Jane Oriel reviews, RAFT, the new production from Gwyn Emberton Dance, at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon.
Over the past couple of years, few will have escaped seeing images of boats in the Mediterranean, overladen with refugees. Seeing desperate, exhausted and bemused faces reaching land and the limp bodies of drowned children who, like baby turtles in reverse, never made it. We, by now, may have become complacent, blasé even, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers who continue to choose the perilous unknown over an unbearable known.
Through RAFT, Gwyn Emberton and his troupe explore this modern tragedy of displacement and alienation, encouraging us to remember the humans, no different from us.
A dance of two chapters, the first ploughs through the tumultuous sea under a night sky and is finely executed but grim watch. Although we know in advance the matters of exploitation, drowning and despair, foreknowledge does little to lessen the impact. The five dancers in turn are alone, supported or lost in strongly enacted ebb-flowing tides beneath Sion Orgon’s brutalist sound design, offering no rest for our frayed senses. The refugees drag themselves or are pulled aboard transformable tubular frame, scenery props that represent boats, holds or later in the performance, a morgue.
Reflecting the few weeks of intense press coverage, following the story first breaking when we saw boat after overladen boat, coming and coming and sinking, here the drowned characters return as new people with new stories several times during this half, overlaid by the sensitive inclusion of select pieces by the Icelandic modern classical composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. The lexicon of movement is rich as these wordless stories find intense expression, and the anguish of each life lost to the black waters brings distress.
For the audience, the emotional weight that slogs out from the stage beneath an industrial strength soundtrack spills over, as relentless as crashing waves. I now watch in a personal fug of rebellion with my insides screaming “no more! no more!” feeling the urge to extricate myself from this intense pile up of suffering that’s coursing through my heart and gut. How can dance do this to me?
Scene one closes with a young teen, from amidst the audience, from dry land, stepping on stage, reaching out. The undrowned have their life-chance now. An intake of breath.
Following the break, the scenery now resembles a high, harbour wall and we hear a radio tuning in to snatches of British and Irish themed music, and a range of spoken opinions on refugees and foreigners. Each now wears a warm coat but they struggle with this unfamiliarity. A supporting cast of local performers are the host nation’s populace. In an uncomfortable scene, hair and head is examined with roughness, bringing to mind news stock imagery from the Second World War. The refugees huddle, some townsfolk try to reach out, some want to help but their unfocused embrace slumps around the knees of the new arrivals. One such loses control over his uncertain future.
Hands are held aloft to a better, united future and a new wave of the dispossessed slither in on their bellies, bringing overwhelm to one supportive host. The distress raised during the first chapter finds a form of respite in the second but the exploration offers no safe, cosy end, as it cannot. At this time of divisive politics on both sides of the Atlantic and mainland Europe, as well as an unpredictable number tinder-box states lacking stability and tolerance, there is no easy solution to these desperate plights.
Within dance, there are a multitude of engaging, less controversial topics to be explored with great success but a new degree of vison and bravery has been raised by Gwyn Emberton Dance for taking on the challenge of RAFT, and it leaves dance the richer because of it.
You can find out more about RAFT and tour dates here.