It’s been 70 years – a lifetime – since 492 Caribbean men arrived in Tilbury, Essex, on the Empire Windrush, marking the start of the first postwar wave of UK immigration and, more nebulously, the end of an idea of empire. Sharon Watson, artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre, is a daughter of that generation, and her ambitious if flawed new show Windrush: Movement of the People serves to remember the lives of her forebears and to pay witness to the changes they heralded.
That may make this show sound worthy but it is often infectiously upbeat. Christella Litras’s freewheeling, jazzy score winds through the work like a breeze, and in the opening scene – set in the Caribbean docks at the point of departure – you sense how much Watson and her dancers dig the African-inflected moves the migrants were to carry with them overseas: an easy lilt across the hips and shoulders, a rolling spine, a snap in the feet.
That wellspring of vitality bubbles up again in a party scene for a now established immigrant community – boisterous youngsters crowding the carpet space of a family living room, to a scratchy soundtrack of funk, disco and dubstep – and again in the inspirational ending, a gospel-like tribute to the resilient spirit. It’s an uplifting arc particularly well suited to Phoenix, which was founded in 1981 as a black British company and is now unselfconsciously multiracial and multinational.
The real substance of the piece is in its staging of the migrants’ difficult arrival in Britain. Gone are the orange sunset and the swivel hips; the colours are muted, and the dancers are isolated and uncertain. Watson’s directorial hand, too, is less assured. A poem by Laura Serrant, not originally written for this production, is read out in its entirety. Although its insistent refrain – “you called, and we came” – bears repeating, for its rhythmic effect as well as its message, too much of the language sounds either forced (“smiling and eager to work on the wards”) or bureaucratic (“lead change and add value”). Crucially, we lose touch with the characters at the moment of their arrival.
We reconnect with them only when they reconnect with each other. One scene finds women in white masks hanging out lines of washing, their undergarments spelling out the infamous notice “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”. An erotic encounter between one of the women and a black man gives each a human face to the other: she removes not only her clothes but also her mask.
This is a powerful portrayal of migrants recruited for economic and social reasons into a culturally hostile environment; we cannot miss the connection with the present. Immediately preceding Windrush on the programme (and following Sandrine Monin’s moodily enigmatic quartet Calyx) is its perfect counterpart, Christopher Bruce’s 2014 piece Shadows, also on the theme of migration but here with a pinpoint focus: the eve of departure. In 10 superbly crafted minutes, it conjures a world of anxieties, desperations and determinations, as a family resolves to abandon their home. If the ambience is mid-century (I thought of Jews leaving Europe), the situation simply says: refugees. These two dance works – these movements of people, you could say – may look like history, but they feel like current affairs.