How do you take a story that everyone thinks they know and use digital to convey the many and unexpected truths behind it? Phoenix Dance Theatre wanted to encapsulate an enormous story and help audiences worldwide feel the pressures but also the joys of the Windrush generation.
Windrush: Movement of the People is a contemporary dance work produced originally for the stage to mark the 70th anniversary of the landing of the MV Empire Windrush, then restaged and filmed for broadcast and online distribution as a Space commission. Even without it being an anniversary, the story of “you called, and we came” appears to be familiar. The experiences, especially recently, of African-Caribbean people who came to Britain appears to be well-known and so do its tales of hardship and mistreatment.
Illustrating the challenges but also the joys of the Windrush generation
Yet even as Windrush: Movement of the People does bring us the truth of those experiences; it also introduces us to something new. It’s not only a contemporary dance piece, it is a joyous one.
“Absolutely,” says Sharon Watson, Artistic Director for Phoenix Dance Theatre and the choreographer of the piece. “It was integral, for me, that we do a celebratory piece because as much as the Windrush generation had a challenging time, there’s a whole lot of positives that we’ve experienced, too.”
“My parents and brothers and sisters, as black people we don’t want to just show that we are always depressed and challenged,” she continues. “So yes, for sure, it was meant deliberately to show something of a joyous occasion. Alford Gardner – he was one of our researchers and travelled on the Windrush – said to me that he’s had a great life, he’s had great experiences.”
Watson didn’t want to play down the challenges; she wanted to show the totality of it, to convey the complexities that aren’t usually examined, and which make Windrush a universal story.
“The ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ section of the work, those are some of the challenges that were faced and when you mention those words to anyone, you can understand that hostility,” says Watson.
It’s a personal story for Watson; “My mother was not on the Windrush; however it was intense - the hostility was as intense in 1948 as it was in 1952”. This made it possible for her to reach deeper than a documentary would, it also meant that she knows well the sheer scale of different experiences people had.
“I couldn’t tell everyone’s story and every part,” she says. “The riots aren’t in there, the carnival- these moments are of historical significance, but I had to put a framework around the things that I knew I could tell well and that I could actually evidence in terms of experience. I was also restricted by time!”
Bringing the production to a larger audience
On stage, Windrush: Movement of the People works to convey the truth of the feelings as much as the detail of the facts, and it is a close-up, intimate, celebration that connects with audiences. What Watson wanted, though, was to bring it to a far wider audience, to create something that could continue to contribute to the Windrush legacy.
“We could always film our work,” says Watson, “but I wanted to capture as much of this as possible. I often feel that you lose something when you put dance on screen because you don’t hear the breath, you don’t feel as much of the energy or hear the sounds of the feet. There’s usually something that’s kind of disconnected when it goes behind the lens. But the way this was captured with The Space, you heard the feet, you still felt all of those things that were real and that brought an audience into that emotive space. I think it was amazing job that they captured that and haven’t actually lost any of the real sensitivities around the work.”
As well as having planned the production, Watson of course knew that the 70th anniversary in 2019 was then approaching. She says she’d spent 18 months to two years figuring out the show, but the scheduling demands of digital and of platforms such as television are different to stage.
“We had thought we were going to digitally capture the show later on in 2019, but we realised that television wanted to showcase it earlier in that year,” says Watson. “And not even March or April, just ahead of the anniversary, but January or February. It meant we had to get everything ready in November/December 2018 time.”
Watson credits The Space for how she and the dance company were able to produce the show on time. “We were touring, we didn’t have a venue to film this, and we thought we would use a theatre - but all of the theatres were filled up with pantomimes!”
Under huge time pressure, and attempting to fund a project that was costly for a small dance company, Watson says that the practicality and pragmatism of The Space team was a boon. “It’s one thing to be very nicely artistically driven, but the logistical side of the show needed very, very concrete decisions. The Space didn’t mess around.”
Capturing the work
Ultimately, the show was captured by restaging the piece at a dedicated production facility, Production Park in Wakefield. The Space recommended experienced Director Ross MacGibbon, who used five cameras to film. Watson says that MacGibbon would keep consulting with her about what she wanted, but that she had realised both that she needed to trust him – and that she could.
