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Nayika: A Dancing Girl

Nayika: A Dancing Girl
Co-creators: Nithya Nagarajan, Liv Satchell
Co-directors: Nithya Nagarajan, Liv Satchell
Belvoir Street Theatre
May 1-19, 2024

The Belvoir is fortunate to showcase the world premiere of Nayika: A Dancing Girl, an astonishing solo performance by Vaishnavi Suryaprakash. While relevant to the present escalating partner violence, and a powerful piece of truth-telling, it is also of a performance of memorable strength and beauty.

Part of its beauty is the simplicity and eloquence of the stage setting (Marco Cher-Gibard). The boundary of the performance space is delineated by a woven screen, basket weave at the base and the upper section a lovely branching pattern reminiscent of rivers, leaves, perhaps of time. A sympathetic soundscape to the narration is provided by two musicians (Cher-Gibard and Bhairavi Raman), shadowy figures behind the woven screen, but an essential accompaniment to the magic of the whole. Suspended above the performance area a cluster of sculpted lights, perhaps resembling a lotus, come alive to shed a delicate light on the uncluttered floor.

We are given some time to gaze on this open space, to feel it as both sacred and public. When Suryaprakash enters, she is, at first, a slight figure in a large space, but gradually the actor takes command of it and by the conclusion she has made it hers entirely. What we are witnessing is not her personal story, but rather she is the storyteller recounting a story shared by many women, each experience in a deep and intimate way. The actor brings to her role immense skill that allows the narration its full complexity.

Dressed in an east-west style combination, Suryaprakash is arch in her manner – a woman still acting like a school-girl – as she jokes about computer files. Having met with her former “high-school best friend” after the passage of much time, she is teasing, imitating her friend’s fussy, familiar manner, but holds her at a distance. However, the post-trauma Sydney personality of carefree nonchalance she has created wavers as the memories triggered by the friend’s visit surface. Gradually we piece together her story: the truth for her as she experiences it.

Indian neo-classical dance – so mesmerizingly performed by Suryaprakash – is at the heart of her story. As a school-girl she yearns to be a dancer and to the then 13-year-old girl’s surprise her parents allow her to pursue her dream and move to Chennai. While her new-found liberty is intoxicating, youthful innocence is no protection, and her life is hi-jacked by a coercive and influential male. It is unlikely any of the goddesses whose movements she learns, rehearses (and internalises) for her debut performance offer any other options for female behaviour but those conditioned by her culture. The women she turns to for help are equally conditioned.

Neither has geographic escape been the answer. Confronting her story and reclaiming her authentic self – not the pretend self Suryaprakash shows us in the opening sequence – but as a mature self. Her resistance against disempowerment has been powerfully transmitted as Suryaprakash transforms into Kali, the four-armed (she makes you see this) Goddess of Death and Destruction but Kali has a further aspect – creation. In a moving final moment the woman acknowledges the past and its shaping of her not as a victim or as a survivor, but as the heroine of her own story.

Directorial vision, actor and setting meld harmoniously in the creation of a theatrical gem.

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