Dane Hurst:
moving on up

Dane Hurst first heard about Leeds’ Phoenix Dance Theatre while growing up in apartheid South Africa. Now he’s become artistic director

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Award-winning dancer and choreographer Dane Hurst was recently named artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre in Leeds, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in November.

“It is a little nerve-racking because Phoenix is such an incredible company and has such a rich history, so it comes with a lot of responsibility, but I’m ready for the challenge,” says Hurst, 36, who grew up in Port Elizabeth in South Africa during apartheid. Remarkably, it was there he first heard about Phoenix.

“My grandmother was a seamstress and assisted at a dance studio set up in the local community. I’d sit under the table while my grandmother made costumes and watch the classes.”

One of the dancers was Warren Adams, who’s now a Broadway choreographer, but back in the 1990s was one of the first recipients of a scholarship founded by Nelson Mandela and retired ballerina Lady Sainsbury that allowed him to move to the UK to train. The Phoenix was his first job and word of his success filtered back to Port Elizabeth.

His trajectory wasn’t only inspiring – it was tangible for the young Hurst, who started dancing at age nine.

“It became one of the possible destinations for someone from our background because one of us had made it and I was determined to do the same.”

Supported by the same scholarship, Hurst trained at Rambert School in London, becoming a star of the Rambert Dance Company, and a company dancer for Phoenix from 2007 to 2009.

To return as artistic director a little over a decade later is a poignant moment.

Dane Hurst and (main image) The Rite of Spring. Photos: Pierre Tapon, Tristram Kenton

“I really believe performing arts can change people’s lives and it’s why I’m honoured to be chosen as a leader for the company,” he says. “Phoenix has done an incredible job under [former artistic director] Sharon Watson’s leadership, so I’m not coming in to completely change the plan. I need to honour the beautiful vison of Phoenix and its legacy, and assist the company on its natural course.”

Phoenix was founded in 1981 by Donald Edwards, David Hamilton and Vilmore James, three young black men from Leeds who were keen to capture and celebrate multicultural Britain.

“What’s so fantastic is that it was founded on a dream and a spark of inspiration. If you look at when the company was formed, and the socioeconomic, sociopolitical and cultural situation, there were no companies largely representing people from different ethnic backgrounds. The fact Phoenix is still standing is testament to the spirit of how it was founded, and to the people of Leeds, a vibrant, multicultural city, who celebrate and elevate the company,” notes Hurst who founded the Moving Assembly Project in 2016 to help disadvantaged children through dance workshops.

Following the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the arts, he’s under no illusion as to the challenges that lie ahead but remains hopeful.

“The company needs to be creative and will create new works, as well as researching and rehearsing old works for the 40th birthday programme in the autumn. We’ve also discussed outdoor performances because the company needs to be visible and to also find ways to continue its outreach work because the Phoenix has an incredible education department.

“But it’s all fluid. We just need to keep moving in a positive way, so we can navigate the obstacles we know will come, and the company can move on for another 40 years.”

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