Black Waters: the dance exposing Britain's colonial horror

Phoenix Dance Theatre’s show looks back to the Zong slave ship massacre and the Kālā Pānī prison torture. Three choreographers explain how they created it together

How many people does it take to make a piece of dance? Dozens could be involved in staging a whole production, but usually there is one choreographer’s name at the top of the bill. It’s rare to walk into a studio, such as this large, bright space in Leeds, and see three people at the helm, all calling the shots.

This is the home of Phoenix Dance Theatre, whose latest work, Black Waters, is being co-created by Phoenix’s artistic director, Sharon Watson, alongside Shambik Ghose and Mitul Sengupta, who are both from the Kolkata-based company Rhythmosaic.

How does that even work, I ask them, sitting in Watson’s office between rehearsals. “It’s working!” says Watson. “Absolutely, it’s working!” says Ghose and the trio laugh as if they’re surprised that’s the answer. But how do they agree on what to do? “It’s a pleasurable conflict,” adds Ghose, with a big, infectious smile.

Working with Ghose and Sengupta fits with Watson’s vision for Phoenix, a company founded by black British dancers in the 1980s, to bring a broader range of voices to the stage. For Black Waters, Watson and her collaborators focused on “two narratives that really hit home”, both shameful episodes from British colonial history that resonated with the three choreographers. First, from 1781, the massacre aboard the Zong slave ship, when around 130 slaves were thrown overboard in order to claim insurance on their lives. Then the events at the Kālā Pānī prison (Hindi for black waters) in India’s Andaman Islands, where Indian independence activists were tortured in the early 20th century.

Rehearsals for Black Waters.
It takes an hour to create a few minutes of choreography … rehearsals for Black Waters. Photograph: Camilla Greenwell

The trio felt that both episodes were not well enough known. “They’re things that have affected all of us in terms of our cultural histories,” says Watson. “But it feels very relevant today that we’re still having these challenges around the British colonial conversation, the lack of visibility, being written out of history.”

Rather than try to tell complex stories in full, the choreographers focus on common themes: forced transportation, entrapment, emancipation. They don’t mind if viewers don’t know exactly what’s happening; in fact, Watson wants you to be puzzled, but to get so involved in the images and emotional journeys of the dancers, that you go home and read up on the facts.

Using multiple choreographers recognises that there’s no single viewpoint on history, but the three of them still have to create something coherent that works on stage. Their dance backgrounds are completely different, Watson from contemporary, Sengupta from Indian kathak, Ghose from jazz, ballet and modern. They’re not making a cut-and-paste of styles, but “looking for an image which is workable for all of us,” says Sengupta, and watching the dancers you can see some of the sharp diagonal lines and flowering fingers of kathak mixed with earthy contemporary undulations.

Four weeks into a six-week creation process, “the flow is on” says Ghose. “Now we can read each other very well.” But there are still disagreements. “Shambik’s line is: ‘You can think about it,’” says Watson, “But sometimes I say, you know what, I’m not even going to think about it!”

As well as different dance techniques there are different working dynamics to manage. “Even the tone in the studio,” says Watson. “They are both talking at each other, conversations overlapping, the volume of the discussion growing.”

“Sharon taught us one thing the first week, which was keeping quiet,” laughs Ghose. “I never keep quiet, never in my life!” The reason for keeping quiet is not only because there are two other choreographers to listen to, but the dancers are also involved in the creation – and this, too, is a new approach for Ghose and Sengupta.

Sharon Watson in rehearsals.
‘It feels very relevant today’ … Sharon Watson during rehearsals. Photograph: Camilla Greenwell

“I came from a very orthodox tradition where dancers were never allowed to say anything,” says Sengupta. “Here it’s the opposite.” Watching the rehearsal, at first Sengupta and Ghose hardly intervene as the dancers take the lead in working out their entrance. The most confident put their ideas forward first, then quieter dancers speak up. “I feel it needs to be smaller.” “How about you fall and I catch?” “If this is rubbish, you tell me,” says one before offering up an idea. “Ah, yes!” claps another in response. “What vibe are we feeling?” she asks before they attempt a try-out. “Make people cry,” comes the suggestion from behind.

Only then do Ghose and Sengupta step in, choosing, refining and shaping steps. It takes an hour to create a few minutes of choreography, but each moment is formed through rigorous inquisition, attending to tiny subtleties of tone, placement and attack.

All three choreographers say this experience has made them think in new ways. “I can’t keep growing as an artist if I’m not fed by other creative voices,” says Watson, although she admits it’s hard to let go of needing to be the one with all the answers. Ghose and Sengupta have worked collaboratively before, but never as fruitfully as this. “Every moment something is happening,” says Ghose. “We have so many ideas we can’t contain them.”


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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