‘When you do dance, I wish you a wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do nothing but that’, Act IV, Scene IV, The Winter’s Tale
It always prompts suspicion, in my mind at least, when a performance is a joy to watch all the way through. Windrush: Movement of the People presents an hour long dance interpretation of thirty years of immigrant lives in Britain. Every moment is delicious, saturated with colour, warmth and – of course – movement. Satisfyingly enough, the narrative stops somewhere around 1980 – right when Phoenix Dance Company was founded.
The relationships are portrayed beautifully, from the tipsy, swaggering camaraderie of the male characters to the skirt flipping girls who compose dance routines in living rooms to Jazz, Soul and Motown before eventually arriving at Hip-hop and Reggae. A love story which takes root on a warmly-lit Jamaican dock later flourishes in rainy England; the couple’s routines are achingly tender, employing more classical, balletic movements in amongst the upbeat hip-swivelling. At times, the viewing experience is almost too enjoyable, and you feel that surely something terrible must happen to earn the characters a happy ending. It’s not about suspense and drama though. The show is not a story as much as a snapshot of life as an immigrant in an often hostile Britain, showing the evolution of black British music, dance and community throughout the mid twentieth century. Nonetheless, a mountain of crates make up the back drop and the sound of waves hisses intermittently against the soundtrack, a constant reminder of the characters’ apparent status of ‘otherness’ placed upon them by society.
Furthermore, ‘Windrush’ doesn’t shy away from portraying racism and prejudice in Britain – even if the innovative choreography makes it mesmerising to watch onstage. At one point a troupe of white middle class housewives arrive, indistinguishable behind face packs and hair nets. In an impressive feat of chorus work, they arrange the infamous words ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’ on criss-crossed washing lines to an elegant sample of sixties lounge music. Gradually, though, barriers start to break down; the face masks are removed and friendships start to form across garden fences. At one point an interracial couple cover the abusive slur on the washing line with their own clothes as they embark on a love affair. There is even comedy as another housewife awkwardly attempts to mimic the sensual African-influenced movements of the other characters, flinging her limbs around and sticking her bottom out, much to their amusement.
The one dubious moment comes towards the end, with a tableau of people of different races sitting in church, smiling peacefully at one another. The gospel-style music is soaring and intoxicating and yet the image is confusing, creating a sudden religious note in the narrative which seems undeveloped and forced in a performance which has otherwise been genuine and believable.
Overall, though, ‘Windrush’ is breath taking. Nobody dies, no blood is shed, and yet the characters’ transition to England is not plain-sailing. The abuse they face is insidious and dehumanising in its nonchalance; you don’t watch a soap opera but a portrayal of everyday hostility. Community is fostered and resilience is bred in a dance show that is delightful but never merely decorative.