A great pyramid of packing cases and trunks against a tangerine Caribbean sky sets the tone. Men in sun hats and high-waisted trousers flirting with women in bright print dresses, the dancing all loose-limbed flow. Morning becomes turquoise midday, the mood optimistic but shot through with the melancholy of farewell.
Windrush: Movement of the People is the first narrative work created by Sharon Watson, artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre. The subject of this 45-minute piece (part of a triple bill), is the journey made by the first wave of migrants who arrived from the Caribbean 70 years ago on the Empire Windrush. In the audience on Wednesday’s first night was 92-year-old Alford Gardner, who came to Britain on that first voyage. “It was a brilliant decision and the right decision for me,” he told a recent interviewer. Over the next decade, 170,000 Caribbeans would follow, among them Watson’s parents. Many, like Gardner, would settle in Leeds, where Phoenix and its ethnically diverse cast of dancers are based.
“You called, and we came” the soundtrack announces, emphasising that it was not just the offer of jobs and wages which drew these men and women across the Atlantic, but a sense of duty to the motherland. What follows is as moving as it is harrowing. The bodies on stage, previously unconstrained, are now tense and uncertain in the dim north European light. The soundtrack tells of “our unbelonging”, and of “the strangeness of our speech and the kinks in our hair”. There was a grim downgrading. Women who had been matrons in Jamaican hospitals were demoted to the rank of nurse. Nurses became chambermaids.
The mountain of luggage, which remains onstage throughout, is a melancholy reminder of the “myth of return” (few of that first wave of migrants ever went back to live in the Caribbean). It doubles as a cramped interior, and as a tenement block. Windows open to reveal shrewish landladies in housecoats, who peer suspiciously at the newcomers before slamming the shutters closed. These hatchet-faced Mrs Mops then hang washing on their clothes lines. Each garment bears a letter; together they spell NO DOGS, BLACKS OR IRISH. It’s horrifying, and the racist message is brutally conveyed, but Watson’s intention is less to apportion blame than to show how utterly bewildering British attitudes appeared to the newly arrived migrants. What Watson conveys, powerfully but economically, is how the culture that they brought with them brightened the drabness and meanness of the postwar years. Gospel and calypso, and later ska and reggae, and the dances that accompanied them, changed the look and sound of Britain forever.
Phoenix’s 10 dancers triumphantly embody this many-faceted evolution. The original music is by Christella Litras (there are also tracks by Billy Cobham, Seal and others), and set and costumes are by Eleanor Bull. In a final scene we see an extended family group, alive with dance. The luggage mountain is still there, and for a moment we hear the sound of the sea, suggesting that we all remain, in a sense, between worlds. Whether we unite or divide is up to us.
• At West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until 18 February; then touring until 10 May