The journey of refugees fleeing involuntarily from their homeland is a traumatic one of devastation and loss. Added to this is a complex mix of love, hope and acceptance which comes through, often distressingly, when you take a closer look at their experiences. Offering exactly such a window was the recent dance production Agathi: The Plight of a Refugee , drawing us into the world of displaced beings.
It was presented this month at Melbourne (Monash University Performing Arts Centre as part of IPCA Indian Performing Arts Convention) and at Sydney (NIDA Playhouse Theatre).
The brainchild of Apsaras Arts Singapore and Artistic Director Aravinth Kumarasamy, Agathi was a fresh and riveting dance theatre presentation, with the journey of refugees at its core.
The story is inspired by The Book of Poems: Expressions from our Youth, written by refugee children (published by UNHCR) and from Aravinth’s own experiences. Stripping away the layers of policy and politics, it lays bare the sheer humanity of it all – the shock, the suffering, and then the fortitude and the acceptance.
Muted jewellery, makeup (by Shankari Elavalahan) and beautifully tailored dhoti costumes (designed by Mohanapriyan Thavarajah) in the colours of the Earth allow us to focus solely on the dancers’ movements and expression. They begin by embodying animals in a herd – gambolling about in the field, playing, seeking shelter from imagined and real fears in the shade of their mothers’ shadows, and eating happily. Principal dancer and choreographer, Mohanapriyan enthralls us with the start of a love story depicted between his character and his beloved. It’s reminiscent of the black and white era of cinema, where love grew in glances and in this case, shared hastas and mirrored adavus.
A change in rhythm signifies chaos. Multiple homelands become One, ravaged by war, natural disaster, political and economic crises, but culminating in the same outcome – displacement of human lives. The audience is drawn in to the cacophony by the movement on stage; the dancers mimic the fleeing human masses, shouting out for loved ones, and the confusion and fear is palpable.
It takes an immense amount of talent to choreograph chaos in the degree of realism that Agathi presented. We follow our characters on their fragmented path from home to the terrifying reality of hiding in a truck, in close cramped quarters. Finally, at the mercy of human traffickers, the families are seen boarding a boat to undertake the unimaginable journey by sea to presumed safety.
Instrumental in conveying each emotion in the journey was the lighting by Alberta Wileo. The hexagonal shape of a boat appears on the stage floor – stark white lighting against the backdrop of the forbidding black sea beyond. At the climax of Agathi, we see the bodies of the performers interlock hands in this boat and replicate the motion of the waves through dance.
As the waves jostle and crash out of rhythm, we see the synchronised choreography break down in response. One by one, a life falls and is defeated by the elements. Each face is awash with despair, until there is no more emotion left – a mother cannot even grieve her fallen baby after it is tossed overboard.
Seema Harikumar narrates what must be countless stories that come together as one on stage. Her lilting voice lends warmth and humour to the bleakest situations. At the camps the refugees sit and reminisce about their past lives and horrors – the lost children, the atrocities witnessed, the memories of playmates and playthings. The scarcity of props in the show mirrors the scarcity of possessions and fading memories of the characters. We see the indifference of the local citizens and authorities to their plight, at times bordering on hostility.
We come back to our lovers – now separated but still under the gaze of the same moon that once watched their love blossom. As the man finds himself unworthy of the moonlight, on the other side of the world his beloved is hopeful of a reunion. A haunting rendition of ‘Asai Mugham’ from Mohanapriyan depicts the abject despondency of someone who cannot remember their old life and love.
Seema returns to the stage, visibly aged but content with life, and we see the sense of community fostered through art and shared experiences.
The stellar cast of ensemble dancers also featured Nikita Menon, Periyachi Roshini, Meera Balasubramanian and Deva Priya Appan.
An absolute highlight was the broadcast of English translations of the music/poetry on screen, in a move towards making the classical arts more accessible to all.
We look forward to seeing more of this collaboration of contemporary and classical, with a strong thematic concept, in the Sydney classical arts scene.