Marcus Jarrell Willis, 38, dancer and choreographer, has been appointed as artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre, the Black British dance company based in Leeds, UK.
Willis was born in Houston, Texas in 1985. He moved to New York at the age of 16 to study at The Ailey School, performed with Ailey II, and in 2008 joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, staying with the company for eight years.
From my childhood I have aspired to be involved in dance. Phoenix holds such an important place in the contemporary dance landscape of the UK and its commitment to remaining loyal to its roots and fostering opportunity is something I am passionate about. I want to do my best to share this passion and experience with the next generation of dance makers to help to open up new opportunities for them in their futures.
Willis received his first choreographic commission at the age of 23 and has since choreographed dozens of works for a wide variety of companies and festivals across America and Europe. In 2008 he founded MJ Willis/Project-Inc., collaborating with like-minded artists on experimental projects across music, dance and the spoken word. In 2018 he was selected for a Leverhulme Choreography Fellowship at Rambert in London and decided to move to the UK, and was appointed as Resident Choreographer for Ballet Cymru in Newport, Wales, in 2021.
Phoenix Dance Theatre was founded in 1981 by three young Black British men – David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James. It is the longest-standing contemporary dance company outside of London and one of the few mid-scale contemporary dance companies to employ a permanent company of professional dances. Over four decades the company has grown to be internationally respected for creating dance that encapsulates the spirit of multicultural Britain.
From its inception, Phoenix Dance Theatre's story has been one of opportunity, creating pathways for dance artists to perform and be represented and offering young people the chance to access and experience dance, regardless of background or training.
Delia Barker, Chair of the Board of Trustees of Phoenix Dance Theatre, said,
We are delighted to make this announcement today of the appointment of Marcus Jarrell Willis. This is an exciting time for Phoenix as we are at the beginning of a new chapter for the company. Marcus' appointment is key to a different way of working, nurturing and providing opportunities for talented individuals who may otherwise face barriers to securing leadership opportunities. Marcus's depth of experience and his commitment to involving our many diverse communities, especially young people, match our ambition to create pathways for the development of artistic talent, particularly those from Black and other global majority communities. I am truly excited about what Marcus will bring to Phoenix, but also the role he will play in aiding Phoenix Dance Theatre to redefine leadership paths and development opportunities in the dance industry.
Willis takes up his appointment next month.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.