Thursday, 29 January 2015

Chapter 61: Stateless

David Russell (Author)

Photo: from The Holocaust: From Human Being to Human Bridge

Dressed in an old knitted tank-top, shirt-sleeves, and brown trousers this morning, my son looked every bit the WW2 evacuee he was meant to be, and was off on a school trip to RAF Hendon. So striking, in fact, I felt transported for a moment as I watched him slip through the school gates. What must it be like to say goodbye to your children and not know when you will see them again? It is a question that has particular resonance for me since Sunday, hearing Claudette who had to do exactly that, one of the refugees featuring in Joli Vyann's "Stateless" at Jacksons Lane. 

"Stateless" blends together hand-to-hand acrobatics and dance to explore the subject of refugees and immigration. Drawing on the technique of verbatim theatre, physical movement is precisely choreographed to a soundtrack that is a mixture of music by Florence Caillon and the voices of the refugees themselves. What the company do is embody the voice, product of a technique where in rehearsals they would be thrown a word or several words and they would then (co)respond with movement. The piece focuses on the transit stage of the refugees journey, rather than the moment of departure from the old country, or what happened on arrival in the new, when they are quite literally stateless. Not in terms of describing each journey, but rather weaving together elements to convey the process - sadness, frustration,  longing, a desire to be held, a desire to remain, a desire to escape. There is also tenderness, humour and warmth. In discussion afterwards the cast examined how they had worked on contact dance moves to blend into a transition the essential pause for preparation required in any risky circus feat, a dynamic I had not thought about before. One of the dancers had a background in parkour, and there was a certain ambience locating the piece in an urban environment - the cement suggested by the set and even the red brick walls of Jacksons Lane itself.

I loved the muted tones of the set, the series of grey blocks, steps and shapes that could be used in any number of combinations to create obstacles and provide support to the performers, also clad in greys with slashes of reds and burgundy providing a rich contrast. The central supporting hexagon at one point became a truck into which the refugees are crammed. Backlit there are an assortment of limbs shoving, pushing, cramped and claustrophobic. Cyr wheels were dismantled and reconnected to form spiral tunnels, and became part of the narrative structure. Ultimately, as the set turns into a bridge, two halves of a Cyr wheel become handrails.  The fluid transitions as the shape of the set changes are satisfying to watch as though watching a tetris puzzle piece together. By the end, the bridge appeared to me to represent not only the bridge they had to burn on departure, and the one forged with new communities on arrival, but also a bridge of communication with the audience. 

At the end we heard both from the cast and from one of the refugees, Temor, originally from Iraq. In the piece we had heard Temor describe the positive outlook he had gained from the hardest lessons, on realising an inner strength he hitherto hadn't known existed. To hear this from someone who, barely 20, had to walk away from his family and spend six months travelling from Iraq through Syria, Turkey, Dubai and eventually land in the UK was truly humbling. Similarly hearing the voice of Claudette, who spent six months searching for the children she had to leave behind, from Vesna and from Jade. While the point of the performance was to transmit imprints of their experiences, I would have been interested to learn more, say in the programme, about their whole story up to the present. It was great to hear later that Temor is taking an acting course with a view to finding his own form of expression, for instance.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a personal story takes us beyond statistics that can often dehumanise and distance a situation. This week we have been commemorating the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Holocaust Memorial where people were reduced to numbers and ashes. I have never been to Auschwitz, but as a student watching Alain Resnais' 1955 documentary "Night and Fog" about the history of the Final Solution, alternating between black and white footage and colour to bridge past and present, marked my world view forever. I believe that the act of bearing witness in this way to atrocities in a different time or place and bringing them into our current reality is the only possible response and resistance to brutal inhumanity, and the challenge to ensure #neveragain.

Letting the voices not just speak for themselves but be transformed into movement is a powerful tool. We are not simply spectators, but called to listen with every fibre of our being and engage with these testimonies. To listen and bear witness. That should be everyone's resolution for this year. To listen more, to engage more, to learn from history… and her story.  To build bridges.

Photo: Ockham's Razor's Charlotte Mooney; cast: James Williams, Ana Dias, Olivia Quayle, Jan Patzke, and Temor

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