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 presenting inclusive and diverse live programs. One of the major events of GDIF 2021 is black victoriansa dance performance which will be presented from August 31 to September 4 at Guildhall Yard, City of London, then from September 10 to 11 at St. George’s Garrison Church.
I spoke with Jeanfer Jean-Charleschoreographer and artistic director of black victorians, to learn more about her illustrious career, the photography exhibition that inspired dance, and the challenges of performing in this time of COVID-19. With over 20 years of experience in over 21 countries, Jean-Charles’ work has been seen at parades, carnivals, festivals, global sporting events and opening ceremonies.
What lesson have you learned in your career that is holding you back?
Having the right team to deliver is one of the most important things. People often say to me, “Bravo. What a beautiful wallet.
The lesson here is to make sure you have the right team for the right parts of the project. In 2006 I did a big dance in Trafalgar Square. Until 2006, I had spent at least 10 years working in community dance, working with individual community groups. The mass movement is about mass participation, to involve as many people as possible in an event. I’ve come to understand that when you’re working with a mass movement, even if it goes from 50 people to 500, you still have to treat the 500 as if you were on a personal level. You need to find a way to connect with them so you don’t lose them. There are many more people to lose. It’s about keeping the team in units that are manageable enough to create a bigger picture.
I’ve always wondered with choreographers – do you take notes while you’re on the go when you see interesting moves in real life?
I don’t write them physically, but in my head – I call it “gathering”. I find that I am constantly gathering. We all see everyone through different lenses. Through my lens, there are things that I capture. I think, “Oh, wow. That would be amazing for a mass movement. I love this movement, how smart!
Sometimes it’s about seeing a performing art, or sometimes it’s a natural move of someone. Could someone say something that really inspires me. I collect that mentally and when I’m in the best creative space, it all comes together. He almost doesn’t even realize it’s happened until he lands and I think, “Oh, my God. It’s really linked to something I saw or experienced two or three years ago.
What has your experience with GDIF been like before and what are your hopes for this year?
What’s really interesting is that the person who organizes the festival – who I met in 2006. It was a turning point for me when I got involved in this mass movement event in Trafalgar Square with more than 800 dancers. It’s really great that 15 years later, this year, this festival is producing a work that I find really important. The organizers and the team are absolutely united. I couldn’t have found a better producer. It’s a team that understands the goal, where it needs to be, and they’re open to supporting it. I love that we don’t just talk about what we’re doing now, but that there’s a conversation about getting things done and what we’ll do next. It’s awesome.
Tell us about your research for black victorians.
This is a very good example of how I put together. [In 2016] I read an article titled “Victorian Blacks” in The Guardian. I realized that I had missed the exhibition. These were hundreds of portraits of blacks and Asians in the Victorian era. This article contained image after image of black people like I had never seen them before. When I read the article, I thought, “I’m really curious. This is my story. I want to know more.”
Rather than picking up heaps of books – which I guessed I wouldn’t find the answer to this way – I went straight to Renée Mussai from Autograph Gallery. It was the curator who spent three and a half years looking for these photographs. I met her and I said to her, “What is it? How did you find? Where did you get it?”
She explained everything to me. For some of these portraits there are stories to these characters, 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 would need to find a curator and someone to help with research and development (R&D) of this idea, which means finding funds to pay for a studio, paying five dancers and other creatives, and finding a designer to see if the idea has legs. It wasn’t until April 2019 that I landed the first funding, via historic royal palaces. Following the success of this first phase, they then funded a second phase of R&D later in 2019. We talked about visiting the palaces, which would have been great. COVID happened and this fell off the table.
FESTIVAL.ORG picked it up and [talked about] do a COVID version for 2020. We did a socially distanced piece as a work in progress. At the end of 2020, FESTIVAL.ORG offered us to shoot it in 2021. Thanks to FESTIVAL.ORG and Without wallsthis was made possible, as well as hat fair and Brighton Partywho are the commissioners.
I remember from my trips to London that much of the architecture of the spaces has retained its Victorian character. Does the performance black victorians in Victorian spaces enhance the experience for dancers and spectators?
Certainly. At the end of 2019, while we were still with historic royal palaces, we did a play at Kensington Palace. It is a historic space with a lot of royal history. Putting him in this space was pretty amazing. To repeat and just explore ideas at another historic site, Hampton Court, was absolutely fantastic. My goal was to tour in 2021 to historic, Victorian or earlier locations. Due to COVID, we have the play on an outside stage. My dream for future development is to choose many specific sites relevant to that era and put the dance to each place separately. It makes such a difference.
A place this year is Holy Garrison Church, which was built in the Victorian era. It’s a ruin now. My dancers played there last year and it was amazing. They could stand in the arches and imagine posing for photography.
Could you tell us more about the themes you explore in dance?
In light of what happened, fortunately, I had already started this process. With the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement [happening], there was a greater focus on what I was already doing. It is relevant because the article tells stories of black history in Britain that have not been told; it has been deliberately hidden for hundreds of years.
What I chose to do was first see these blacks in Victorian costumes – the tight corsets and the big crinoline skirts. I played around with the idea of restriction and what that might mean for a black body coming from Africa and wearing generally loose clothing to travel to England. What could be the dress restrictions? And [could we] play with the restrictions of their social space while living as black in Britain?
What I did was look at the portraits and picked three – an unidentified model, Kalulu the child servant, and a Zulu king in exile in England. We called the unidentified babysitter Nancy. I was struck by what it would mean for one of us today to go down in history as an unidentified role model. There is a lot going on today with the refugees, the lives lost at sea and those names and stories that we will never hear about.
Kalulu was a child servant of HM 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 an adult’s servant?
How creative were you and the team during rehearsals to get the choreography right while adhering to health and safety guidelines?
I had images, snippets of material that I had obtained from the first two sets of pre-COVID research and development. I had great ideas that I knew I wanted to develop. When we went into the studio for two weeks of rehearsal, there was no contact the first week. There is a Victorian court piece, a polka, which is definitely to hold. The dancers couldn’t hold on and it was a bit strange how they had to learn the steps. The second week we could hold on and get stuck in it. Fortunately, they could do a lot without contact. Once we were in a safer space to touch, I could create different movements.
I had five dancers, three specifically interested in the life of Nancy, the Zulu king and the young boy. These three could do their solo work and tap into their own professional styles, which they already had: one was mixed hip-hop, one was from South Africa and had an understanding of dance South African, and the third could bring his training in this field. childish movement material. Both of which were not given specific individuals, their role was to have a mixture of these three existences in their own work. The barriers would have been the same. The experience of being transported to a foreign country would have been the same. The idea of wanting to go home would have been the same.
What’s next for you?
It is an ambition that I would like this piece to travel. I would like the first stop to be South Africa, where I have worked before. It would be interesting because a lot of the portraits and the story of the characters come from that part of the world. I would like the South African community to see it and respond to it. South African dancers today and R&D all said it would be great.
I think it’s when your audience reacts to a track that you start to see the possibilities. What’s next with this piece? Well, my audience will tell me. I have great responses in the UK. At the moment it’s a predominantly white audience, which is fantastic. I always said I didn’t want it to be a Black thing. It’s for everyone as British history and it includes everyone no matter what color you are.
(Visited 134 times, 1 visits today)