No one could have predicted quite how topical Sharon Watson’s celebration of the Windrush generation would turn out to be. Seventy years after the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, those who came from the Caribbean to a war-ravaged England to help to rebuild it are dominating headlines all over again – but not, of course, how we might have hoped.
Watson, a child of the Windrush generation, showed movingly here just what a “hostile environment” existed for these migrants from the moment they arrived. The orange Caribbean glow that warmed the bittersweet opening scene of men and women preparing to leave – all nervous optimism and liquid calypso dips and glides – was replaced with an icy dark blue as they landed in England. Movements became small, curled and hesitant, as a reading of Laura Serrant’s poem repeated the line, “You called and we came” – a reminder that many Caribbean immigrants thought the Motherland would welcome them.
Instead Eleanor Bull’s packing crate set opened up to reveal mean terrace-house interiors and even meaner British housewives, wearing blank white masks, whose laundry slowly spelled out their sentiments as they hung it on the line, “No Irish, blacks, dogs”. But when Aaron Chaplin and Sandrine Monin had a steamy coupling, her mask eventually came off. And the beautifully danced reunion duet between Prentice Whitlow and Vanessa Vince-Pang (as the wife who follows him over) was full of tender entanglements and strong lifts.
From here the succeeding decades unspooled in a bit of a swirl, with the soundtrack giving a taste of the seismic impact Caribbean migration had on British popular culture – the burst of lover’s rock (Louisa Marks’s Caught You in a Lie) was particularly well received by the audience – and the ensemble milling about in a house party setting. Uplifting became full-on crowd-pleasing for a finale of bouncy gospel. It was a broadbrush approach – and may have benefitted from letting us feel a deeper connection with some individual tales – but there was a judicious mix of anger at past wrongs and warmth for a valuable legacy that made Windrush a fitting tribute to those migrants’ struggles against adversity.
It was preceded in the programme by two short works. In the creepily sinuous Calyx, choreographed by Sandrine Monin, four dancers combined insectoid-alien weirdness, consuming sexual desire and stretchy-fabric-covered boxes to unsettling effect. Meanwhile, Christopher Bruce’s powerfully charged ten-minute gem, Shadow, melded itself around Arvo Part’s composition Fratres and reminded us of a different movement of people – prewar Europe – as a family made the devastating decision to leave their home.