Rich Pickings on Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Black Waters


Two stories inform this world premiere of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Black Waters: namely the Zong ship massacre in the late 18th century and 100 years later the incarceration of Indian freedom fighters in the Kala Pani prison. But as choreographer and Artistic Director Sharon Watson explains: “Black Waters is not about recreating these two events through contemporary dance, but is an exploration of place, worth and belonging, which can often be conflicting for people of colour.”

Watson works with Shambik Ghose and Dr Mitul Sengupta to create a compelling and immersive piece. Alongside this trio of choreographers is a creative team par excellence. So Dishari Chakraborty composes the soundtrack that ranges from slow elegiac strings and piano to traditional Indian music and more rhythmic industrial sounds. Emma Louise James designs simple but effective costumes that serve to highlight the oppression and indignity acted out by the dancers. While Kieron Johnson’s lighting is at one time a flood of light, then square boxes indicative of cells, or shafts of light that catch the cast in chiaroscuro.

Initially the entire group sit cross legged only using their arms and upper torso. But this is followed by a pas de deux with frantic and frenetic movement. Their response to the music is incredibly intricate and well-observed and there are many trust exercises which sees the interchange of partners and the raising up of an inert dancer (much harder than it appears). When the soundtrack becomes harsher we see the dancers in a whipping motion, then recumbent.

There is some fascinating rope work, not aerial as is more common, but horizontal and indicating slaves in chains. We see them walk in unison and then chaotically tumbling over one another. Finally, we return to the beginning of the cross-legged posture – perhaps a Buddhistic cycle. This is a thrilling and intense piece of dance theatre which is at once accessible as well as secretive and obscure. Phoenix Dance Theatre are in fine form living up to their reputation as risk-taking producers of cutting edge new work.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 13 February 2020 at Leeds Playhouse. Runs until 15 February.  Tours until 20 June.

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About Rich Jevons

Rich Jevons is a freelance journalist based in Leeds. Just a quick intro: almost forty years' journalistic experience (I was published in the Yorkshire Post at the tender age of fifteen!); a decade as Arts Editor at Leeds Guide; freelancer including work for Big Issue in the North, Metro Newspaper, Artscene, Northern Exposure, AN, AJ, BJP, Hotshoe International, National Drama, Plays International... And edited until its demise at the end of 2013. Now writing predominantly on the visual and performing arts for Rich Pickings and travel writing for Indigo Car Hire.

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