Irma Villafuerte in “No Woman’s Land” photo by Wayne Eardley
The spotlight over the past years has turned towards the under-representation of female choreographers in the established dance companies. In the press and social media, I have seen a repeat of the same sort of questions and thought processes in regards to this issue that goes something like this “… where are all the female choreographers?” or “why aren’t there more female choreographers” or “If only there were more female choreographers then we could hire them”. While it is great to see the press and dance community having these discussions, I would like to counter by saying we are not that hard to find. We are mostly finding our way, on our own terms by starting our own companies and self-producing. They should concentrate on finding us, seeing our shows and writing reviews. This would shine a spotlight on our work that can help even out the gender inequalities we face. Roshanak Jaberi is an Iranian-Canadian female choreographer whom I had no trouble finding. I would like to shine some stage-light on this talented and brave creator.
I just came home from Jabari’s production “No Woman’s Land”, created for her company Jaberi Dance Theatre and presented by DanceWorks at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre in Toronto. Jaberi Dance Theatre is a multi-disciplinary performing arts company that explores socially relevant content and highlights the lived experience of racialized women. “No Woman’s Land” tells stories of refugee women fleeing their homelands due to acute starvation, poverty, natural disasters, armed conflict and war. Roshanak engaged in an intense research phase with the support of IRIS (Institute for Research and Development on Inclusion and Society) and scholar Dr. Shahrzad Mojab. The work that arose out of the stories and information collected is a weaving of dance, visual images, text and sound. Pre-show, the stage is set with something that looks like the frame of a tent. Light shines through the frame casting shadows that look like bars of some virtual prison. Or perhaps they are a net that will hold the audience together while we witness the stories that are about to unfold. One of the beautiful aspects of Jaberi’s work is that the images portrayed hold multiple meanings and tones, creating a richly layered tapestry.
The work starts at high velocity with the frame turning over to become a boat. Images of a storm are projected over all surfaces of the stage. We witness refugees fighting for their lives in stormy waters. The choreography is direct in its movements, but the nuances are complex and cut deep into the heart. The cast (Irma Villafuerte, Nickeshia Garrick, Victoria Mata, Denise Solleza, Drew Berry, Ahmed Moneka) are fully committed. One can sense they know the importance of the job they have in bringing these stories to the stage.
Victoria Mata, Irma Villafuerte & Drew Berry in “No Woman’s Land” photo by Wayne Eardley
The program includes a fold-out pamphlet that educates the public about the world-wide refugee crisis. We learn that 68.5 million people have been forced from their homes and that one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds. We learn that approximately one in five women in refugee camps are sexually-assaulted. This statistic is brought to life on stage through Irma Villafuerte’s solo that depicts unwanted hands reaching for her body through “bars”, and through a voice-over of a young girl’s story of a brutal rape. The pamphlet also describes how refugee women become shrewd survivors through their lived experience, finding strategies, cunning and independence. In a fierce solo by Nickeshia Garrick, sharp movements cut through the air with grace and speed. Every cell of her body exemplifies pride and beauty that dismantles the stereotype of the helpless, passive victim.
Victoria Mata in “No Woman’s Land” photo by Wayne Eardley
In another scene, dancers frantically fight for limited buckets. The rattling sound of hollow metal clanging reverberates on stage, a music score that gives the audience a felt sense of the panic of thirst. The buckets then become stepping stones across minefields or seats at a social gathering that gives relief from the worries of being displaced. Text and projected images deliver story and setting, but dance is the element that delivers the emotional world hidden behind the words and statistics. This embodiment is what brings the stories home to those witnessing. Throughout the work a repeated poem delivers the message that people flee their home when fleeing is safer than staying. This made me think of what it would take to make me grab my kids and flee. A vital aspect of “No Woman’s Land” is that it invites the viewer into an immersive art experience that encourages the viewer to imagine what it would be like if those circumstances unfolding on stage happened to them. Jaberi’s states in her program notes that “No Woman’s Land” does not attempt to present solutions to systemic systems of oppression that lead and influence the refugee crisis. Rather, she hopes the work will start discourse amongst those in a position of influence.
Roshanak Jaberi is a brave and articulate choreographer with a strong vision. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future.