In the midst of its conception, Australian dance maker Ashley Dyer reflects on trying to create SK!N, a work about human trafficking, without sacrificing integrity, complexity and the voices of the people at the heart of the issue.
This essay was written in July 2015, while SK!N was still in rehearsals. The show previewed on 30 August 2015 at the George Town Festival in Penang, and premiered on 9 August 2016 at Art Printing Works in Kuala Lumpur.
A barely adult Rohingya girl sits opposite us in her temporary lodging, explaining what she misses about the homeland she fled. She’s slightly aloof and disinterested, passing around laminated portraits of her family members. Cut-out, and photo-shopped into an array of Konica’s colourful paradises, these images were the only things she held onto throughout her horrendous journey from Myanmar to Malaysia.
Simplistically put, she is stateless. Escaping persecution, at 16, she became the victim of human traffickers. By them, she was imprisoned for nine months. She was repeatedly raped. She fell pregnant. She was cast aside. Now free, she is considered an “illegal” migrant in Malaysia. Even with her UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) card, the possibility of detention or deportation is still very real. In Malaysia, she has no legal rights as a refugee and an asylum seeker. She lives in perpetual uncertainty and fear.
Sitting on the floor, she offers us plates full of pre-cut watermelon and cold cans of Red Bull. I awkwardly ask short and simple questions—questions about her feelings, thoughts and attitudes. The English is translated into Malay and the Malay is then translated into Burmese. With a shift in word here, or a shift in word there, translation does its magic and it becomes difficult to tell who really answered the question, and even what the original question was.
I arrived in Malaysia in May this year, just a few weeks before the discovery of mass graves near the Thai border; just before human traffickers had left close to 8000 refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants stranded at sea, to die, off the coast of Malaysia. I had arrived questioning how art and performance making might contribute something to this ongoing and old problem that was now thrust so horrifically into the international spotlight.
Historically, these kinds of stories had been told well and most often through theatre, film documentaries, fiction and non-fiction publications; mediums that privileged storytelling. But I had arrived to make a dance work. What might a dancing body have to say about these things? How might a dancing body avoid reducing complex ideas to clichéd representations? What can and what can’t dance do?
About 12 months ago, Malaysian artists TerryandtheCuz approached me with the audacious idea to create a dance performance/installation inside a shipping container that gives its audience an analogous experience to those who had been trafficked. We are in the process of creating that work; a work that preferences the visceral over the cerebral, and attempts to solicit an embodied empathic response to this heinous situation; a work that doesn’t simplify difficult issues, but instead provides an alternative perspective.
During our current first stage development of the project, we worked closely with a number of local NGOs that brokered our access to migrants who had been trafficked during their journey to Malaysia. These migrants had come from Cambodia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia. We met with people from both the so-called green and orange zones (not the red zone) who had been, or still were, in the grips of forced labour and slavery. We asked questions. We listened closely. We took notes.
We asked for factual details. Where did you come from? Did you travel by sea, air or land? How much did it cost? We asked for personal thoughts or feelings. What do you miss? What do you hold on to? What is humanity? We asked them to describe the mundane daily rituals they would undertake whilst travelling, imprisoned or in detention. We asked them to show us physically how they positioned their bodies to eat, sleep and survive. And we also asked them for poetic responses; asking them to try and embody in a gesture their experiences, their feelings and their attitudes toward human trafficking, fundamental human rights and dignity.
We did all this, with a sense of uncertainty about how and what content we might best present. Often this kind of work engages those affected and thrusts them, as performers, and their stories, with varying degrees of poetry and abstraction, on stage in front of an audience. For us, though, given the ongoing and precariously troubled nature of many of the individuals we’ve encountered, that would be inappropriate and potentially dangerous. This consequently gave rise to further important questions for the work. As middle-class Malaysians and Australians, what stories do we have the right or authority to tell?
Self-critically, for us, this work is as much about how we, the artists and the audience, distance ourselves from responsibility for our fellow humans, as it is about human trafficking. It will hopefully raise questions about the limits of our compassion for others. This is the story we can tell. It is one we should tell and that we have agency to tell. In the second stage of the process we intend on employing those affected as expert consultants on the performance. They’ll be invited into rehearsals to comment, possibly generate material, and offer opinions on all aspects of the work as it evolves.
At the moment, I’m working in a dance studio in the beautiful and generous settings of Rimbun Dahan. I’m working with three of Malaysia’s most interesting and exciting dance talents—Suhaili Micheline, JS Wong, and Lee Ren Xin. They have been engaged for both their abilities as dancers and as makers. We’ve tried to create a context where responsibility for the creation of the dancing in the work is shared. There is no one choreographer.
The dance making began by trying to establish a series of different movement grammars or underlying principles for our dancing. The focus was less on generating concrete vocabulary and more on developing the best methods for generating material. We did this with a profound yet simple idea firmly in the foreground of our awareness: the process that one uses to make the work becomes the work. Every brush stroke in a painting is visible in the final outcome. The tasks that we use to create the dancing are visible in the final work. Other processes would make other material.
We worked with simple applicable concepts that are easily translatable into the body; things like forced and restricted migration. We looked at first-person stories written or spoken by those affected. We discovered poetry, images and emotions in these accounts and attempted to create strategies and dance material that evoke similar feelings in an audience. The dancers each led sessions, tried out tactics, and they each critiqued and extended upon one another’s choices.
In the past few weeks, we have been using some of our developed strategies to create specific vocabulary and structures that, in the short term, will come together in a 15-minute section of a work-in-progress avant-première at George Town Festival, in late August. Later next year, these things will be further developed into a longer work.
In the main, our process has not been one of representation, but instead one of translation. As with this very article you’re reading now, my words are translated from English into Malay*. Through that process the words change, and new meanings are denoted and connoted through subtle and profound differences in use and association. The translation is neither right nor wrong, better nor worse. Something new is revealed and, in the violence of this process, something else is concealed or left forgotten. It’s our hope that our act of translation into dance, with this work, gives something beyond the possibilities of words and that those things that have necessarily been concealed or lost have found sufficient and appropriate voice in other mediums.
Art can only do so much. As I reflect back on our time with the Rohingya girl, when we asked her about what she thought humanity was, she said, “If people can help, they should help.”
In a small room, in a small home, in an obscure location in the far north of Malaysia, a beautiful young girl intermittently and repeatedly reminds our guide, Sally, of her newlywed husband’s need for what little protection is offered by a UNHCR card. All the while, a four-month-old baby steals our attention, showing off its newfound mastery of rolling from its back to its front.
Ashley Dyer is a performance maker, workshop facilitator and producer. More
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Featured photo: Suhaili Micheline [black], Ashley Dyer [orange] and Lee Ren Xin [green] at a rehearsal for SK!N at Rimbun Dahan, Kuang, 23 July 2015. Photo © Joyce Tay