Thursday , September 23 2021
Credit: Ash Mills

Greenwich+Docklands International Festival Interview: Jeanefer Jean-Charles, Choreographer and Artistic Director of ‘Black Victorians’

The Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (GDIF) is a free performing arts festival held annually in London. It has a long history of showcasing inclusive and diverse live programming. One of the major events at GDIF 2021 is Black Victorians, a dance performance that will be presented August 31 – September 4 at Guildhall Yard, City of London, and then September 10 – 11 at St. George’s Garrison Church.

I spoke with Jeanefer Jean-Charles, Choreographer and Artistic Director of Black Victorians, to learn more about her distinguished career, the photography exhibition that inspired the dance, and the challenges of performing in this time of COVID-19. With over 20 years of experience across more than 21 countries, Jean-Charles’s work has been seen at parades, carnivals, festivals, global sporting events, and opening ceremonies.

What’s a lesson you learned in your career that’s stuck with you?

Having the right team to deliver is one of the most important things. People often say to me, “Well done. What a great portfolio.”

The lesson to learn is to make sure you’ve got the right team for the right parts of the project. In 2006, I did a big dance on Trafalgar Square. Up until 2006 I had spent at least 10 years working in community dance, working with individual community groups. Mass movement is all about mass participation, to get as many people involved in an event as much as possible. I’ve managed to understand that when you’re working with mass movement, even if it’s going from 50 people to 500, you still have to treat the 500 as if you’re on a personal level. You have to find a way of connecting with them so you don’t lose them. There are a lot more people to lose. It’s about keeping the team to manageable enough units to create a bigger picture.

I always wondered with choreographers – do you take notes as you’re on the go when you see interesting movements in real life?

I don’t physically write them down, but in my head – I call it “gathering.” I find that I’m constantly gathering. We all see the world through different lenses. Through my lens, there are things that I capture. I think, “Oh, wow. That would be amazing as a mass movement. I love that movement, how clever that is!”

Sometimes it is to do with seeing a performing art, or sometimes it’s natural movement by someone. Someone might say something that really inspires me. I collect that mentally and then when I’m in the best creative space, it all comes flowing. It’s almost not even realizing it’s happened until it lands and I think, “Oh, my God. This is really connected with something I saw or experienced two or three years ago.”

Five people standing in black with floral printed skirts
Credit: Ash Mills

What’s your experience been like with the GDIF before and what are your hopes for this year?

What’s really interesting is that the person who is organizing the festival – I met in 2006. That was a turning point for me when I became involved in this mass movement event on Trafalgar Square with over 800 dancers. It’s really great that 15 years later, this year, this festival is producing a piece of work that I think is really important. The organizers and the team are absolutely supportive. I couldn’t have landed a better producer. It’s a team that understands the aim, where it needs to be, and they are open to supporting it. I love the fact that we’re not just talking about what we’re doing now, but there’s a conversation about moving it forward and what we’ll do next. That’s great. 

Take us through your research for Black Victorians

This is a really good example of how I gathered. [In 2016] I read an article entitled “The Black Victorians” in The Guardian. I realized I missed the exhibition. It was about hundreds of portraits of Black and Asian people during the Victorian era. This article had image after image of Black people as I’d never seen them before. When I read the article, I thought, “I’m really curious. This is my history. I want to know more.”

Rather than picking up loads of books – which I guessed I wouldn’t find the answer that way – I went straight to Renée Mussai from Autograph Gallery. She is the curator who spent three and a half years looking for these photographs. I met with her and said, “What is this? How did you find it? Where did you get it?”

She explained the whole thing to me. For some of these portraits, there are stories to these figures, while some are unidentified. I was probably working on a mass movement project. I didn’t have time to do anything with the idea until late 2018. I thought I’d need to find a curator and someone to help with the research and development (R&D) of this idea, which means finding funding to pay for a studio, to pay five dancers and other creatives, and to find a designer to see if the idea has legs. It wasn’t until April 2019 that I landed the first funding, which was through historical royal palaces. As a result of the success of that first phase, they then funded a second phase of R&D later in 2019. We talked about touring the palaces, which would have been brilliant. COVID happened and that fell off the table. 

