Director Jeanefer Jean-Charles talks about her show ‘Black Victorians’ playing at this year’s Greenwich + Docklands International Festival

Starting from 1837 and ending in 1901, The Victorian Era, named after Queen Victoria, is an era commonly associated with figures such as Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens, the industrial revolution, various inventions including the telephone amongst other era defining moments. What’s little known and not as widely discussed are the various stories and contributions from the black community within that time period, a presence often forgotten. Inspired by this part of Black British history, acclaimed director and choreographer Jeanefer Jean-Charles has created Black Victorians, a 20 minute dance piece exploring the characters within this time period further. Ahead of its debut at the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, Jeanefer tells us more about the show.

Hi Jeanefer, your dance show Black Victorians will he taking part in this year’s Greenwich + Docklands International Festival from 29th to 30th August. How are you feeling ahead of the event?

I am feeling nervous and excited at the same time. I am plunging into the unknown with this piece. It will be the first time I present Black Victorians outdoors and on a site I have never worked in before. It will also be the first presenting my work to an audience since winter 2019.

Black Victorians is a dance performance inspired by 19th Century studio photographs of black men, women and children – exploring a forgotten black presence in pre-Windrush Britain. What inspired you to explore this era in history further?

The words ‘Victorian’ and ‘Black’ do not often sit side by side. That’s what caught my attention when I read a Guardian article in 2016: Black Victorians. It was a review of an exhibition at the Autograph Gallery about the discovery of portraits of black people during the late 1800’s. There were hundreds of photographs. Black Chronicles II was curated by Renée Mussai – and I had missed it.

As I scrolled through one image after another, I felt that I was scrolling through my history. That’s me! A black female living in Britain. And it was a part of British history of which I’d been completely unaware. I couldn’t get these images out of my head. As an artistic director and choreographer I knew I had to create a piece in response. I would not be the only black person unaware of this stuff! I felt that everyone, no matter their skin colour, had the right to know their history.

How have you approached creating the show? How have you had to adapt your practise during this time?

Social distancing means no contact, no duets, no close group work.  So, what’s left? It was a challenge! Budgeted for 6 days’ rehearsal, I opted to divide up the schedule and spread it over 3 weeks, allowing time for reflection and space to adapt to the new normal. Zoom rehearsals were weird, exciting and a first for me. I began by re-capping material online. A week later we had two days of live rehearsals. 

This was made so much easier with the help of my producer Alison Holder, designer Marsha Roddy who had to re-shuffle existing costumes, and composer DJ Walde who had to extend some music tracks and completely compose new sounds. And throughout this process  my creative consultant Martha Stylianou steered us through tightening the narrative and ensuring they are no loose ends.

And now, with three rehearsal days left, taking place on the site of St.George’s Garrison Church, I feel ready to go. I can’t wait to see what the dancers and costumes look like in the evocative architecture of this amazing Victorian building.

We’re living in unprecedented times, whereby we’re witnessing conversations being had around equality, as well as the Covid-19 crisis having impacted on how we live. How have you found creating work during this historical moment? Has this influenced your creative process?

Two pandemics: the performance arts in intensive care; black lives don’t yet matter enough. Coming together to rehearse through Zoom, then live in a studio with black artists provides some hope.

Have you learned anything new from creating the show?

Yes. When faced with the serious possibility that my career in the performing arts may be over, my reaction is – ‘it is not an option!’ 

What can audiences expect from the show?

Four beautiful and very different dancers, great costumes and a selection of small and enlarged portraits from the Black Chronicles II exhibition. The audience can expect to be surprised about a part of British history that has been hidden, whilst enjoying  movement that flows from African, contemporary and hip-hop  dance styles with a hint of the old Victorian Court dances.

What would you like for audiences to take away from the show?

This piece is presently 20mins duration. The plan is to lengthen the piece.  I would love the audience to leave feeling curious and wanting more and wishing they had told all their friends. 

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

Black Victorians will be showing at St George’s Garrison Church, Woolwich on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th August as part of this year’s Greenwich + Docklands International Festival. To find out more about the production, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop