Saturday, 27 September 2014


President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act in the presence of Dr Martin
Luther King
Photo Wikipedia

On 2 July 1964 President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act which outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin, ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, employment, hotels, restaurants, public transport and other facilities that served the general public in the United States. That statute prompted similar legislation in other countries including our own. To mark the 50th anniversary of that enactment Phoenix Dance Theatre presented Tenacity, an evening of dance, film and song, at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre in Leeds.

The Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre is a specially constructed dance venue which forms part of the Quarry Hill studios that Phoenix shares with Northern Ballet. I have been coming to that theatre regularly for several years. I have seen many shows there and have even danced in one (see The Time of my Life 28 July 2013), but Wednesday evening was the first time that I had ever seen Phoenix perform there. It will certainly not be my last. Having experienced contemporary dance very late in life - I had my first lesson only on the 8 of this month (see "It's not every Class that you can use Lord Canning's Eyes for Spotting" 9 Sept 2014) - I have the zeal of the convert and really want to see and do more.

The performance opened with a short sequence of film to a sound track of breaking waves. According to the programme, the title of the film was Honour and it was made by Quays Culture but when I googled  "honour", "film" and "Quays Culture" the result was somewhat different although it was clearly connected with Phoenix and its artistic director, Sharon Watson. The film was followed by Tila and Tavelah Robinson who entered the stage from each side of the auditorium singing John Newton's hymn Amazing Grace  without any accompaniment.  Then Sharon mounted the stage to make a short speech. She spoke about the importance of the Civil Rights Act and how far the world had come in the last 50 years with the ending of apartheid and other victories; but also how much still needed to be done when she reeled off the wars and repression that still exist.

The first dance piece was 1976  by Alesandra Seutin. It was by far the most moving. Tanya Richam-Odoi and Seline Derrick danced two young school girls from Soweto. In 1976 schoolchildren from that township protested against curriculum changes that forced them to study in Afrikaans. Their protest was met with extreme violence including the use of live ammunition to disperse the protesters and many lost their lives. The dancers represent two of those kids - chirpy and ragging each other - and then one of them is hit by a bullet and she falls to the floor. Her friend tried to revive her but it's too late. She carried her in her arms to the strains of the Twenty Third Psalm. That image has haunted me all week and I can't get it out of my system.

The next piece was actually a video of Jane Dudley teaching Sheron Wray Harmonica Breakdown or the misery dance which Dudley had choreographed for herself to the music of Sonny Terry in 1938. Dudley had danced with Martha Graham and later moved to London where she met Wray. The session was filmed by Darshan Singh Bhuller and is available on YouTube. Rather than have me rabbiting on you can view it for yourselves. Part 1 is here and Part II here. Terry's music is still buzzing about my mind as is the image of Wray.

Gary Lambert's Longevity followed. No music just the words of Martin Luther King addressing the civil rights march in Washington in 1983 which this dance commemorated. Two powerful male dancers Gee Goodison and Andile Sotiya dressed in white shirts, ties and  trousers symbolized the epic march from all parts of the United States to the Lincoln memorial. I remember listening to the speech on the BBC home service when I was 14 years old and wanting to share Dr King's dream in my lifetime.

The world did move on to the extent that there is now an African-American President of the USA. He wrote The Audacity of Hope which inspired Warren Adams's The Audacious One. Choreographed to Mozart's music this work involved the whole company. The set was very simple.  Just chairs which could represent seats in a legislature or indeed a lecture room. But there was competition for those chairs reflected in the faces of the dancers.

The show runs until today when there will be a symposium on Dance and Civil Rights at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre. I can't encourage you to go there because it is already a sell out but I can urge you to see the company as it tours the country for it is very good.

No comments:

Post a Comment