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Q&A with Jeanefer Jean-Charles ahead of Black Victorians

Jeanefer Jean-Charles is a globally respected artist of large-scale outdoor performances.

We're delighted that her show Black Victorians will be coming to Shaw House this weekend as part of our Out of Doors Festival, using African, contemporary and hiphop dance styles to explore the complex, but often forgotten, black presence in pre-Windrush Britain.

We spoke to Jeanefer ahead of the performance to find out more.

Hi Jeanefer! Would you be able to tell us a bit about yourself and the kind of work you produce?
I started my creative career as Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Bullies Ballerinas’ Jazz Dance Company (1990 - 2000) which led to works being toured nationally and internationally. In 2006, I then had the opportunity to be the Artistic Director of Big Dance, where I gained recognition by the Guinness Book of Records for choreographing and coordinating 800 dancers in Trafalgar Square. In 2012 I worked on all four of the London Olympic Ceremonies as mass movement coordinator. My work is strongly embedded in community engagement and this has lead to me working in over 21 countries.

You were inspired to create Black Victorians after seeing the Black Chronicles II exhibition, curated by Renée Mussai, at the Autograph Gallery in London. What struck you about the exhibition and why did you decide to use this in your next piece?

What I saw in these portraits of black people from over one hundred years ago was myself and my history. I just thought - this is my history and I didn’t even know about it! I knew this had to be my next choreographic work.

Would you be able to tell us a bit more about the costumes the dancers wear and the role they play in the performance?

Costume designer Marsha Roddy helps tell the powerful story of the journeys of the people in the portraits by dressing the dancers in restrictive Victorian costumes; corset, crinoline skirts and formal jackets. This is in contrast with colourful african prints - taking us on a journey that begins looking quite ‘Black & White’ to slowly exploding with colour.

How did you have to adapt Black Victorians so that it could be performed in the current climate of Covid-19? Was this challenging?

When offered to produce Black Victorians I was hesitant. I did not know how it could be done at the time. Although I did think, ‘when am I going to have another opportunity like this’ so I said ‘yes’. There was a funny moment in rehearsal when we realised in week one, we could not touch and had to focus on solo work only. Then in week 2 we could - and the group pieces developed.

We joked about the piece being one big hug by the time it got to tour, as we celebrated finally being able to make contact with each other.

And finally, what do you want your audience members to take away from the show?

A true picture of Black British history, knowledge and be curious and moved by the piece.

Black Victorians is a free event and will be taking place as part of our Out of Doors Festival on Sunday 27 June. Find out more

Photo credit: Ash Mills

This event is part of the Corn Exchange Newbury and 101 Outdoor Arts Creation Space’s outdoor programme which is funded by Greenham Trust and Arts Council England.