Stage review: Black Waters, Leeds Playhouse

Phoenix Dance Theatres new production, Black Waters at Leeds Playhouse. Picture: Stephen Wright
Phoenix Dance Theatres new production, Black Waters at Leeds Playhouse. Picture: Stephen Wright
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There were several moments during Phoenix Dance Theatre’s extraordinary new piece Black Waters where I had to remind myself to breathe.

This is dance theatre at its most potent and eloquent, telling stories that need to be told through thoughtful and thought-provoking choreography.

Working with ten dancers, co-choreographers Sharon Watson, Shambik Ghose and Mitul Sengupta take two shameful historical episodes from British colonial rule – the 1781 Zong massacre in which 130 slaves were deliberately drowned in an attempt to claim insurance on their lives and the remote island prison of Kala Pani where between 1858 and 1938 Indian freedom fighters who dared to speak out against the regime were incarcerated – to present a narrative that explores identity, despair, self-worth and, ultimately, hope.

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The original music, composed specifically for the piece by Dishari Chakraborty, subtly combines elements of both Indian and Caribbean music; at times sinister and dissonant at others elegiac and profound, it adds immeasurably to the powerful storytelling.

As does the lighting design from Kieron Jonson. Simple effects contribute hugely to the narrative – for example, thin beams projected at waist level immediately denote the only source of light in the lower decks of a slave ship.

The movement of the dancers is so fluid and beautiful, conveying perfectly the sense of water, of ebb and flow, change and inertia, of freedom and containment.

Incredibly moving, visceral and honest, the whole thing is, quite literally, breath-taking.

FOUR STARS

To February 15, then touring.