“If we’d just wanted a front camera kind of capture, I’d have done that myself, I could do that,” she says. “I watched some of his other pieces, the works he captured of the classical companies, and of course with Matthew Bourne’s work, and you know that that’s a skilled eye. I think we got the best of the best.”
It wasn’t a case of handing the show over to the digital capture filmmaker and sitting back, though. “Ross gave me a sketch of what he was able to do, and it was great that I could see the work through another artistic eye,” explains Watson. “All of the work in the stage show is mine, it doesn’t matter whether you’re watching it from the front, the back or upside down, all of it has to be my work and so to just be able to have another artistic lens, it was tremendous.”
“I didn’t think that anything was missing from the show, but I got added value with the capture,” she continues. “So things like the duet, which was the arrival of the mother and the husband being in the room, you’ve got the intimacy just because of the way in which he captured that. One of those cameras became a dancer with the dancers and you would never get that perspective on stage.”
In any work of collaboration, there are bound to be times when it’s simply difficult to communicate your artistic vision to the other person. Except this time, Watson says no, there weren’t. “It’s a bit hard to remember now as the feel-good factor is still with me, but I’ve got to be honest, I loved every moment. I didn’t want what I already had, and the expert was in the room, he did it.”
Watson does credit the time pressure for how it meant they had to work together quickly and also for how it forced them to look beyond capturing it in a theatre space. However, she also says that it was The Space that introduced her and her team to new ways of capturing the work, as well as new platforms for it to be shown on.
Windrush: Movement of the People had its television premiere on BBC Four, and it’s been online on the BBC iPlayer, and as a live stream on the British Council website, but it’s also been shown on cinema screens. “I watched it again the other day as part of the Leeds International Film Festival and I just couldn’t’t stop beaming that we did that,” says Watson.
“We had proposed something that was very, very different in our application to The Space,” she says. “In my mind’s eye, what I was envisioning was to film on location. So there is a hostile section with the washerwomen, for instance, which would’ve been great to have taken into the streets of Leeds, the backstreets, and have done it in very much a real way, so that you felt the bricks, felt the backyards.”
Even if there hadn’t been the time pressure, though, Watson says that she learned from The Space how very different and also costly location filming would be. “I think, as our first capture, we were unaware of the reality and of the cost of it,” she says, “but also that particular idea didn’t necessarily give us what we wanted.”
With the goal of communicating the feel of the show to digital audiences, she says The Space suggested she looked at different ways of giving the captured show life. “It was very easy for us to drop our original idea,” says Watson, “because this is what we needed to go for.”
She’s delighted with the end result – and says her mother is, too. “She was so intrinsic in helping me understand the emotion that I really needed to capture,” says Watson. “When I showed her the R&D work, which was the process we went through just getting the elements together, she was in tears. It was the ‘you called, and we came’ element, that’s all she kept saying. She’d never spoken about it in any great detail before.”
A black production telling an international story
Windrush: Movement of the People also reached entirely new audiences for Phoenix Dance Theatre. “These platforms like television and the iPlayer, they’re not necessarily the platforms we would ordinarily find ourselves playing to as a dance company,” says Watson, “so we were connecting to people that I hadn’t expected.”
She says that as well as a substantial, and growing, audience who are now seeing the work, she’s been contacted both by viewers and television professionals. They’re saying how great it is to see “a black production that’s telling an international story.”
That combination of the audience and industry professionals reacting the same way has made Watson think about what else is being done in this space, about how this show resonated.
“I think it was the language of dance because that was one of the areas that you don’t see necessarily across television on a regular basis,” she says. “It has given me an appetite to see what more I could do around that, what stories need to be told within that genre on that particular platform. And that I am kind of talking and feeling that we could be the champion for this kind of work on screen.”
- Clear your music rights early. Watson says the biggest difficulty of the entire production was negotiating music rights. Even though she was used to doing it for a touring theatre show, it was very different – and much more expensive – to do it for a film that would last in perpetuity.
- Think about timing of when you can release your show to get maximum impact, such as around anniversaries.
- Work on what you’re going to say about the production, how you can communicate its meaning to audiences reading television or online billings.
- Don’t assume you need to use a stage to capture a stage show. You’re not trying to repeat the stage show on film, you’re creating a new piece of work with the same spirit and feeling.