Country Life's dance critic reviews two contemporary dance performances: The Scottsboro Boys and A Harlem Dream.

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In 1931, nine innocent black youngsters were indicted in Scottsboro, Alabama for raping two white women aboard a train. Repeatedly tried and convicted in Southern courts, their lives were ruined forever, though four were eventually freed and four released on parole.

Unlikely as it seems, this shocking slice of American history has inspired an astonishing musical, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb and direction/choreography by Susan Stroman. Leaving academic analysis to others, the daring collaborators have transformed the disgraceful events into an old-fashioned, wisecracking minstrel show in which black actors play both the accused and the white world massed against them.

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A scathing vision of blind prejudice and fine manners, The Scottsboro Boys drapes racism in loose-limbed dancing and toe-tapping tunes, wrapping laughter around tragic malice by lampooning the bigotry that once corrupted America’s laws; the bowlegged Sherriff proudly boasts that “When it comes to justice, it’s just us.”

As far from decoration as choreography can be, the exhilarating dances reveal the feelings and attitudes no one could utter aloud. The Boys express their nightmare terror of the electric chair in jittery tap; a mother mirrors her son’s silent sand dance. Ms. Stroman gives us high-stepping strutting, the weary resignation of a chain gang, a dainty minuet for the two “ladies” and a cartoon posture for every character’s caricature.

Mocking subserviance, the luckless victims sing at their white master’s demand in syrupy barbershop harmony. But in a final ironic twist, they shed their roles and walk away from artifice right along with the audience.

Decked out as a 1930’s nightclub, a tiny space at the Young Vic houses A Harlem Night, a more conventional take on the Afro-American experience. The choreographer Ivan Blackstock has tied burlesque, the lindy-hop and break dancing into a predictable narrative of idealistic dreams and big-city reality. Commissioned by Dance Umbrella, this energetic fantasy provides the festival with a jolt of popular culture that many viewers may not expect.

Don’t miss The Scottsboro Boys. www.scottsboromusicallondon.com

A Harlem Dream, until 1 November, www.danceumbrella.co.uk

Afrovibes Festival explores South African culture through dance, music, theatre and film, until 8 November. www.afrovibesUK.com

Afrovibes festival 2014

Uncles & Angels, part of the Afrovibes 2014 festival, performed by Nelisiwe Xaba.

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