Phil Williams is passionate about getting art out to the masses. And it’s not just about enabling more people to see art forms they might never usually see. Phil believes it is vital to get art into the smaller communities of Wales, the modest towns and villages where touring theatre companies rarely go.
With this in mind, he has set up the Cascade Dance Theatre company, which embarks upon its debut tour of Wales this November, visiting some places that other theatre companies fear (or cannot secure the funding) to tread.
“The aim for this tour is to make it as much of a success as possible, both for us and the venues who are taking us,” says Phil, who is Artistic Director of Cascade. “I hope to make the tour a fixture in Cascade’s calendar every Autumn”.
The tour opens in Swansea University’s Taliesin Arts Centre, possibly Wales’s most dance-orientated venue. Phil, Cascade and this tour have been supported by the Taliesin. Phil is Taliesin’s Dance Buddy, a project linking venues and artists. Sybil Crouch, Swansea University’s Head of Cultural Services, explains, “Taliesin is committed to supporting artists’ practice and has been part of the Dance Buddy scheme since its inception. We are delighted to be working with Phil Williams and excitedly looking forward to the first Cascade performance which premieres in Swansea on 3rd November before a Wales wide tour.”
Cascade will be visiting locations throughout Wales which do not usually take contemporary dance productions, and that is precisely why Phil is keen to go there. Places like Blackwood Miners’ Institute and Theatr Mwldan in Cardigan are not the usual pit-stops for dance tours, and venues like Wrexham’s Stiwt and Abergavenny’s Borough Theatre are just as much of a punt.
Collidron. Choreography Phil Williams. Cascade Dance Theatre
“There is a gap in provision for contemporary dance in small-scale venues,” says Phil. “We’re visiting places where this scale of dance doesn’t go any more. I’m a boy from Ebbw Vale so it’s important to get these shows into communities like that.
“It’s important for professional dancers to put on a certain scale of show that lets us turn people on and make sure people can still get excited about contemporary dance. You don’t have to live in a big city, you can live in small places and we will come to you and work in your community, do workshops and outreach programmes and then put on a show. We want people to want more!”
Harriet Riley, Collidron, Cascade Dance Theatre
But isn’t it hard to get smaller and medium-sized venues interested in booking contemporary dance when they’re not used to taking such productions? These venues may not believe there’s the audience or demand for the art form.
“There’s only one way to do it and that’s to try it,” insists Phil. “To put on the show and invite the community in to performances. I have an open door policy for my rehearsal process. I welcome the community in to see what we do and get them interested, to feed the fire and get it burning again in the small towns of Wales. I know people have tried before, but this isn’t reinventing the wheel, it’s just trying different ways to get out there.
“We should be taking as many art forms into smaller communities as we can and I’m very passionate about that. In our funding applications we refer to accessibility, but it isn’t just about disability, it’s about getting as many people able to see these art forms as possible.”
Phil Williams in Dharamsala (Himalayas)
As a lad from Ebbw Vale, Phil knows how important, and how life-changing, it can be to take something new and refreshing into small communities. As a boy, he was crazy about sport, always very active and playing plenty of rugby. It wasn’t until he was sixteen that he and some of his fellow rugby friends were invited along to the school dance club that he began to rethink his career ambitions. How did friends and family in Ebbw Vale respond to their budding rugby hero deciding to become a dancer?
“They were pretty cool about it, mainly because two of my mates had gone to the dance club with me. Some people were funny, as it wasn’t the accepted thing to do, but my parents were supportive. My father was a steel worker, as was his father, but he was happy as long as I was happy, as was my mother.”
Did the physicality of being a rugby player feed into that of being a dancer?
“Dance makes the body more flexible. People think dance is airy-fairy but you have to be strong and flexible, as in modern sport. Dance makes you more aware of what you do, the principles are the same, and of course you’re less likely to get injured.
“I went to dance club every Thursday after school and I soon changed my mind from wanting to go into sports science to auditioning to go to a conservatoire to train as a professional dancer.”
Collidron, Phil Williams, Cascade Dance Theatre
That conservatoire was the London Contemporary Dance School, where he studied for four years to get his degree before graduating in 2000 and joining a performance group called 4D (now Edge). He then joined National Dance Company Wales (then Diversions) for six years, following them from their base at Ebenezer Chapel on Queen Street, to Tyndall Street in Newtown, and finally to the Dance House at the Wales Millennium Centre.
Were there any differences between practising contemporary dance in London to Wales?
“Everybody was struggling to find space to rehearse and perform, which can be true in Wales as well. In Wales, though, we have a supportive arts community which wants us to succeed. In London there are so many people that not every theatre can be supportive of everyone. It’s very tough.”
Phil eventually returned to Wales for a stint as rehearsal director at NDCW, and he also became director of NDCW’s tour for graduate dancers. It was during this period that Phil went from being a dancer to a dancer/ choreographer.
