Choreography: Sharon Watson, Shambik Ghose, Dr Mitul Sengupta
Music: Dishari Chakraborty
Artistic Director: Sharon Watson
In 1781, the owners of British slave ship Zong, threw 130 slaves overboard, subsequently claiming for the monetary loss on their insurance. In the early twentieth century, the British government incarcerated Indian freedom fighters in solitary confinement in Kala Pani jail in the Andamans. When many of the prisoners went on hunger strike, they were force-fed milk and thereby drowned.
Directors of the Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre felt that these two shocking events were not sufficiently well known. Black Waters is an attempt to address that cultural omission. Working with Kathak dance company, Rhythmosaic, and award-winning Indian music composer Dishari Chakraborty, they have produced a cross-cultural dance piece in two acts. This is not a narrative piece; it is rather an exploration of emotion and the human spirit under horrific circumstances.
Opening on a bare stage, where the dancers are sitting cross-legged, they come from stillness to delicate Kathak hand movements, gradually moving into a series of dance combinations: Powerful ensembles, urgent, desperate solos and some particularly affecting pas de deux. These use a blend of dance styles but are underpinned with strong contemporary dance technique.
The Phoenix dancers are hugely impressive and Rythmosaic guest dancer, Prasanna Saikia, straddles the dance styles effectively. Vanessa Vince-Pang is an outstanding soloist, bringing, power, lightness and fluidity, both alone and when expertly partnered by Michael Marquez and Carlos J. Martinez.
A solo section by Aaron Chaplin, working symbolically with a rope (incidentally the only prop used throughout) showed his strength, grace and sensitivity. Another highlight was a series of sinuous, tender and moving pas de deux by the full company that opened the second act.
Throughout, the music works well with the choreography. The dancers also have the benefit of Kieron Johnson’s stunning lighting design. This skilfully evokes everything from a stage full of cramped cells to the moving seas. Emma Louise James’ costume designs are self-effacing but highly effective, both in context and in framing the dancers’ movements.
Given the nature of the subject matter, there is a limited range of light and shade and the audience might have welcomed a little more in terms of context. What there are, however, are profoundly moving scenes of human interaction under duress. The dancers bring great emotional commitment to the work, along with their exceptional skill. Some welcome moments of intense theatricality also punctuate the piece, such as a dancer launching herself from a parapet and a breath-taking moment, achieved by two dancers and the extinguishing of a light, that defies coherent description.
This is a stunning group of dancers delivering inventive and emotionally affecting choreography. Phoenix have said they are not trying to tell the stories of these two events but to prick people’s interest so that they find out more for themselves. As well as a valuable contribution to the dialogue of multiculturalism, Black Waters is essentially about the strength, generosity and tenderness of the human spirit.
Runs until 26th February 2020