PHOENIX Dance Theatre is marking the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush, the ship that brought the first large group of immigrants from the Caribbean to Britain.
So began the post-war immigration boom that was to change British society radically. In 1981, Phoenix Dance formed in Harehills as an all-black, all-male company whose dancers had taken their first steps at Harehills Middle School.
Phoenix has undergone many changes through the years and is now ethnically diverse, but the company’s roots are never forgotten. Hence Phoenix is presenting the world premiere of Windrush: Movement Of The People at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, this week.
The first ever contemporary dance work to commemorate Windrush fuses music and dance to create an inspiring performance that uses a multi-cultural cast to tell an international story and celebrate a culture that is now part of the country’s fabric.
Phoenix artistic director Sharon Watson, whose family was part of the Windrush Generation, has choreographed the new work. “I want to capture both the excitement and the upset of this significant event,” she says.
“Windrush highlights both the struggles and the good times the Jamaican community experienced during those early years. It’s an uplifting dance production but it also shines a light on an important era of the history of black people in the UK.”
Watson’s Windrush begins in Jamaica, showing the response to the newspaper adverts for the SS Empire Windrush. Busy and excited scenes are juxtaposed with personal stories, family farewells and the people left behind.
The 492 immigrants were invited by the British government, but were not always welcomed, and Phoenix’s show seeks to capture the daily exclusion and racism the newcomers faced.
“We know people were excited to come to the UK on the promise of work and a better life, but we also know it was not the case for all,” says Sharon. “Britain was recovering from the war and needed help to rebuild the country, but the stories they told were of a bittersweet experience.
Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Windrush: Movement Of The People
“My family were not on the SS Windrush but did come to the UK as part of that first wave of people that were to become known as the ‘Windrush Generation’.”
In Windrush, the dancers create characters that take the audience from Jamaica to Britain, celebrating how the Windrush generation began to make their own opportunities, setting up churches, introducing their own music and dance and establishing a “black culture”.
“When I was undertaking the research for this project, I was delighted to discover that Calypso musicians Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner, Lord Woodbine and singer Mona Baptiste were among the ship’s passengers; these major musicians were part of the story. What greater gift for a choreographer than to be practically handed a part of the soundtrack?”
From 1948 to the present day, from calypso to R&B via blues, Ska and reggae, composer Gary Crosby and Caution Collective’s Christella Listras support the story with an uplifting soundtrack to honour the lives of the Caribbean British people and wider black British communities.
The Windrush premiere will be presented alongside Shadows by Christopher Bruce and Calyx by Sandrine Monin. Performances are at 7.30pm tonight until Sunday; tickets cost £13.50 to £31 on 0113 213 7700 or at wyp.org.uk.