City of dance

10th May 2002 at 01:00
Dance education has a remarkable history in Leeds. Now Phoenix, the internationally acclaimed troupe founded there 21 years ago, is returning to its roots. Elaine Williams reports on its revival and, overleaf, visits the high school at the centre of the city's dance culture.

The removal men are taking old furniture out of his offices as Darshan Singh Bhuller contemplates the future of the Phoenix Dance Company. It is a symbolic moment on this, his second day as the company's artistic director. After 21 sometimes turbulent years as one of the most significant dance troupes outside London, Leeds-based Phoenix is in the process of reinventing itself. With the help of a pound;643,000 one-off grant from the Arts Council, the company is returning to its roots and seeking to reassert democratic values in dance education. In pursuit of this aim, it has set up an academy to foster young talent and keep dance accessible to all.

The company was forged by a group of young black men from Chapeltown in inner-city Leeds; it burst out of the dance-in-education movement into the contemporary dance scene to huge acclaim in 1981. But it has its roots in the inspirational efforts of three teachers at two local schools.

Nadine Senior, now chairwoman of Phoenix Dance, was a PE teacher and deputy head at Harehills middle school. At teacher training college in the late Fifties, she had been introduced to the theories of Rudolf von Laban, a movement theorist and the intellectual founder of European modern dance, and she applied his ideas to all children and all forms of physical training at Harehills. In 1973, she made dance a compulsory subject.

She turned out to be a forceful taskmaster who made dance a serious option for pupils. "Children are natural movers," she says. "Dance is one of the few art forms where they have the edge over adults, and they can relate to it immediately."

At Harehills, her ideas struck a chord. Her pupils, mainly from Caribbean and Asian families,embraced her methods with enthusiasm. "Once the boys got hold of the physicality of dance, they were able to make all sorts of artistic connections," she says. Boys obsessed with football, athletics or the martial arts found they could use these physical structures as a hook for dance. More than 20 of her pupils from Harehills became professional dancers, only four of them women.

Darshan Singh Bhuller, now 41, was among the first cohort of Harehills pupils to be taught by Nadine Senior. He attributes his love of narrative and his own preference for dance drama rather than conceptual or abstract pieces to her influence. "In many ways my work has gone back to my roots at Harehills," he says. "We were constantly making up movements that came from our own experiences."

By the time Bhuller was 14, dance had taken a hold on his life. His desire to carry on dancing as a young adolescent led him to make the arduous journey from multi-ethnic Chapeltown across Leeds to the predominantly white communities near Pudsey to become a pupil at Intake high school.

Intake had just opened its doors to pupils from all over the city who were interested and talented enough to specialise in dance, drama and film. Bhuller remembers the exhaustion, and the taunts and hostility he encountered from other pupils for being an Asian male dancer, but his ambition was sustained by the staff who taught him there, particularly Charles Gardiner, a dance enthusiast, and dance teacher John Auty, a former pupil.

Intake was the launching pad for an outstanding career. At 15 Darshan Singh Bhuller became the youngest ever member of the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, a huge leap for a boy born into a farming family in the Punjab, and who - since coming to England at the age of six - had known nothing other than his close-knit Chapeltown community. He spent 15 years as a dancer with the company, which relished his innovative outlook and gifts as a choreographer.

Leo Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James, the founding members of Phoenix, also followed the path from Harehills to Intake a couple of years after Darshan Singh Bhuller. Like Bhuller, Hamilton moved to London after finishing school, but he was unhappy in the capital and returned to Leeds and his school dance mentors. He assisted John Auty with Intake's after-school Youth Dance Factory and Nadine Senior with the Harehills Youth Theatre.

After a year back in his home town, Leo Hamilton decided to form his own dance company and went to Charles Gardiner with the idea. "Charles Gardiner was an extraordinary person and he and John (Auty) and Nadine (Senior) had a rare concern for dance as an education for life," he says. Charles Gardiner came up with the name Phoenix, and Leo Hamilton, the company having risen from the ashes of his time in London, became its first artistic director.

Audiences were struck by the power and energy of the young dancers rather than their technique. Their raw passion and unique style - a mixture of contemporary and reggae rhythms - excited crowds wherever they performed. Four years later the company won funding from the Arts Council.

As performers they were feted internationally for being black and male, an important form of identity, but inevitably a ghetto from which the company had to escape. Neville Campbell, a mixed-race ex-Harehills pupil of Bhuller's age, who also trained with the London Contemporary, attempted to reorientate the company when he took over as director in 1987.

He introduced women and white dancers and widened the repertoire, bringing in outside choreographers. His successors, Margaret Morris and Thea Nerissa Barnes, developed the company's international reputation.

But as Phoenix celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, it was clearly suffering from a loss of identity and sought a return to its Leeds roots, not to recreate the past, but to reflect the vibrancy of the city in the new millennium.

Nadine Senior had gone on in 1985 to establish the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, initially to support those talented young people who, like Leo Hamilton, might not survive training in London. She received an MBE for her extraordinary contribution to dance education and, when she retired as principal of the Northern School this year, was replaced by Gurmit Hukam, another ex-Harehills and Intake pupil.

Responsible for launching the careers of so many dancers, she fears the shortage of dance expertise among PE teachers is destroying opportunities for pupils to develop through movement and dance.

"Specialist teacher training no longer exists. You cannot teach children effectively if you have not had the training yourself," she says. The money put into dance companies for education, she believes, will not make up for the shortfall. "A dance company going into a school and giving a week of dance adds up to little more than fun and games; it's learning about dance, not learning to dance. Poor people will not learn to dance. For 20 years, dance went through a period of not being elitist, but we are turning the clocks back."

