Telling the Windrush story: Island Movements

Paul Hamlyn Hall, Royal Opera House, London
October 27, 2023

Presented as part of The Royal Opera House’s free Live at Lunch series of performances and events, and its Rhythm in Resilience festival curated by Joseph Toonga to mark Black History Month, Island Movements is a ballet that seeks to explore the lives and stories of the Windrush Generation and their families.

Choreographed by Darren Panton (the first Black British graduate of The Royal Ballet School back in the 1980s) and Patrick Williams (formerly of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater), and directed by Sandie Bourne, it tells the true story of one Windrush family while also considering the impact of experiences on families, communities and society.

Still a work-in-progress, the dance begins in the aftermath of World War II when a young Caribbean RAF pilot (Wesley Branch of Northern Ballet) comes to Britain. That we see he served the country heightens the impact of what follows. After settling down and meeting his wife (Taylor Crouch, recently graduated from Rambert School), the couple are joined by his son (Alexander Fadayiro, dancer with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures and Ballet Black), who was initially left behind in the Caribbean. A fourth character, a daughter, was unavailable for this performance, although I suspect it makes little difference to the wider narrative.

Taylor Crouch with Wesley Branch behind in Island Movements
Photo courtesy Black British Ballet

It is a compelling story with important, powerful points to make. Island Movements should be hard-hitting. And yet, at least as it stands, it fails to land the expected punch. In fact, and most disappointingly, it lands very little at all.

The most telling image is the opening one. An empty stage. A suitcase. A hat. On the case, a Union Castle baggage sticker, and another reading simply, ‘England.’ It speaks volumes about a journey, a place left behind and a destination where much was unknown.

Thereafter, the telling of the narrative is hampered significantly by an almost total lack of expression in faces or bodies. There was no outward indication of anger, frustration, confusion at the far from warm welcome they received, even when the familiar “No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs” sign is produced. Similarly there was little in the way of feeling between Father and Mother, before or after marriage.

Things do pick up somewhat once the son appears, although his arrival on the scene is rather unexplained. There’s certainly no sense that he was left behind in the Caribbean as a child.

In terms of steps, Panton and Williams’ classical ballet-focused choreography is technically uncomplicated. That made it rather surprising to find neatness lacking on occasion with a number of wobbles and uncertain moments. The dance is also rather one-paced and lacks dynamic colour, at least until the appearance of Fadayiro. And while the mix of reggae, calypso and contemporary original music by performance youth group Kinetika Bloco is excellent, too often it fails to chime with the choreography.

After the show, the creative team revealed there is more to come. The father, having arrived in 1952, was one of those subsequently wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights in what has become known as the Windrush Scandal. “There is still quite a lot to do,” they admitted. I hope they get there, because Island Movements does tell an important story, one that deserves to be heard.

The work is also central to the Black British Ballet project, based on the PhD work of Dr Sandie Bourne, whose research specialises in the historic underrepresentation of Black professionals in British ballet institutions. Delivered by Oxygen Arts, the project is creating a suite of resources to share the hidden stories of black dancers in British ballet.

An upcoming release of an extensive archive on the project website will feature images and biographies of every black British dancer and choreographer who has managed to achieve a career in professional ballet over the past century. Filmed interviews with a selection of these dancers will feature, alongside a timeline of key milestones within the story.

Those interviews will also form the basis of a feature length film to be released next year that explores their experiences and views on training, employment and diversity within British ballet. For more, visit