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 a story of 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. Facing blanket discrimination, 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 or over-emphasis on the hardship in favour of presenting rounded characters, with varied experiences despite their circumstances. 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 multi-faceted and transcendental – moving, funny and downright seductively rhythmic in places, the story takes many twists and turns – much like the phenomenal dancers telling it. 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. They re-arrange the garments to form new words but whether those words apply to those being discriminated against or those guilty of the discrimination themselves, it is unclear. It certainly seems to transition from re-creation of a historical hardship to an informed, contemporary passing of judgement on the situation. Boundaries are slowly crossed as relationships form and the passage of time eases the discomfort felt towards new sights of new people – the masks are discarded and the white people seem to be more human now, rather than faceless representatives of an over-arching, irrational view of anything different to themselves. I like that the masks pointed to the wrongdoers as the other, allowing them to be humanised with faces only once their wrongdoings are left behind. Such design choices are high-impact in a production with no dialogue, and I’m sure there are a vast array of other interpretations – but regardless, I think the symbolic touches carry great weight in this piece.
The dancers in this piece are 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. What I’m trying to say here is that without fail, every dancer is stupendously talented and I cannot find fault with a moment, or a singular movement, of their performances.
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, but also encouraging us to walk away smiling (and discretely adding a few moves to our dull routine of getting coats on as we leave…).
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, unexpected and transient performance of Windrush. It made me think, it surprised and moved me; it made me want to move, to clap and to mirror the energy of the dancers – it was a completely mesmerising display. The power of music has always struck me as etheareal and inexplicable, 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. Give me another few evenings watching performances of this calibre and this contemporary flair and you’ll make a bona fide dance enthusiast of me!
(Credits: Dancers: Natalie Alleston, Carlos J. Martinez, Sandrine Monin, Vanessa Vince-Pang, Prentice Whitlow, Aaron Chaplin, Carmen Vazquez-Marfil, Michael Marquez, Nafisah Baba and Mayowa Ogunnaike).
Windrush plays at West Yorkshire Playhouse until February 10th, before continuing its tour. You can get your tickets here.
Note: Phoenix Dance Theatre’s production of Windrush: Movement of the People features shorter performances showcased before the main event. On this evening, we saw a piece called Maybe Yes Maybe, Maybe No Maybe, which managed, in just twenty minutes, to change my perception of contemporary dance. Billed as ‘Teasing and playful but full of attitude’, the piece is comic by design and strikingly different through its use of sounds, where the dancers’ voices morph into the beats and nuances of the score. The dancers are given room to flesh out a character in this piece, with Choreography from Aletta Collins seeming to celebrate the appearance of spontaneity even if in actuality the piece is highly structured. Piece two was Shadows, which is an exploration of European history and human experiences. It seemed to me to explore a sentimental family dynamic, offering up a sense of uncertainty and transition with a search for comfort. I like the idea of everyone interpreting dance in their own way, more so than is generally possible for the kind of productions that I usually see. Running at jus5 ten minutes, there are more questions than answers in this piece, but I quite liked the ambiguity. I was therefore pleased to read of Choreographer Christopher Bruce’s view in the programme; ‘In my dance the action can be read literally or metaphorically…I am happy to leave the audience to interpret the work individually.’
Credits for Shadows:
Choreography, set and costume design: Christopher Bruce, Composer: Arvo Part, Lighting Design: John B Read, Dancers: Carlos J. Martinez, Sandrine Monin, Vanessa Vince-Pang and Prentice Whitlow.
Credits for Maybe Yes Maybe, Maybe No Maybe:
Credits: Composer: Street Furniture Music, Lighting Design: Michael Mannion
Dancers: Natalie Alleston, Aaron Chaplin, Carmen Vasquez-Marfil, Michael Marquez and Sandrine Monin.