Our editor and writer, Kitty Wenham, is moved by the political and personal poignancy of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Windrush: Movement of the People at the York Theatre Royal.
The music pauses. A man rests on a green, velvet sofa in the centre of a dark stage. A woman walks on in a blue coat, vivid against the stark grey set. She is carrying a suitcase. They see each other. Silence fills the auditorium. In a show overflowing with vibrant movement, complimented by an artfully animated soundtrack, this small moment of beautiful quiet is almost uncomfortably touching. Two lovers, reunited. No sound, nor action, could capture the fullness, the gravity of this meeting. So, the music pauses.
Movement of the People is not a storied history of the Windrush generation; rather, it is an echo of the personal history of the Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Theatre, Sharon Watson, and the memory of her parents who answered the call to help rebuild England after the destruction of the Second World War. But with a generation as diverse as the company performing, it’s doubtful whether there is any other way to pay homage to such an important tale, which is now more relevant than ever. To try and encapsulate the experiences of hundreds of thousands of migrants in one 55-minute show would be an impossible and undeserving task. Watson’s father left his pregnant wife in Jamaica in search of building a better life together. He arrived in Leeds on the wings of this new movement, working many solitary years so he could afford to bring his family over to the UK. Watson reveals in a post-show discussion that she did not meet her youngest brother until he was 14 years old. It is this story of separation, and sweet reunion, that is given voice in the stand-out scene above.
Before the Conservative Home Office scandal dominated our screens and papers, Windrush:Movement of a People was envisioned as a tribute marking the 70thanniversary of the first wave of passengers that arrived in the UK on the SS Empire Windrush. In this piece, Watson gives voice to the challenges and tribulations that the migrants faced whilst celebrating the invaluable achievements and contributions they made to our modern society. It’s a precarious balance to hold, and although the show does suffer somewhat as it loses much of its brilliant narrative and structure in the second half, it is nonetheless a predominately emotive and expertly executed visual panegyric.
The scene begins with an effusive and sweltering orange sky that glows behind a towering backdrop of dark suitcases. It captures the feeling of a breaking dawn, a new era burgeoning in the background. This sense of joy and excitement on the docks of Jamaica is reflected in the swivelling hips and outgoing moves of the dancers, all of whom are ready to make their journey. The opening dance is set to a fitting but ultimately forgettable original music score by Christella Litras. Litres really makes an impact, however, when she skilfully weaves her score behind the powerful poetry of Professor Laura Serrant. ‘You called…and we came’, Serrant echoes when celebrating the contributions made by black nurses to the NHS. ‘You called…and we came’, the voice reverberates around the small theatre, ‘rising like a phoenix, from the heat of rejection’. The repetition of the poem’s clear voice cuts through the air, reminding the audience of their culpability in the isolation and pain captured by the dancers on stage, long after the show ends. Later, music is intercut with the racist elicitations of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and it’s impossible not to hear the tone and register of many of today’s politicians behind it.
In one of the dance’s most memorable scenes, three women in expressionless white masks roll out washing lines across the stage, using their white undergarments to spell out the ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’ notice that has come to define the hostility of the era. One woman tauntingly hangs the first bite ‘No Irish’, as she chases one dancer from the stage. Another writes out ‘No dogs’. A black dancer comes centre stage, standing by the middle of the washing line. The last masked dancer spells out the word ‘No’ beside his face, which seems to convey a multitude of emotions: confusion, hurt, disappointment. The audience is left breathless, and whilst taking place in an evidently historical piece, it’s impossible not to feel a connection to the current.
Whilst the first half of the dance relates a strong and accessible narrative to its audience, this falters in the second half, which seems to convey more of an emotion; a jubilation of sorts. The transition from a tale about the lives of the Windrush generation to the story of the music and culture they brought with them feels underdeveloped and unclear. In the post-show discussion, one man brings this up, lamenting the loss of clear political direction and most of the audience seems to murmuringly agree that they were confused by these scenes. Watson patiently explains the personal history behind these pieces: the songs she grew up listening to, the evolution of this black music in the U.K; how, excluded from dance halls, many black immigrants would host lively parties in their own homes, dancing around a record player and finally, her father’s life as a pastor. Prentice Whitlow, an American dancer in the company, adds a very poignant point that not all black art and black stories have to relate to trauma and pain. And perhaps this conversation, more than anything, betrays the shortcomings of a well-meaning majority white audience in a relatively homogenous city. An audience well-tuned to the issues and anguishes of a generation and eager to show support, but ignorant to the contributions and influence they had on their own culture; alert to the injusticesof racism and imperialism, but at a loss to piece together the message of the positive and universal beneficence of immigration.
Despite some flaws, Windrush: Movement of the People remains a strong and memorable show. The performances of dancers Jasmine Gordon and Vanessa Vince-Pang are particularly bodacious. The production ends with a celebratory coda, a gospel-like commemoration of resilience. But the real denouement, where Watson’s voice is at its strongest, occurs just after the washing-line scenes. Evidently intrigued by each other, one of the women overcomes her initial prudence and seems to connect with one of the new arrivals. Slowly, their bodies intertwine, and their clothes come off one by one in a beautiful sexual sequence. The very last thing removed is her white mask, revealing a familiarly human face. As the Windrush migrants spend more and more time on stage, in a comparably dark and grey England, each dancer has a moment where their mask is excised. ‘The idea of the masks was very clear to me’, Watson says after the show. When questioned about their symbolism and their removal, she concludes: ‘There’s a human behind every mask. It’s about finding the humanity in each other.’
Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Windrush: Movement of the People was performed at York Theatre Royal on 2 November and will tour various venues across the UK until 22 November. See herefor more details.