Dance-theatre review: Intimate bharatanatyam telling of refugee stories

Agathi/Refugee is scripted by Audrey Perera with playwright Alfian Sa'at as consultant.
Agathi/Refugee is scripted by Audrey Perera with playwright Alfian Sa'at as consultant.PHOTO: APSARAS ARTS



Apsaras Arts Dance Company and Wild Rice

Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre, last Sunday (April 4)

Agathi/Refugee feels like a fireside story unfolding to a small communal gathering. This is thanks in large part to the thrust stage of the Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre, which allows audiences to sit around the performers.

It is an unprecedented opportunity to closely observe the dancers, and to admire the intricate vocabulary of delicate hand gestures and eye movements that are the signature of the Indian classical dance form of bharatanatyam.

The stripped-down staging with deft lighting and simple salwar-style costumes, instead of the usual elaborate saris and jewellery, creates a contemporary feel for this production.

This helps bridge the gap between the traditional form and the modern tale of the plight of refugees.

The topic is a tough one for the dance form to tackle, and the narration, scripted by Audrey Perera with playwright Alfian Sa'at as consultant, had a couple of wobbly moments.

The cheesiest bit came in the inevitable happy ending for the refugee story, in which the lost child, reunited with her mother, has become a doctor in the classic Asian parent's dream scenario.

The production is at its most powerful when it allows bharatanatyam alone - with its lovely alchemy of music, poetry and dance - to carry the narrative weight.

Then one sees the eloquence of stamping feet - one moment conveying a lovers' squabble, the next depicting the unstoppable force of a tsunami.

The dancers' elegant mudras (hand gestures) in the opening sequence, combined with their lightly stepping postures, instantly conjure the bovine animals of the song. One needs no words to understand the body language in these sections.

There are a couple of beautifully memorable sequences. In the most dynamic scene, six dancers link hands to form a rickety lifeboat, their swaying bodies depicting the vessel's perilous journey through storm-tossed oceans.

In another scene, the dancers answer the musical lament of a homesick refugee, "Won't you sing to remove my misery/ Won't you play the harp and add happiness to my life/ Won't you dance to show me life's beauty", by gathering around to play instruments and dance. In art, there is solace for even the most lost of souls.

It is rare to see collaborative productions between different performing arts companies here. Agathi demonstrates what can be achieved in a partnership, with the traditional arts company offering discipline, gravitas and aesthetics while the contemporary company shares its slick staging experience, marketing reach and unusual space.

Here is hoping other companies too will see the benefit of such collaborations. Audiences will be the richer for it.