Credit: Ash Mills

FESTIVAL.ORG picked it up and [talked about] doing a COVID version for 2020. We did a socially distanced piece as a work-in-progress. At the end of 2020, FESTIVAL.ORG suggested that we tour it in 2021. Thanks to FESTIVAL.ORG and Without Walls, this has been made possible, along with Hat Fair and Brighton Festival, who are the commissioners.

I recall from my trips to London that a lot of the architecture of the spaces has retained its Victorian character. Does performing Black Victorians in Victorian spaces heighten the experience for the dancers and the viewers?

Most definitely. In late 2019 when we were still with Historic Royal Palaces, we did a piece in Kensington Palace. It’s a historic space with lots of royal history to it. Putting it on in that space was quite incredible. Rehearsing and just exploring ideas at another historic site, Hampton Court, was absolutely fantastic. My aim was to perform a 2021 tour in historic places, Victorian or earlier. Because of COVID, we have the piece on a stage outside. My dream for the future development is to choose many specific sites are relevant to that era and set the dance at each venue separately. It makes such a difference.

One venue this year is St. Garrison Church, which was built in the Victorian era. It’s a ruin now. My dancers performed in it last year and it was incredible. They could stand in the arches and imagine posing for the photography. 

Could you speak more about the themes that you explore in the dance?

In light of what happened, thankfully I had already started this process. With the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement [happening], there was a stronger focus on what I was already doing. It’s relevant because the piece is about telling stories of Black history in Britain that have not been told; it was deliberately hidden for hundreds of years. 

What I chose to do is first of all, to see these Black people in Victorian costumes – the tight corsets and the large crinoline skirts. I played with the idea of restriction and what it might mean for a Black body that’s come from Africa and wore generally loose clothing to travel to England. What might be the restrictions clothing-wise? And [could we] play with the restrictions of their social space while living as a Black person in Britain? 

Dancer wearing black clothing, lifting their arms and one leg
Credit: Ash Mills

What I did was looked at the portraits and I chose three – an unidentified sitter, Kalulu the child servant, and a Zulu king in exile in England. We called the unidentified sitter Nancy. I was struck by what it would mean for one of us today to go down in history as an unidentified sitter. There’s a lot going on with this today with the refugees, the lives lost at sea and these names and stories we’ll never hear about. 

Kalulu was a child servant of H.M. Stanley. His portrait was at age seven and he died at age 12 in East Africa when Stanley took him on an expedition. Again, how can a child be a servant to an adult? 

How were you and the team creative in rehearsal to get the choreography right while observing health and safety guidelines?

I had footage, extracts of material that I’d got from the first two sets of research and development before COVID. I had some lovely ideas that I knew I wanted to develop. When we went into the studio for two weeks of rehearsal, there was no touching in the first week. There is a Victorian court piece, a polka, which is definitely about holding. The dancers could not hold and it was a bit strange how they had to learn the steps. On the second week, we could hold and get stuck into it. Luckily they could do a lot without contact. Once we were in a safer space to touch, I could craft different movements. 

I had five dancers, three specifically looking at the lives of Nancy, the Zulu king, and the young boy. Those three could do their solo work and draw from their own professional styles, what they already had: one was mixed hip-hop, one was from South Africa and had an understanding of South African dance, and the third could bring his training into this child-like movement material. The two who weren’t given specific individuals, their role was to have a mixture of those three existences within their own work. The barriers would have been the same. The experience of being transported to a strange land would have been the same. The idea of yearning to go home would have been the same. 

What’s next for you?

It’s an ambition that I’d like this piece to travel. I’d love for the first stop to be South Africa, where I’ve done some work before. It would be interesting because a lot of the portraits and the history of the characters are from that part of the world. I would love for the South African community to see it and respond to it. The South African dancers now and in R&D have all said that would be brilliant. 

I do think it’s when your audience responds to a piece, that’s when you begin to see the possibilities. What’s next with this piece? Well, my audience will tell me. I’m having some great responses in the UK. At the moment, that is a largely white audience, which is fantastic. I always said I didn’t want this to be a Black thing. It’s for everyone as British history and that includes everyone no matter what color you are. 

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About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C. She also covers events in Canada and London. Her highlights include interviews with Juliette Binoche, Daniel Davis, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

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