According to the National Dance Teachers Association (NDTA), changes to teacher training courses, with more time spent in school, mean that few PE teachers gain more than 12 hours of dance training in total, too little to teach it effectively. And those secondary schools wishing to put dance on the curriculum, following the development of performing arts schools and the introduction of dance as an A-level and GCSE subject, face a national shortage of dance teachers. There are only two PGCE dance courses in the UK - at De Montfort University and Brighton University. A third, at Exeter University, is due to open in September.

Veronica Jobbins, chair of the NDTA, says provision nationally is patchy. "Dance is not available for all in the majority of schools. Do you do dance or football? That is not a choice for boys. We simply don't have the teachers in school to make sure it is embedded and to make the links with the performing arts as Nadine Senior did."

For its part, the Phoenix Dance academy is a long-term project aimed at developing the dancing skills of young people. The academy, which received pilot funding from Leeds City Council, has secured financial backing for the next three years from a Leeds-based company, JTM Developers.

Phoenix Dance's education director, Dawn Holgate - one of the company's first female dancers, and another Harehills pupil of Nadine Senior - hopes the academy can extend the company's education work beyond what it can achieve in one-off workshops. "We have picked up two boys statemented with behavioural difficulties but who are fantastic dancers," she says. "We hope to be able to guide some pupils into dance careers."

With Phoenix in need of a guiding star, it seemed only right that the mother should return to her family. Nadine Senior is in no doubt that the company can reclaim the forceful identity and accessibility of its earlier days and that Darshan Singh Bhuller is the right man for the job. She says:

"We want it to be a multicultural company, which reflects the city in which it is based."

Phoenix Dance Company: 0113 242 3486; www. De Montfort University: 01234 351966. Brighton University: 01273 600900. Exeter University: 01392 264837

Scary Spice, aka Mel B, is probably the best known ex-pupil of Intake high school, but she is just one in a long line of stars who have passed through the doors of this specialist performing arts college in Leeds. Although the growth of "Fame" schools is very much a modern phenomenon, Intake can trace its dance roots back to the 1950s, when it was staffed by a bunch of extraordinary characters who, like Nadine Senior at Harehills, were committed to the virtues of an education in which dance played a central role. It has been on the curriculum for every child since 1955, when Charles Gardiner became head.

Mr Gardiner, who was trained in the Laban method of movement, taught it himself. In 1974 he established a theatre arts course of dance, drama and film with a former pupil, John Auty, who had gone on to train in dance at teacher training college and with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. He also employed David Robbins, a classically trained trumpeter to develop music.

Remarkably, and ahead of his time, Mr Gardiner persuaded Leeds education authority to allow Intake, by this time comprehensive, to select pupils from the city who would benefit from a curriculum in which 20 per cent of the timetable would be performing arts. Those were heady years when Mr Auty and Mr Robbins collaborated to stage dance performances of Jesus Christ Superstar, The Lord of the Rings and The Tempest. "We would have a go at anything," says John Auty. "We were always open to new ideas and the kids responded to that."

Charles Gardiner was a charismatic head, over 6ft tall, "frighteningly uninhibited" according to Mr Auty, and willing to take risks. He had an unshakeable belief in the transforming power, motivating force and civilising effect of the performing arts, and believed little was beyond the capabilities of his pupils, most of whom came from the Bramley and Summerfield estates. He established a tradition that continues today and which has produced a string of successful performers. As well as Scary Spice, Steven Waddington, who starred in the 1992 film Last of the Mohicans and the BBC television production of Ivanhoe, is an ex-pupil, as are many other professional singers, dancers, actors and musicians.

Mr Gardiner retired in 1982 and went on to act semi-professionally at Leeds Playhouse. He died in 1992. Mr Auty left in 1985 to become the first dance inspector for the Inner London Education Authority. But Mr Robbins, now head of performing arts at Intake, a lean, witty, let's-get-on-with-it 54-year-old, still works a 12-hour day to extend its tradition, particularly into neighbouring primary schools.

Although each child in this 1,400-strong school receives a lesson in dance, music and drama every week, in 1998 Intake officially became a performing arts college as part of the Government's push to create specialist schools; it now selects 60 pupils a year for its enhanced performing arts curriculum. As the performing arts students do better than others at GCSE in all subjects - 60 per cent reaching five A*-Cs last year compared with 25 per cent in the whole school - Mr Robbins is more determined to extend the benefits of his school's curriculum.

In the first phase as a specialist college, Mr Robbins built up the BTec he had introduced into the sixth form in 1994, which attracts 80 students from far and wide. He added a dance studio, a music technology suite, a digital video editing suite, 14 music practice rooms and two music classrooms equipped with 20 keyboards each. Up to 150 children take voice lessons in school, 70 are learning to play the drums, and dozens learn brass and guitar.

Late last year Intake won the Technology Colleges Trust Anne Rumney Award as well as an Arts Council gold mark for outstanding contribution to the arts, and in its second phase as a specialist school is building performing arts provision into local primary schools.

Of the pound;140,000 Intake receives a year for its specialist school status, pound;60,000 is spent on community projects. Ten feeder primaries have been equipped with half a dozen guitars, a drum kit, 15 keyboards and amplifiers. Up to 540 primary pupils take part every week in keyboards, music technology, dance and drama classes provided by teachers employed by Intake. Those identified as particularly gifted join Intake's junior centre of excellence on Saturday mornings.

The effect is already being felt. David Robbins says: "Our Year 7s have more self-discipline, better listening skills, better concentration. We are not talking about leafy estate kids here but kids in Bramley who wouldn't get anything if we didn't provide it. The arts are a rite of passage, they develop communicators and lateral thinkers, they are a brilliant motivational tool and they give kids a reason to come to school. If you deny access to the arts you deny a basic human need. We all have a desire to be creative but many kids are never given the chance so their lives become dry and barren."

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