Retelling the story of the refugee crisis through Bharatanatyam.
In a first-time collaboration between Apsaras Arts and Wild Rice, the Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium played host to Agathi | Refugee. Directed by Aravinth Kumarasamy, with dramaturgy by Ivan Heng, the performance brings together theatre, poetry and the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam to spotlight the lives and plight of refugees on the intimate stage.
The performance opens as three dancers come onstage, tentatively testing the ground and feeling the space, before the remaining three emerge and join them. Like deer grazing in the wild, they prance and jump across the stage as a single herd, distinguished by their costumes – two in brown, three in green, and choreographer/principal dancer Mohanapriyan Thavarajah in blue (playing a character named Balan). It is a scene of peace, as we see them caring for each other. The dancers are disciplined, in full control of their breathing and certain of their movement, as we hear the flute playing, no longer grouped together as their individual characters come to life while exploring the terrain.
Seema Harikumar now arrives onstage, and plays the role of a storyteller, putting what we’re seeing onstage into perspective. In a production like this, the collaboration between creatives is so important, with Aravinth providing the vision, and Ivan knowing the limits of what he can put on stage. Together, all the elements have been carefully thought out and choreographed to form a cohesive performance. It is almost fairytale-like as Balan runs out onstage, before his eyes meet a fellow dancer’s. She is cautious, while he is cheeky, and they seem to flirt with each other through their glances. As they dance, they warm up to each other, and grow close.
We sense love emanating from them, as they smile while stamping their feet and exchanging hand mudras. From where I was seated, the dancers were drenched in sweat, testament to the hard work that went into executing the choreography, much like the effort it takes to forge a strong relationship no matter where we are in life. As all the dancers return, it seems to amplify how well they’re all communicating, before we hear the sweeping of feet as they shuffle back. He is left alone, and the mood has changed for the worse. The other dancers begin chanting rhythmically, almost ominous as we see images of the trials and tribulations they’re about to face.
As their land is besieged by natural disasters and wars, it is left disfigured, devastated and burnt down. The dancers surround him, angry, confused and in a state of panic, and they must leave. The only safe place they can go from here is a new country. They shout for help, but there is no easy way out. Their only option is to turn to the human traffickers, promising to provide safe passage out, but changing their tone when they receive payment. Now shipped out to port, they’re in a confined space, demarcated by Alberta Wileo’s lighting. Claustrophobia affects them all, as spoken by the storyteller, before they finally get off and see a light at the end of the tunnel (or is it?).
As they’re forced onboard a boat, Balan is lost in the chaos. The lights focus on just the dancers’ feet as they stamp a constant, nervous rhythm, before they come forward into the spotlight. They share their inner fears and desires, praying they’ll somehow escape this hell. Standing in line, they begin to replicate the choppy motions of the tides, holding on tight even while tossed and turned. Cold and shivering, they only have each other to rely on. Most struggle and succumb to these harsh conditions; even a baby is cruelly thrown overboard.
The remaining survivors reach camp, left with just the few items they manage to bring with them; a photo album, or a birthday card. They sit on the ground, and share stories of who they used to be. We learn their trauma, whether witnessing their sister sexually assaulted, or the loss of their closest friends, as it dawns on them that their old lives are dead, with only memories left.
Balan sees the moonlight, reaching out before recoiling, ashamed of who he is and believing himself unworthy, wondering who will understand him, and dare open the door to his heart. Full of negativity, we see his counterpart on the other side, filled with joy and hope. Light shines down on both of them, standing in stark contrast, forever separated. In the new country, we see three refugees with nothing but the clothes on their bodies. Yet they are brave, confronting each fearful situation they are faced with. A woman walks in, wearing a sweater with luggage in tow, as if a tourist. All she does is take photos, and we wonder how many people actually care enough to put their empty words into action, and help these survivors out.
Elsewhere, the refugees continue speaking through the tapping of their feet. They know the battle is lost, left forlorn as their pleas continue to fall on deaf ears. But as the storyteller returns, she brings hope, encouraging them to look up and sing, to express themselves through dance, and smile in the face of adversity, happy that they’ve survived the impossible journey. One woman steps up to the task, and mimes putting on dancing shoes. The other refugees follow suit, and they find the joy in what’s around them, moving to a shared rhythm as their hearts beat as one. They embrace each other, happy to be alive.
Now wearing glasses, the storyteller returns, and we realise that all this time, we’ve been watching her past play out onstage. As a refugee, she’s adapted to this new country, formed a new family, and dedicated her life to teaching new immigrants. Yet in the distance, we see Balan walking towards her, coming face to face with her as she sits down. She looks at him, so close yet so far, and we can tell how much she loved him, the memory of their relationship never forgotten. As we see those who have perished throughout her story, who are now reunited in the afterlife, holding onto the hope that one day they will all be together again, singing, dancing and celebrating life.
Agathi | Refugee runs from 2nd to 4th April 2021 at Wild Rice @ Funan. Tickets are sold out.