The frame – both scenographic and historical – for Jeanefer Jean-Charles’s Black Victorians is photography. Its point of departure was a 2014 exhibition of rediscovered photographs of black people in 19th-century Britain: stiffly posed studio portraits whose subjects are frequently wearing the tailcoats, collars, bonnets and crinolines familiar from countless British costume dramas. Pictures from that exhibition circle the stage and form the backdrop to Black Victorians. Less costume drama than costume dance, the work imagines the lives behind those uncanny, unblinking images.
Performed outdoors, the piece is bookended with tableaux of its black cast standing still and facing us for longer than is comfortable, as if posing for a photograph for which our own eyes are the camera. The formal opening polka for two couples – men in tails, women in ballgowns – sets a courteous, corseted tone that gives way to a more sinister scene of initiation in which a swaying, spiralling newcomer (Nosiphiwo Samente, in plain rehearsal clothes) is roped inexorably and dispassionately towards a chair. Bound, she too becomes bodiced and gowned and bonneted, with two men positioning her hands and head to compose her into a demure portrait – a coercive act of assimilation that gives the lie to the polka’s picture of polite integration.
Costume becomes a kind of second skin that can both suppress and express the person it clothes. The loveliest moment is with a female trio with patterned orange scarves: released from the uprightness of their Victorian attire, the women wrap and tuck themselves around the musical beat just as surely and sensually as they entwine their scarves around waist or head. By the end, the five dancers have incorporated these bright southern African textiles as underskirts to their Victorian outfits – so even as they compose themselves once more for a stiff, monochrome portrait, we sense layers of colour, character and corporality that the image conceals.
Herein, perhaps, lies the value of this work. If it doesn’t always have the capacity to explore its own themes and means, it does bring its subjects to life. Instead of argument or anger it seems more interested in restoring humanity – and history – to people who have been written out of it.
• At Greenwich and Docklands international festival, London, City of London, 31 August-2 September; St George’s Garrison Church, Woolwich, 10-11 September; and Birmingham international dance festival, 24-25 September.