The Malta Independent 9 May 2021, Sunday

Diaspora: the humanity in displacement

Monday, 3 July 2017, 15:03 Last update: about 5 years ago

Malaika Sarco-Thomas

 

In a thunderclap performance, Contact Dance Company's most recent work Diaspora confronts our emotions and challenges us to feel forced migration. Premiered on 9th June in the newly renovated Valletta Campus Theatre, choreographer Francesca Tranter's latest work is homage to her Mediterranean roots, and conveys the longing, agony and hope in seeking 'home'.

Amidst the drama of the elections sweeping Malta, and in the wake of Brexit, the question on the performance poster, 'What species are you?' feels especially pertinent. Drawing on her 25 years of choreographic development in Malta and abroad, Tranter's productions are recently connecting to themes of identity. In 2015 the music and dance collaboration Il-Kantilena, produced with Ruben Pace, explored the oldest Maltese text, and the solo Iż-Żmien made for ZfinMalta's debut probed spirituality alongside Maltese folk music by Walter Micallef.

ADVERTISEMENT

I step into the theatre expecting the relevant (though some say already passé) theme of migration, and to see outstanding dancers sharing their technical prowess to the fullest, and I am not disappointed. If there is one thing Tranter knows, it is how to draw everything out of a performer, and Diaspora is no exception. Skilled in contemporary techniques, physical theatre and acrobatic partnering, CDC dancers always shine onstage, and in this work, the six performers from Malta, Italy, Greece and Brazil, glow and even shimmer-with the sweaty effort of expression.

Diaspora unfolds from a single image: a woman, Maltese dancer Rochelle Gatt, stands facing forward, surrounded by figures curled motionless on the floor. A female voice says:

'Mehrba. I am me. This is I. Born a child, a daughter, a son, a sister, a brother, a wife, a mother, a father. The other: who are you? What species are you? It's often the way we look at someone that imprisons them, with our ignorance, our prejudices, our plain indifference... and it is also the way we look at them that will set them free.'

 

The stage falls dark, and morphs into a dozen toppling tableaus of journeying, seeking, falling in love, struggling, persisting. Under soft lighting dancers enter slowly from upstage left with a repetitious two steps forward, one back, as Renzo Spiteri's eerie soundscape escalates. Breakaway solos of complex puzzlework-quickly moving heads against the slow repetition of torsos-evoke visions of eternal clockwork against human endeavor. The frantic action comes to rest in a moment of togetherness: dancers standing in a chain of support, hands on one another's shoulders.

Now, two trios circulate, polarizing the space. Along the path the dancers seem to be urging one another to climb higher or farther into the beyond. Swirling music propels their striving. One fine detail of this venturing is a dancer taking three steps up into the air supported by seemingly only air itself; she gives him her leg, her back and her hand, while he leans into nothing, an assent into the sky.

The trios dissolve, and at once are bathed in colour. Slowly, hands clasp shoulders again, as the group forms a chain, looking out, a portrait of solidarity. Moving images are a backdrop. Suddenly we are immersed in the Mediterranean Sea amidst contrasting sounds of waves above and below the water's surface. We feel the quiet and dangerous expanse. How many refugees have sensed this uncertainty for days on end?

Plucked strings interrupt the osmosis: a pizzicato begins. This cheeky, flirty, deconstructed Maltese folk tune brings the women forward. In a brilliant display of musicality and choreographic craftsmanship, femininity, swinging hips, quick-stepping feet and sharp-shifting gestures of emotion, we see facial expressions of humour, frustration, power and irony in rapid succession. Next, men are tumbling onstage, full of bravado and attention-seeking antics. Eventually three (traditional, of course) couples form: man and woman leaning into each other in a counter-balance of suspended relief.

In a particularly touching series of duets, the 'newly married' couples start a headlong run counter-clockwise, on a race toward survival, success, into the future. With the unrelenting focus and commitment of a lover-stroke-Sargent major, Italian dancer Stefania Catarinella, lifts, urges and propels her male counterpart forward and upwards, between bouts of exhaustive running. How many couples have and will make their way through the world in a similar manner?

Spectacles of surviving, of laboring, of proving, of helping, and of failing unfold before us. Choreography charged with physicality so unrelenting that dancers sweat through two costumes during the hour-long marathon, is a testament to the difficulty and importance of togetherness in 2017; and at the same time, it's a living history of efforts taken to produce dance under limited circumstances. The revelation that this work evolved in just three short weeks speaks to the skill of the director and points also to the ongoing arid climate of artistic funding. It also goes some way toward explaining why, in parts, we feel that the material still needs time to settle into the dancers' bodies. This might justify my comment on the dramaturgy of the overall show, which could still use some tweaking and tightening. But these are minor points in an otherwise overwhelmingly moving work that drenches the viewer like an emotional tidal wave, leaving us charged, uplifted, and with hearts thrown open.

The final image sticks with me: that of Rochelle Gatt again standing and looking forward, bodies curled around her feet undetermined. Her fingers touch as though she is contemplating the texture of soil, or sand. We hear these words again: 'It's often the way we look at someone that imprisons them, with our ignorance, our prejudices, our plain indifference... and it is also the way we look at them that will set them free.' The urgency of this message, the strength, tenderness, and sincerity of the dancing, and the overwhelming significance of its theme, strike a deep chord. As Europe looks toward Valletta in 2018, and considers how foreigners and new ideas are welcomed, Diaspora is a heartening voice in this dialogue. The performance is a resounding achievement for Maltese dance.

 

Diaspora was commissioned for the EU presidency and toured to Athens, Greece in June. Look out for its next performance in Malta, to be announced.


  • don't miss