Maya Dance Theatre tackle depression and anxiety

Dancers in Anwesha - Beyond The Darkness worked with clients from the Singapore Association for Mental Health's Creative Hub.
Dancers in Anwesha - Beyond The Darkness worked with clients from the Singapore Association for Mental Health's Creative Hub.ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Maya Dance Theatre revisits the tale of Sita, heroine of epic poem Ramayana, this time examining her mental state during her long exile and imprisonment

After watching a rehearsal of Maya Dance Theatre's latest work, a mental health patient drew a picture of a small black figure at the bottom of a deep well.

Though there had been no props onstage, only the dancers' movements and expressions, he had identified at once the image of being trapped that they were trying to convey.

Maya Dance Theatre's new work, Anwesha - Beyond The Darkness, revisits the tale of Hindu goddess Sita, but this time also delving into issues of mental wellness amid the pressures and alienation of urban society.

In its second full-length production of the year, to be staged this weekend, depression and anxiety manifest onstage as dancers grapple with a dark entity and strive to reach the light.

The company's artistic director Kavitha Krishnan, 45, was troubled by how people throw around words such as "stress" and "loneliness" in everyday conversation without taking them seriously until they lead to dire consequences.

For the work, she drew on her own experience as an occupational therapist for a decade or so. She also had the dancers work together with clients from the Singapore Association for Mental Health's Creative Hub.

In art therapy sessions, the clients watched rehearsals and shared their drawings of what they saw with the performers. These works will be part of an exhibition in the foyer ahead of the show.

Beyond The Darkness follows the 2012 work Anwesha - The Quest, which is also about Sita, the heroine of the Indian epic poem Ramayana.

Sita also featured earlier this year, together with French warrior Joan of Arc, in Maya's June production Pancha - When The Flames Blaze The Caged Body, I Surrender My Soul, I Am...

This time, Ms Krishnan wants to examine Sita's mental state during her long exile and imprisonment by her husband's nemesis, King Ravana.

Beyond The Darkness is co-choreographed by Indonesian artist Danang Pamungkas and Maya principal dancer Shahrin Johry.

Both will be performing in the work alongside dancers Bernice Lee, Eva Tey and Subastian Tan, with Danang playing the role of the dark entity.

The dancers say they found the work emotionally exhausting.

Tey, 25, plays a positive character who keeps trying to bring the others together, but is constantly rebuffed. At times, she found herself tearing up.

"I'm not upset for myself," she says. "I am doing this for only two to three hours at a time, but how challenging this must be for the families and friends of those who are depressed or have bipolar disorder, who face this every single day."

Despite its dark subject matter, the work moves ultimately in the direction of light.

"I would like to tell people that there is hope out of this situation," says Ms Krishnan.

It is not purely optimistic, she adds - nuances in the ending suggest the ever-present potential for relapse - but she hopes the work can help reduce social stigma against mental illness and make everyone involved more aware of its prevalence in those around them.

"It's important not just to offer someone advice, but also to find time for the person," she says.

"We all want to be in a person's brightest moments, but someone has to be there in their darkest moments to bring them to the light."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2017, with the headline 'Battling darkness in the mind'. Print Edition | Subscribe