Body narratives: Exploring the able and the disabled

Await two new Sunera Foundation productions, “An Inspired Swan Lake” and “Human Touch”
By Adilah Ismail, Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

The floor is a flurry of fabric and feathers as the music reaches a crescendo. The faces of the dancers camouflaged by masks and head-dresses adds to the enchanting aura of mystery which surrounds them.

The director nods his approval and with a quick command, there is an explosion of activity and fragments of scenes swiftly unfold. The snapshots are rapidly embedded in our minds – headstands and acrobatics on wheelchairs, emotive and sensual movements with the use of crutches, the easy grace of the swans, the spurned sorceress and the star-crossed love quadrangle.

We are at the rehearsals for the Sunera Foundation’s upcoming production where an assorted group of vibrant people from all over the country make up the diverse cast of ‘An Inspired Swan Lake’ (the first of the two performances). They comprise 11 from the Sunera Foundation, four soldiers from Ranaviru Sevana and five trainers from the StageHands team.

‘An Inspired Swan Lake’, devised and directed by Jehan Aloysius, is a modern fairy tale inspired by Tchaikovsky’s original ballet, revolving around a love quadrangle.
Jehan Nalinda

The love affair of Gabrielle and Nicholas is fraught with peril. A sorceress casts a spell on Nicholas, cursing him to live as a swan by night and human by day, while Troy, Gabrielle’s jealous ex-boyfriend, repeatedly attempts to win her back. Meanwhile, a dutiful Jessica tries to claim Troy’s love for herself. All this, combined with the malevolent sorceress’s constant interference leaves the destiny of the lovers in a precarious situation.

“This is a devised theatre production which uses a type of physical theatre called ‘body narratives’ - a term we coined ourselves,” explains Jehan. ‘Body narratives’ explore the beauty of the human body and present it in its creative form while identifying the altered body of the differently able and using additions such as crutches and wheelchairs as extensions of the physique.

They have to be absolutely comfortable in their bodies and these are bodies that have gone through transformation,” adds Jehan. “The crutches for instance, become a part of their body. Instead of hiding it, you should be proud of it,” he explained. “I’m really inspired by them every day and inspired by their capabilities.”

“I believe in setting the bar really high. Our task was to make them dancers first, and then performers.”
“We weren’t expecting a large-scale production along these lines” confesses Thusitha Wimalasooriya, a disabled ex-soldier whose lithe movements earned him the part of Nicholas.

The group, who also stay together in the run-up to the production as they hail from different parts of the island, do a lot of group activities and trust exercises. Sumudu Yashodhara plays the part of Jessica. Her eyes speak volumes, as she signals to us in sign language explaining that she was happy as she had learnt a lot of new things. She tells us that she had learnt dancing in school and blushes in delight upon being complimented on her performance at the rehearsal.

“We’ve just taught them to dance. They’ve taught us so much more,” say Evangeline de Silva and Sharleen de Silva. “It’s been a great challenge and an honour working with such inspiring people,” adds Evangeline. Evangeline and Sharleen play the parts of Gabrielle and the sorceress respectively, while the role of Troy is taken by Sajad Shabdeen .

Elsewhere in a large airy room the rehearsals for ‘Human Touch’ devised and directed by Nalinda Premaratne and the Abhina Academy of Performing Arts, are underway. The energy in the room is almost tangible as they form a train and dance around as Nalinda, his enthusiasm contagious, leaps from one end of the room to another, adjusting a hand here and coaxing a smile there.

The story line of Human Touch was woven from ideas from the cast themselves and narrates the thoughts and feelings of the differently abled. The cast was assembled by holding auditions among the Sunera workshops around the country.

“There are a significant number of disabled people in Sri Lanka, but most of them remain hidden,” said Nalinda who has worked with people affected by the tsunami and is heavily involved with drama therapy.
Lahiru Pathiraja and Amila Jayasinghe, members of the cast of Human Touch, explain that everyone helps out in the production. ‘Society can learn a lot from this drama,” says Nadeeka Malsiri, while Shehara Weerasena smilingly adds that “Nalinda got our ideas and incorporated them into the play.”
“There are plenty of people working in ‘normal’ theatre but a limited number for theatre for the differently abled,” explains Nalinda.

Mekala Chinthani, who has been blind from birth, is overcome with emotion as she speaks about the play. “This is the first time I have been involved in a production like this. It has been a unique experience for all of us. We’re very grateful,” she says.

“All these people have talents. It’s a matter of being persistent and identifying these talents and developing them,” affirms Sunethra Bandaranaike. “They have no stage fright and no sense of self consciousness. They trust you and take you for what they see you. We can learn a lot from them,” she adds.

“An Inspired Swan Lake” devised and directed by Jehan Aloysius and Centrestage Productions and “Human Touch” devised and directed by Nalinda Premaratne and Abhina Academy of Performing Arts presented by the Sunera Foundation will go on the boards on October 28 and 29 at the Bishop’s College Auditorium at 7.30 p.m.

Print media sponsors for the show are Daily Mirror and the Sunday Times while the electronic media sponsors are Channel One MTV and Yes FM.

Tickets are available at the Bishop’s College Auditorium.

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