On 26 November, as part of the Together! 2015 Festival, innovative dance-theatre troupe Signdance Collective International performed Carthage, written by Caridad Svich. Angus McKenzie-Davie was at the Old Town Hall in Stratford to bear witness.
The international nature of the makeup of Signdance Collective make them a very suitable group to interpret the work of Caridad Svitch, an American playwright of Cuban-Argentine-Spanish-Croatian heritage.
This piece of dance-theatre opens in a bleak desolate landscape, (the Carthage of the title) perfectly evoked by the eerie gothic music of Lila Schwammerlin. We learn that the mother in the first “Letter from Afar” (a play on the Spanish term “carta ajena”) has been forced to sell her baby to survive in the wake of a terrible war. This sets the tone for a show which is about displacement, communication and coming to terms with unfamiliar environments. The whole piece is sometimes difficult to watch, as scenes are emotional and hard hitting but often strangely beautiful as well, as the performers reach moments of togetherness and hope within the chaos which engulfs them.
Throughout, Paunika Jones is often given the role of the victim, hanging on desperately to a suitcase containing a few paltry possessions as the only stability in her displaced life. The weight of it, as she drags it around the stage shows that as well as security, it is a burden, full of memories of a brighter past. Her oppressors revel in separating her from it and pillaging those memories, stripping her of the last link with home.
The ten scenes that make up the show explore the nature of Diaspora, whether through war, human trafficking or forced migration.
The fractured nature of communication is a central theme; people with no common language have difficulty talking to each other, especially after the traumas of war and displacement. This is both emphasised and overcome by the use of different tongues, the total integration of signing into the movement and choreography of the whole piece and simultaneous translation of that signing. As a disabled person, it is possible to see that displaced people share some of the same cultural difficulties as all minorities.
The singing and physicality of creative director and choreographer Isolte Avila brought some beautiful and plaintive moments as she evoked images of a lost homeland. Although one does not know the words, the emotion is plain to hear, and her dances with Ms Jones were a high point.
David Bower’s seer was powerful. As he moved between scenes, showing us pictures of the lost and the departed, several times he connected the dance into a whole; from independent movement the performers moved into canon and then a definite (if frenetic) unison with him.
Antoine Hunter was amazing; his energy as he flung himself around the stage was exhausting, and the characters he brought to life, from people trafficker to rapist to friend were by turns horrific and tender.
In fact, all of the dancers/actors had very different physicalities and styles of dance. From African influenced, to Cuban, classical and contemporary, movement passed fluently between genres, often mixing them all, linked by soaring guitar sounds. The close-contact work between the performers showed the differences of culture and how we overcome communication difficulties and physical differences, and in turn, the disenfranchisement of many of us.
If you get the chance, see this show, if not, follow the links below for films/photographs etc. It breaks down the barriers between mainstream performance and that involving performers with impairments, indeed, it is hard to see this piece working as well without the challenges that the actor/dancers bring.
This performance was part of the Together! 2015 Festival which runs until 16 December. For listings of other events in the Together! 2015 Festival click here.
Watch the work in progress Carthage film below: