don’t realise. I mean, every building I saw there had pot marks in it, a whole landscape of pot marks. The piece, I hate to say it, was very easy because it just spat out and I worked very fast on it because of the budget, when I first did it was with Singh Productions, we did it in a month. But I had good dancers around me, I used a lot of their material as well.
Article19: Do you prefer to make full-length pieces or the shorter works for a triple bill?
That was the first one that I ever made [Planted Seeds] and I’ve done two full length works now and I’m going to do one next year. I didn’t used to like it because it’s huge and scary but I feel more confident now. It’s a play with the way that I like to tell the story.
If I have three or four stories to tell within the umbrella of the bigger picture then I find that more interesting than just one story line, [it is] a bit like a soap opera in a sense. What I try to do, in a cinematic way, is to jump forward and back in time as well and that’s fun to do.
In the spring I’m doing a short piece for the company so I still get as much enjoyment out of doing that. It’s just not so much responsibility.
Article19: As a choreographer how do you find new challenges for creating a new work?
Sometimes I’m just walking down the street and it clicks. I do a lot of travelling so it’s those times, the quiet times when I’ll just go off in this artistic blur. Finding new sources, it just happens sometimes. I didn’t go it to particularly do a piece about war. Just watching the news coverage pissed me off.
My initial reaction was that I didn’t realise that women were used in that way in a war so I really wanted to investigate that. The other thing was they were bombing Dubrovnik, in Croatia in the old town and they bombed the theatre there. I performed there when I was an 18 year old kid with LCDT. When I heard that it became personal, I though, how could they do that?
The other reason was [it] related to my grandparents within the Indian partition, it was a very similar experience of communities living side by side and then suddenly being asked to move. So there were a lot of parallels with India in 1947.
Article19: This work is a very heavy subject matter, do you want to cover a lighter subject for your next work?
I would like to do lighter things and I think I probably will. The duet I’m doing soon is about water because I have a fascination with water so it’s quite abstract in that sense. There is a slight political edge to it because I think water is going to be the biggest commodity in the future.
So there is a political thing to it. It’s draining our natural resources that I worry about, what are we going to do when we run out of water? We die! Our bodies are 70% water so that’s where that kind of idea comes from.
But I just love stories. Your basic love, sex, drama, violence, everything that Shakespeare was always going on about, it’s just fascinating. I’m really into making films and obviously watching film and those are the films that move me.
Article19: Do you feel the weight on your shoulders running a company with the legacies of the last 21 years?
There’s an element of that but I don’t feel overwhelmed by it because I contributed during those 21 years. In fact I was one of the first choreographers who was asked by the boys [David Hamilton, Donald Edwards, Vilmore James],when they first set up the company. So I always felt part of it in some ways anyway, I’ve done about four or five works for them.
It is a different company though. In think we reflect much more what modern day Britain is now than it was 21 years ago. Things have shifted.
You know there’s always politics, that’s the nature of us. I think there were probably more politics in the past because [they] had said that they were an all black, British dance company, in fact an all male, black British dance company in the beginning and then they slowly let females in. But who am I to say that was right or wrong? That’s what they needed to do at that time and I can understand that.
Now for me, and even before I came, the board had changed the policy that it [the company] had to reflect modern day Britain and I think our dancers do that, we have people from all over the place and still have a strong base as British.
Most of them were trained at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance [NSCD].
Article19: Is that an important connection for you?
For me it is because they do a type of training that is dying at the moment and as you probably noticed through my vocabulary I am stuck to the floor. There is nobody teaching floor work anymore. Even The Place, where I came from, they’ve stopped doing it.
There all dancing on feet now so I have to go where they’re doing the training. As you saw in the vocabulary and in the dancers they are really grounded and I hope that reflects on the reality of people. We are not all up and dancing like fairies and I don’t mind saying [it] because I can’t stand that.
I think that’s probably the most essential thing for this company and that identity, and it’s a physical identity, hopefully that comes through with every movement.