Black Waters review – a muddied outcry against colonial horrors

Leeds Playhouse
Phoenix Dance Theatre’s new piece contains flashes of anguished brilliance but feels cut off from its subject matter

In 2018, Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Windrush premiered just as the scandal of its title began to break – a context that made the piece look much too optimistic. Their new work, Black Waters, is far more downbeat and draws on two episodes from British imperial history: the 1781 Zong massacre, where African slaves were thrown overboard and costs claimed back on insurance; and, more than a century later, the incarceration of Indian independence activists in the offshore Kālā Pānī (“black waters”) prison. With the Windrush scandal ongoing and the deportation of people deemed undesirable high in the news, the new piece again makes colonial history feel shockingly close to current affairs.

Artistically, though, it misses its mark. Perhaps that’s partly because of how it was made: Phoenix choreographer Sharon Watson worked alongside Shambik Ghose and Mitul Sengupta of Kolkata-based Rhythmosaic and two of their kathak dancers. Sometimes they achieve a fruitful confluence: the opening sequence has the Phoenix dancers taking on kathak’s rhythmic exactitude and articulation of arms, the kathak dancers conversely absorbing some Phoenix-style weight and breath. Later, though, the kathak dancers come to feel to like additions.

Modern-day weight … Black Waters.
Modern-day resonance … Black Waters. Photograph: Stephen Wright

But the work’s larger problem is that its parts struggle to meet. Without programme notes it’s hard to discern the dances’ connections to the Zong massacre or Kālā Pānī prison, let alone their connections to each other. On the other hand, the choreography occasionally lives upon its own force, whether expressive (an anguished but marvellously nuanced solo by Aaron Chaplin, ropes binding his ankles) or compositional (a deftly orchestrated sequence where linked arms loosen, scattering the dancers asunder). Elsewhere, with sidelights to suggest seas and spotlights for cells, and music more pleasing than harsh, the piece feels unanchored, the dancers’ considerable energies cast adrift.


Sanjoy Roy

The GuardianTramp

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