It almost goes without saying that the performing arts is, at its heart, about telling stories. Sometimes, however, whose stories they are and how they are told can be as essential as the story itself.
This notion of stories “belonging” to particular people is very important to the creators of SK!N, an upcoming contemporary dance production based on human trafficking, by local performing arts company TerryandTheCuz and Melbourne-based performance-maker Ashley Dyer.
“One of the most important questions we had to ask ourselves was, what gives us the right to tell this story?” says Dyer, when discussing the complexities involved in addressing issues of human trafficking and the refugee crisis in a performance.
“Obviously, none of us have been in the position of these human trafficking victims, and we can’t even begin to understand what they feel or have been through. The story we can tell, however, is ours, and by extension, the audience’s.”
Hence, SK!N endeavours to use a combination of contemporary dance vocabulary and innovative staging to create a visceral experience for its audience, where their own thoughts, feelings and experiences are drawn upon and made part of the narrative. While the creators are mostly keeping mum on what the actual performance itself will involve, they do reveal that the show will be staged within actual shipping containers, and will include audience engagement and participation.
“The show is very much about implicating the audience, and their response to this issue,” explains Dyer. “The show is about refugees, but it is also about us: our responses, our indifference to the issue, and the limits of our compassion.”
Those familiar with TerryandTheCuz’s previous works will recognise their penchant for technical wizardry and unusual staging concepts, from the audience-swapping Klue,Doh! (2011) to The Bee Project (2012) which was staged in the midst of patrons in a cafe, to Flatland: An Adaptation In Dance (2013) that merged dance, sound, lighting and sets into a seamless narrative.
The company’s co-founder, who goes by the name of The Cuz, says the initial inspiration for SK!N came about from a desire to create a touring production. They had just staged Flatland (for which Dyer served as dramaturg), and had invitations to take it on the road. The scale of that production, however, made the idea unfeasible.
“During the process of discussing how we could get dance production to fit into a shipping container, we thought: ‘What if we could stage the show itself in a shipping container?’ From there, we let that idea evolve and take shape into what eventually became a show revolving around the theme of human trafficking. And all along, the idea remained to keep it both tourable and cost-effective,” he says.
These ideas ultimately coalesced in the production’s name: SK!N, which according to Dyer, refers to bodies and boundaries.
“Your skin is what separates you from the rest of the world, it is your boundary, so to speak. So what happens if you get through that border?” he says.
To get at the heart of the issue, the creators have been working with Tenaganita, an NGO that promotes the rights of women, migrants and refugees, as well as consulting with the Alliance of Chin Refugees Malaysia, the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) and various Filipino and Rohingya community groups.
“Ultimately, it’s the attitudes towards the problem of human trafficking that we find fascinating,” The Cuz says. “It’s exciting for us when we can actively engage our audience, as opposed to simply presenting something to a passive audience.”
Specially commissioned by the George Town Festival (GTF), Dyer and The Cuz describe the upcoming 50-minute staging of SK!N as a work in progress, or an “avant premiere” – something between a preliminary showing and a finished product. Featuring local dancers Suhaili Micheline, RenXin Lee and JS Wong, the production will be shown during ATM @ Beach Street, the festival’s celebration of “all things Malaysian”.
The Cuz says they are looking forward to staging the show in front of a live audience as part of its development process.
“For a show like this, with so many moving parts, it is very important to see how it works with a proper audience. Based on the response we get at GTF, we hope we can develop this into a full-fledged work by next year.”
An exclusive, by-invitation-only preview of SK!N will be staged on Aug 30, between 4pm and 10pm, at Beach Street, George Town, Penang. For invitations, register at www.georgetownfestival.com.