Case study

Sharon Watson, Artistic Director and Choreographer, Phoenix Dance Theatre

Sharon WatsonArtistic Director and Choreographer, Phoenix Dance TheatreSmall Arts Awards

Getting Wellcome Trust funding

What attracted you to Wellcome and to this scheme?

At Phoenix we have a longstanding relationship with Wellcome. It's been ten years, or even a bit longer.

Because it's been so long, I can't remember how I first heard about Wellcome. But for the most recent Arts Award, once I'd decided on the theme of the work I wanted to produce, I knew it was a fitting match. 

Thanks to our previous projects, we knew working with Wellcome would serve us well in terms of artistic development. There are two sides to what we do – formal educational study and artistic development – and Wellcome's criteria fitted them perfectly. 

Sometimes people assume that Wellcome will have a clinical approach to the funding process and that artists will be secondary. That's a conversation I've had with several people outside my organisation. In reality, the art sits at the heart of what Wellcome does with those applications.

What aspects of the Arts Award funding are most useful to you?

Well – clearly, the funding!

Having a personal connection – a personal manager, I guess – at Wellcome once the grant was awarded has been invaluable. For one of our projects the advice we got from our relationship manager was intrinsic in us being successful. The project involved performance work and education testing, and we hadn't got that far in our research. But the relationship manager helped us to focus on the product, which was sound advice for us.

I've also been to two Wellcome networking meetings, which were both fantastic. It was informative to see the other opportunities and possibilities that were available. 

What do you think about Wellcome's application process? 

What's really difficult is finding the right balance in the application. When you're starting out, you don't know what your project could become. You need to put the right amount of detail into the idea without restricting yourself. 

In my latest application I had several other creatives on board, as well. During the application I had to lead them, but what they said back to me would inevitably have an influence on the journey. I stuck to a clear narrative for one aspect, but I divided the piece to be able to venture into the unknown.

I've also sat as a panel judge on one of the processes. That gave me some helpful insight – and it was fun! I was nervous at first, but what was quickly evident was how genuine the process was in terms of representing the arts. 

How challenging have you found it to secure funding?

It's a challenge, undoubtedly. When it comes to creative and artistic funding, it's much harder: even though you have a brand and a reputation, you don't know exactly what funding might cover. 

New things can happen, but they aren't necessarily the things you've shown before. You're not funding retrospectively, you're funding for the future. 

And it's getting more challenging. I was at a roundtable discussion on funding the other day, and some of the bigger organisations are as challenged as we are. We have one part-time individual working in a particular area of funding, and some organisations have five or six people on it. I find it incredible that we're all fighting for the same money, but we do what we can and make the situation work. 

What advice would you give to other applicants?

When people ask me if they should I apply to Wellcome, I say 'absolutely'. I also suggest they don't just put in a blind application. There's a lot of information available – and not just on the website. 

You can get involved in events and opportunities that will give you a sense of the landscape, and help you understand how Wellcome operates. I was able to send our education manager to a discussion about educational projects, and it opened their eyes to what was on offer.

The outward-facing part of Wellcome can be overwhelming, if you're an independent artist or someone working in a small organisation. But Wellcome understands that the journey is what the investment's about. 

Career path

  • 2009-present Artistic Director and Choreographer, Phoenix Dance Theatre
  • 2009 MA, Performance Works, Leeds Beckette University
  • 2008-2009 Director of Learning and Access, Northern Ballet Theatre
  • 2006-2008 Clore Leadership Programme Fellowship, Secondment, Sage Gateshead
  • 2000-2006 Rehearsal and Tour Director, Phoenix Dance Theatre
  • 1997-2000 Lecturer, Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Choreographer, National Youth Dance Company and Dancer and Choreographer, Union Dance 
  • 2000 Artistic Director, Arts Beyond Contemporary Dance (ABCDance)
  • 1989-1998 Dancer, Phoenix Dance Theatre 
  • 1986-1989 Dancer, Spiral Dance Company and Extemporary Dance Theatre
  • 1983-1986 Vocational training, London School of Contemporary Dance

What have been the defining moments of your career so far?

I knew that I wanted to be a professional dancer from the age of nine, and I started my training to become one at 16. There was no training establishment here in Leeds, so I went to the London School of Contemporary Dance. 

I was invited back to Leeds to join Phoenix Dance Theatre in 1989, and I became one of the first women in the company. That was a significant time for Phoenix's development, as well as for me. Then I lectured at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance for five years. At the same time I ran my own company, trying to get an understanding of the sector. 

I did my Master's at Leeds Beckett University – Leeds Met, it was called then – and at the same time I was appointed to be the seventh artistic director of Phoenix in 2009. I managed to deal with the two things going at the same time, but it was absolute madness. 

I've also become the independent chair for Leeds City Council, as we bid for the European Capital of Culture 2023. That's a big opportunity for the city – we're making a landmark statement about culture and how we want to move that forward. 

I've been pretty busy! But everything's been focused on culture in my career. I've always worked in dance in some shape or form. 

Aims and spreading the word

What's the main aim of your work? 

At Phoenix, we want to change lives through dance. We've been running for 35 years, and it started out of the community. We always reference that for our growth and our future engagement. We've had some clear milestones, but we also make sure that we're continuing to find opportunities for people to say: 'This is what I want to try for, and how does it happen?'

We provide real access to contemporary dance – not too highbrow, but not so accessible that people consider it commercial. We give people an introduction to the various forms of contemporary dance, and we provide a platform for dancers to be able to show their creativity. 

The underlying message of what we do is engagement, and staying connected. Whichever activities you do – it doesn't have to be dance – you can build a better quality of life when you begin to build culture into what young people are experiencing. We can be a driver of engagement and opportunity, and excellence.

We need to look outside of our four walls and recognise what's on the other side: we have to be able to communicate and continue to change lives, but what we do has to be relevant to the people sitting on the other side of the wall. We have to embrace what's reflected back to us. And that's something that's embedded within all the work that we do.

How do you make sure people know about what you do and/or approach new audiences?

I try to put myself into positions where other people might not go. I talk to people that might not have a direct link – or wouldn't see a direct link – with culture, but who want to start talking. For example, I'm talking to people that make healthy ice cream, thinking: 'Why aren't you connected with us? You're looking at some of the healthiest dancers in the UK.' If you have an audience, and we have an audience, let's see what happens together. 

I take opportunities all the time, really, to see what could happen. That's my job! So we work with NEET, we work with hard to reach, we work with disability groups. We work with other organisations is the city and help them to understand community engagement and build activities. 

Over the years people have wanted to pigeonhole Phoenix, but it's so much bigger now than when it started. Our diversity means we can embrace bigger and better opportunities, and that enriches what we do.

People we've funded