Wednesday 7th February 2018 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
‘You called, and we came. You called, and we came. You called, and we came’.
A story of promise, disillusionment, betrayal and ultimately acceptance and celebration, Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Windrush: Movement of the people looks at the passengers aboard the SS Empire Windrush, which saw the first settlers arrive from the Caribbean to the U.K. Encouraged to make the journey, convinced of making their dreams realities and promised vital jobs, those arriving find themselves rejected and facing blanket discrimination.
While the new arrivals struggle to fit in in a world of whiteness and whispering, eventually, the community opens up, and through the immeasurable and mystical power of music, those risking everything to brave a new life in a new country find themselves less the disrespected other and more the respected, accepted neighbour. There’s generous comedy within a story of hardship and barriers, which not only serves to add variety but also protects the production from sensationalism. Valuing the freedom of a dynamic contemporary approach, this kaleidoscopic production is a recognition of strength and of wrongdoing without ever becoming a study of victimisation.
Sharon Watson’s Choreography is moving, funny and downright seductively rhythmic in places, mapping the many twists and turns of the story beautifully. With original music from Christella Litras offering every mood with an energy of its own and with each transition either seamless or gleefully disruptive, storytelling without words takes on a surprising clarity. The music is often invigorating and contemporary, capturing the rhythms of Caribbean music while also offering a comical comparison of musical styles, highlighting the rich diversity of music created by Black artists.
Lighting Design from Luke Haywood captures the shifting tones of the narrative and is particularly beautiful when we’re taken to church. Set Design from Eleanor Bull is a thing of transformative beauty; crates hold surprising household goods and provide sets simply but impressively. It’s like a peekaboo set-up as we wait to see what each crate will swing open to reveal – as intelligent use of space and slick sets go, this is an impressive display from Bull. Bull’s Costumes are likewise worthy of note; evocative of the time stamp, with the male wardrobes offering a sense of gentility in loose pastels and shirt sleeves while the females are vibrant in colourful dresses which amplify the movements of the performers. Windrush is a thing of beauty.
There are some clever design choices communicating the intensity of the experiences being presented, too. Featureless white masks seem to highlight the uniformity of the discrimination; white people huddle together or watch the arrivals from windows with an unnerving indication of judgement and dismissal. The masked women hang out washing to spell out the atrocious and now infamous signs prominent at the time: “No Irish, Blacks or Dogs”. It’s fitting that the masks point to the wrongdoers as the “other”, allowing them to be humanised with faces only once their wrongdoings are left behind…
Truth be told, this ensemble is outrageously talented. Deft, ethereal, bold and playful, their performances cover extensive ground and do so with a striking sense of effortlessness. Vanessa Vince-Pang is a phenomenal performer – if I were standing amid rising flames facing certain danger, I could not muster the speed and urgency of her movements. She mesmerises in each of the three performances featured; spirited, gentle, defiant – superb. Carlos J.Martinez stands out for the elegance of his movements – the choreography celebrates fluidity one moment and starker shapes the next; Martinez flits between the two expressively.
Carmen Vazquez Marfil’s whole performance is likewise mind-bendingly fantastic, but her turn as the drunken dancer remains memorable for having gained big laughs – it must take a lot of practise for such a superb dancer to master the art of drunk dancing… Prentice Whitlow has the presence of five men (and perhaps the strength, too), while Nafisah Baba offers what can only be described as the personification of grace as she twists and turns her way across the space as if her bones obey laws of her own making. Aaron Chaplin‘s physical strength is central to his performance; endless lifts and demanding choreography leave us in awe.
When the tensions are overcome and the community unites over music and a sense of recognition, we are thrust into a glorious finale. A gospel choir appears to sing Mary Mary’s Shackles and while not pitch perfect, their energy is infectious and they have the whole audience clapping along. The dancers let loose and the celebration takes hold until it is time for bows. If that finale hadn’t made an appearance, this would have been a brilliant production, but with that finale as the closing statement – a declaration of triumph over adversity – the production as a whole secures itself in memories by inviting us to leave with an awareness of both the pains and the pleasures portrayed.
I’ve never fully embraced dance as I have general theatre, and that comes from little experience and lesser knowledge. I was impressed with Northern Ballet’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas recently, but I was even more impressed with this dynamic and unexpected performance of Windrush. The inexplicable power of music has always struck me, and I’m now coming to see that dance has similar powers… It would seem that if you can’t say it with words, sing it with notes; if you can’t sing it with notes, deliver it in a gripping score; if you can’t make yourself heard through sound, roar your story through dance… clearly, such a thing is possible.
Windrush plays at West Yorkshire Playhouse until February 10th 2018, before continuing its tour. You can get your tickets here.