Sharon Watson – Fuelling Leeds’ Cultural Future

Sharon Watson is Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Theatre, Yorkshire Woman of the Year and is Chair of Leeds’ bid for European Capital of Culture 2023. I speak with Sharon Watson on a milestone date, one of many that Sharon has in her calendar, no doubt, but today – 50 days away from the Leeds 2023 Capital of Culture Bid submission – feels pretty significant.

Sharon’s returned from a 2023 progress meeting that afternoon, and I ask how she’s feeling: “We’re at the stage now of bringing the story together and I’m delighted at the content we’re getting, which truly shows how everyone can connect with the City. We set out to make a bid for everyone and we’re adhering to this. We find culture in every aspect of our life – from public spaces to transport, culture is really at the heart of every conversation.”

There’s no doubt that Sharon’s passion for culture is infectious. It’s not a question – it’s in her blood. With an inspirational CV that reads like several film scripts, with some huge achievements – Sharon herself describes her career as ‘non-linear; it’s more lily pad,’ – her latest challenge is, in her own words, “trying to be a better leader and enable others to do what I can’t.”

“A dancer’s career is very short, but the opportunity when working in culture is endless. I’m a facilitator. I like challenges – I’ve been gifted Phoenix as a director, which is an honour and a pleasure. I take it very seriously.”

Initially, Sharon trained at the London School of Contemporary Dance before returning to Leeds in 1989 and joining Phoenix as a dancer. 27 years later, the City undeniably looks different – but how deep do the cultural changes really go?

“There was no international vocational training school in Leeds back then for a start! Phoenix was an all-black, all-male dance company that is now international and mixed gender. The opportunity is broadening and who we can become as a city is changing. There’s a greater confidence to develop our own voices here. We now speak 170 languages in Leeds. We’ve grown as a diverse culture and it should look different by now! Change is in the air.”

We both agree that every week brings a new opening or development in Leeds at the moment. Sharon is passionate about the role of independents in the City – from shops, to cafes and artists of course, citing Colours May Vary and East Street Arts as key examples of the work that’s happening.

Sharon’s role in the Leeds art scene – and at Phoenix, the company that she’s danced with, choreographed for and now directs – has brought momentum and change to the City and beyond. Phoenix’s latest creation is a celebration of female choreography at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre in Leeds later this month. This inevitability begs the question: in 2017, is there still an extreme lack of gender equality in dance?

“In my experience, yes. Trying to find other people who look like me at this level – a black woman – is rare. The ratio when you’re younger is 3-1 or 2-1 females, and usually white females actually, but the further up the ranks you go, this switches to being more than outnumbered by male execs. We need to think about how we change this and hold a mirror up to those who don’t see that this is still the case. Ultimately, if inequality wasn’t a problem, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

The fact that Sharon was awarded Yorkshire Woman of the Year in 2017 then must have been a huge accolade, not just on a personal level, but also for the dance community. She laughs at the label: “I still can’t believe it; it was so unexpected. I embrace it and am so proud to have this accolade. And it definitely wasn’t the norm for someone from my industry to be awarded this – I love that!”

Speaking with Sharon about what drives her, there’s a realness and energy that is so powerful, you can very easily imagine its impact in a more traditional business setting. “I love being in the studio; it fuels me. I wish I could do it more. The confidence of knowing my art and how it can talk to more people beyond the industry also drives me. It’s an opportunity to create a physical language that connects with people. I love the spectrum of people that we deal with – it’s not all dancers.”

It’s this inclusive attitude and translation of culture into something that fundamentally connects us all that Sharon is bringing to the 2023 bid: “I can’t imagine life without culture. It keeps life and people going. We have a strong part to play with Phoenix and 2023 will enhance this further. It’s a fantastic position to be in and there are many benefits for so many people.”

How wonderful, then, that we have Sharon Watson choreographing this journey.