As well as the promotion of the arts in smaller scale communities, another of Phil’s passions is internationalism. He has worked extensively abroad in countries such as Lithuania, Japan, Cuba and Poland while touring, but his heart truly lies in India.
“I first went to India in 2011 on a project called Scheherazade. I was working with young people to put it together with the orchestra of the Welsh National Opera and various choirs, and went to India to do a mock-up with young companies in Bangalore and Delhi. That relationship has continued over the last five years, and I hope to keep it going. The link between India and Wales is very precious.”
Phil Williams in Amristsar, India
Does the Indian culture inform Phil’s choreography?
“It doesn’t really influence my work here in Wales, as it is a parallel operation to take Western dance into Indian culture. The people in India are hungry for Western dance. They have such a rich and embedded history of dance in the classical style of their own, but they welcome a Western influence to move forward from that, so we’re exporting Western dance styles to India, rather than the other way around.”
Phil’s international links form a strong platform on which he has built Cascade’s modus operandi. Every tour will stick to the same template of a showcase of three stylistically varying pieces.
“We want to take Wales to the world and bring the world to Wales,” says Phil. “I also want what we do to be serious about contemporary dance, but also be mainstream. The most successful master of populist contemporary dance is Matthew Bourne, who has taken contemporary dance to the masses. Cascade wants to present a triple bill to get variety – pure, virtuoso dance full of technique; theatrical dance with humour and fun; and then European dance, which is something that we don’t have in Wales. It’s dark, wonderfully theatrical and technical – crash-bang-wallop entertainment with a serious undertone.”
How hard is it to sell contemporary dance to a new, uninitiated audience?
“Contemporary dance can be too serious and self-indulgent, and often it fails to reach out. It can be hard for people to find a way in. At the end of the day we are in the entertainment industry and we have to entertain, as well as try and make a serious point. We have to give people a way in. I want people to come and have a go, have a look!”
Presenting a variety triple bill is Phil’s way of reaching out to new audiences, and explains why Cascade is a dance theatre, not simply a dance company.
“Theatre creates a world that makes you feel, makes you think, which transports you to another place, so that’s what we’re trying to do with our three pieces. If you’re not a fan of one thing, wait twenty minutes and there’ll be something else you might love. Hopefully there will be something for everyone.”
So what is Phil presenting for his inaugural triple bill?
“We have two Welsh pieces and one international piece. I’ve known and worked with Jem Treays for a long time and his interest lies in a theatrical style of dance, so I thought it would be a good team-up. We discussed what we were going to do, and that each piece should be very different, and Jem developed a piece for four dancers and a puppet that’s called Poppet.”
As Cascade’s Artistic Director, Phil has his own piece to present.
“It’s called Collidron and it’s inspired by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. As it’s the centenary of the theory I’m using it as a starting point, rather than trying to interpret the theory as dance. It provides me with images to work with, how things move together, planets and gravity, energy colliding. It’s a moving tour de force of contemporary dance. It’ll also have a percussive live score by Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama graduate Harriet Riley, so we’re very lucky.”
Which leaves Phil’s international slot on the triple bill.
“I saw Quite Discontinuous by Dutch choreographer Jasper van Luijk at Chapter in Cardiff a few years ago as part of the Dance Roads project and immediately saw it as a great piece and a style we don’t see in Wales. It was intelligent, thought-provoking, intense, wonderfully creative and an exquisite piece that stood out for me. I thought it would be a great show to compliment what Cascade planned to do so he was top of my list of the international artists. He’s reworked it for two dancers performed by two men on some tour dates, and two women on others, so that gives the piece different flavours. Jasper is a very intelligent artist who is very busy over in Amsterdam so we’re lucky to get him here.”
What with setting up a new dance theatre company, applying for funding, and organising a tour and rehearsal period, does Phil have time to indulge in his childhood passion for sports?
“I work for the England and Wales Cricket Board every summer as pitch activation manager for its International Home Series. I look after the green stuff when the players are off the pitch, managing the activity and activations on the outfield, which includes the outreach/development programme for schools and clubs. That takes up all of my summer, so I’m outdoors with the cricket and then indoors in theatres in the Autumn and Spring with the dance!”
It’ll be interesting to see Cascade Dance Theatre come to the crease this November and show the communities of Wales how fun, exciting and inspiring contemporary dance can be. Let’s hope Phil can follow on and make his ambition to take art into new territories a huge success.
Cascade Dance Theatre’s Autumn tour visits the following venues: Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea (Nov 3rd); Blackwood Miners’ Institute (Nov 7th); Torch Theatre, Milford Haven (Nov 9th); Theatre Mwldan, Cardigan (Nov 11th); Neuadd Dwyfor, Pwllheli (Nov 15th); Aberystwyth Arts Centre (Nov 18th); Wrexham Stiwt (Nov 22nd); Borough Theatre, Abergavenny (Nov 23rd); and Muni Arts Centre, Pontypridd (Nov 25th).
See www.cascadedancetheatre.co.uk for more information.
Photography Roy Campbell-Moore