Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Black Waters is an unflinching look at two brutal moments in British colonial history: the Zong Massacre, and the creation of the island prison Kala Pani, which was used by the British to house Indian freedom fighters. By uniting two disparate (though arguably connected) instances, the piece seeks to “explore the processes which caused the birth of an Indo-Caribbean diaspora for whom ‘home’ always remained a contested space”.
For those whose historical education didn’t go much further than the Romans, Tudors and Stuarts, with a little bit of modern warfare thrown in (um, that would be me – God, the British education system has an awful lot to answer for), the stark facts are this. In 1781, the British slave ship Zong, in trouble because it had made navigational errors which meant it was running short of drinking water, threw 130 African slaves overboard, and then went on to try to claim the insurance for the financial impact of their lost ‘cargo’. The resultant court cases – as the insurer tried to wrangle out of paying, since it was, horrifyingly, perfectly legal to kill a load of slaves at sea and then cash in on the insurance policy – brought the massacre to wider public attention and the outcry helped stimulate the anti-slavery movement.
Kālā Pānī (which is, Wikipedia tells me, Hindi for black waters) was also known as ‘the Cellular Jail’, a remote colonial prison in the Andaman Islands, India, used by the British to exile political prisoners far away from the mainland, where they were subjected to a punishing regime (because the powers that be felt that exile wasn’t quite tough enough). Many died, including some who drowned because they were force fed milk after going on hunger strike.
As someone who is fairly ignorant of the language of dance, I’m used to going into pieces very aware of my own lack of knowledge (I’m definitely the ‘would a newbie to the genre like it?’ reviewer of dance shows at Exeunt), but it’s rare that I approach something already feeling so chastened for my ignorance on its subject. As a British person, as a white person, part of me feels this simply isn’t my story to comment on – but part of me is also angry that I’m having to get my education from a dance group, when such things should be part of every school’s curriculum, and grateful that companies such as Phoenix are telling stories that should be better known.
But how to distil such horrors into an evening of entertainment? Co-choreographed by Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director, Sharon Watson with Shambik Ghose and Dr Mitul Sengupta, who are Co-Artistic Directors of Kolkata-based company Rhythmosaic, the production is clearly sensitive to the complex, emotional issues such a piece throws up. Under their sure hands, the company delivers a starkly beautiful performance that never minimises the suffering of those involved, instead renders it immediate and affecting.
The choreography is muscular and elegant, performed by a talented ensemble of dancers (which includes guest dancers Prasanna Saikia and Prasun Banerjee of Rhythmosaic) and aided by Dishari Chakraborty’s sometimes jagged, sometimes elegiac soundscape. There are no props, beyond the occasional menacing and constricting length of rope, and the simplicity allows the movement to shine. Emma Louise James’ costumes are both utilitarian and, with their dirty-rust coloured spines, vaguely sinister, and Kieron Johnson’s lighting is powerfully evocative, conjuring a ship’s hold, a deadly sea, with little more than well-place beams and spotlights.
Consisting of two 30-minute halves, it’s a compact but intense production, and it’s not always an easy watch – there are moments of genuine discomfort, as the slaves scrabble for water, are tangled in ropes, or the newly incarcerated prisoners face up to the reality of their fate. But it feels like an essential one.
Black Waters ran at Northern Stage from 25-26th February. It tours the UK until 20th June. More info here.