ContemporaryDanceNorth East & YorkshireReview

Black Waters – Leeds Playhouse

Reviewer: Alice Hiley

Choreography: Sharon Watson, Shambik Ghose, Dr Mitul Sengupta

Music: Dishari Chakraborty

In 1781, owners of the British slave ship Zong threw over 130 slaves overboard in order to claim insurance on their bodies, which were legally classed as cargo. Between 1906 and 1938, British colonial forces incarcerated Indian and Burmese convicts, revolutionary nationalists and freedom fighters in Kala Pani prison.

Taking inspiration from these events, Black Waters explores notions of place, worth and belonging through a fusion of contemporary and classical Indian Kathak dance. The work is an exciting, culturally relevant collaboration between Phoenix Dance Theatre and Indian dance company Rhythmosaic, allowing choreographers Sharon Watson, Shambik Ghose and Dr Mitul Sengupta to delve into their companies’ rich cultural history.

Starting out in silence, with ten still bodies illuminated on a stark stage, the work quickly whips itself up into chaos. Set to an intense, rhythmic soundtrack of metallic clangs, classical drums and murmured chants, the dance is at once beautiful and frenzied, guttural and raw.

The company’s athletic dancers make complex physical partner work look effortless, and solos from Vanessa Vince-Pang and Martin Hylton are particularly breathtaking. The unique mix of Kathak and contemporary enables the work to quickly veer from beauty and fragility to wildness and agony.

The audience couldn’t help but be swept up into the emotional distress of eleven exceptional dancers: feeling their despair, frustration, helplessness, anger, and hope through their soundless screams and scrambling movements. A length of rope which trips and binds the dancers is the only prop needed to portray their struggle; red squares of light projected on-stage cleverly resemble prison cell blocks.

When a singular dancer, illuminated against a pitch-black backdrop, jumps off a precipice at the back of the stage, it seemed like everyone was holding their breath. The simplest moments are some of the most moving.

There is no clear ‘storyline’; instead of aiming to replicate the events in question, the piece focuses on portraying the confusion and emotions that might have been felt by those involved. Even though the dance was at times confusing or obscure, it felt like a potent marker of a part of history we need to remember. The show was not necessarily a complete story, but hopefully the start of an ongoing conversation.

Runs until 15th February 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Intense, Distressing & Powerful

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