Dance companies schedule their repertoire years in advance, fixing tour dates and creation periods with no room for improvisation. There’s no way Phoenix Dance Theatre could have predicted the current news about the Windrush generation, but this mixed programme, created to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the arrival of a few hundred West Indians in Britain, is undeniably influenced by it.

<i>Calyx</i> © Brian Slater
Calyx
© Brian Slater

I detected a theme of journeys and migration threading through all three pieces in this mixed programme, but I wonder if I have projected that onto the works from my own preoccupations. Works of art are changed according to the lens we view them through. When the events around us change, that lens inevitably thickens and curves too.

The first piece of the evening was Calyx, created by company dancer Sandrine Monin. Inspired by the poetry of Baudelaire, I saw themes of love, lust and jealousy where alien like forms bulged out of egg like boxes, with something of a science fiction feeling, and evolved towards human relationships and patterns.

<i>Shadows</i> © Toni Nandi
Shadows
© Toni Nandi

The evening continued with Shadows by Christopher Bruce, to sweeping music by Arvo Pärt. Again there was a theme of journeying and perhaps migration, as four dancers explore what it might mean to leave a home and a life behind to travel towards the unknown.

Windrush: Movement of the People formed the bulk of the programme, created by the company’s Artistic Director Sharon Watson. How to count the things I loved about this piece? I loved the charged moments of drama where the dancers were not moving, just being people on stage representing the joys and tragedies of migrants everywhere. I loved the use of the props and set to evoke the kind of nameless, faceless racism that we cannot say is entirely historical, and the clever costume changes to evoke the passing of time and the changing of society. And I loved the far ranging soundscape, from the Calypso music of the opening sequence to the intensely moving A Change is Gonna Come and the snippets of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. Again, no one could have predicted that the BBC would revive this speech so recently and its words and ideas would become current again, but hearing them in the context of today’s national conversation as a part of the show was powerful. I was particularly moved by Laura Serrant’s poem, with the refrain ringing through the theatre; ‘You called, and we came’, as the excellent dancers melded earthy Caribbean hip movements with the tighter, more tentative scurrying a London life demands.

Phoenix Dance Theatre’s <i>Windrush: Movement of the People</i> © Brian Slater
Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Windrush: Movement of the People
© Brian Slater

I would say that although the show ended on a high, with a joyous celebration of modern multicultural Britain that reminded me of the optimism of the 2012 Olympic games, I felt that the narrative and storytelling lost some steam and became more of an abstract evocation of the theme towards the end of the piece. This made sense, however, as Sharon Watson is telling a story which has not yet ended, a story so current we are still living it. 

This programme should have been an anniversary celebration of a profoundly important but historical event in 20th-century Britain. Instead, viewing it through the lens of the recent news cycle, it has become an exploration of migration and culture that is incredibly relevant to the lives of the people, all people of the nation. 

Vanessa Vince-Pang and Prentice Whitlow in <i>Windrush: Movement of the People</i> © Brian Slater
Vanessa Vince-Pang and Prentice Whitlow in Windrush: Movement of the People
© Brian Slater

As I walked out of the theatre and into the same sort of London drizzle that must have greeted the first arrivals from HMT Empire Windrush in 1948, the ideas of journeys, departures and goodbyes echoed in my mind. I crossed the Thames and climbed the steps to Waterloo station, where I thought of Sam Selvon’s wonderful 1956 novel, The Lonely Londoners, where he writes “For the old Waterloo is a place of arrival and departure, is a place where you see people crying goodbye and kissing welcome”. Then I checked the news on my phone, where stories about the immigration problems suffered by the people represented on stage was still the most read story, and I heard again the words of Laura Serrant’s poem from the show; “You called, and we came. Remember that you called.”

****1