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 smaller 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. We're living in difficult times so we have to make this tour a success so we can put in a strong application to the Arts Council for next time. That way we might get more venues involved along the way."
Cascade's November tour is 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.
"There is a gap in provision for contemporary dance in small scale venues," says Phil. "We're doing Aberystwyth and Blackwood, places where the scale of dance that we do doesn't go any more. I'm a boy from Ebbw Vale and there's certainly not much dance up there 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!"
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.
|Blackwood Miners' Institute|
"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."
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. Sportsman these days to Pilates and yoga, and even the WRU gets players to do some ballet. 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."
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.
"It was a very exciting time of change between 2000 and 2006, and it was so good to be a part of Diversions at that time. I then had an operation on my shoulder, and then went down to London to join a dance company there for a while."
Were there any differences between practising contemporary dance in London to Wales?
"I was there with other companies who sorted out things like rehearsal space for us, but 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 Williams presents a piece|
called Collidron on Cascade's
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 funded R&D trip for something 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."
Does the Indian culture inform Phil’s choreography?
"I don't think so, no. 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 need 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 plank 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 and has caught onto something big. Cascade can't do one big show like that, so I want us to present a triple bill to get the variety – pure, virtuoso dance full of technique; theatrical dance with humour and fun; and then European dance, which is somewhere else 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 or give the audience anything. 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 mean, some dance posters and marketing material do not give the passer-by or average punter a way in at all. 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?
|Jem Treays presents Poppet|
on Cascade's triple bill
As Cascade's Artistic Director, Phil has his own piece to present.
"It’s called Collidron, which I don't think is a word that means anything, but it's inspired by Einstein's theory of general relativity. That may not sound appealing to a general audience but 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 all-important international slot on the triple bill.
|Holland's Jasper van Luijk|
presents Quite Discontinuous
on Cascade's triple bill
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 don't play cricket, but I do work for the England and Wales Cricket Board every summer as a kind of production manager for its International Home Series. Basically, I look after the green when the players are off the pitch, so I deal with activities such as pyrotechnics and flames, and the flag-waving. We also have an outreach programme that allows kids to play cricket in the outfield. 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 through 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.