Kibwe Tavares’ Aisha & Abhaya is daring and diverse – review

Words by Bengi-Sue Sirin.

In the programme notes for ‘Aisha and Abhaya,’ director Kibwe Tavares states “I don’t like elitism or the thought that certain places aren’t for certain people.” He is referring to the cultural capital that is ballet and its cradle, the Royal Opera House, but implicitly alludes to anti-immigration rhetoric and the hostility that diversity is met with.

Telling the story of two refugee sisters crossing the seas and trying to reconfigure ‘home,’ ‘Aisha and Abhaya’ is certainly not a pure-blooded piece. It mingles Tavares’ architecturally-influenced filmmaking with Batsheva alumnus and now independently established choreographer Sharon Eyal’s contemporary movement, throwing in music from ‘one of the founding fathers of the techno scene in Israel’, Ori Lichtik, and ‘industrial bass’ music creator GAIKA… Not to mention the fantastical folkloric costume design of rising Russian artist Uldus Bakhtiozina (well worth a Google, she makes magic). All this vision for just one show.

I’ve been interested in the critical reception to this work because it has been pretty much unanimously rejected, with one reviewer summing up the lot of them by opining that in this case, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” I disagree. I think this broth is not over spiced, but differently spiced, appealing to a different audience with a different palate.

Tavares goes on to say: “I wanted to see new faces and people in the audience, and I liked the idea of my mates coming to the Royal Opera House.” I think my mates would love ‘Aisha and Abhaya’ – not necessarily my mates outside of the dance world, but the ones who are interested in new experiences, feelings, collaborations and cultural mash-ups. I am not saying that the negative reviewers were not open-minded enough, I feel they assessed fairly from a pure dance perspective. For me, ‘Aisha and Abhaya’ transcends the establishedboundaries of dance performance, in that the piece does not orbit around the dancing, but rather the dancing, along with the costumes and music, orbit around the theme of the piece: the refugee experience, displacement, alienation, ‘a collective truth of loss’ (programme). And in its accomplishment of this theme, it is successful.

I’ve said my piece. Now, onto the piece! ‘Aisha and Abhaya’ is divided into five parts: three film, two dance. It opens on screen, the camera near-submerged by the motion of gunmetal cold water. We see two young women, clad in Bakhtiozina garb, one saffron-yellow and the other plum-sheen grey, splutter and stumble onshore. They are so colourful, so different to the plain Irish shore. Over the top, GAIKA recites:“They say the ocean’s made of tears for those who cross the world.”

That night, Aisha and Abhaya nestle in their moored boat. The moonlight glimmers in bounces from courtly headwear and Puffa-chic gowns. One of the sisters retrieves an heirloom-like wooden box from her swathes, opening it slowly. From over her shoulder, we see a Tinkerbell-sized golden dancing figure adorned in a similar headpiece to the women. Watching the figure move seems to soothe them, to remind them of home. 

Skip a scene. Aisha and Abhaya have followed a tribal trail and found some ritualistic revellers letting loose by a fire. Their bodies keep tom-tom time with the Middle-Eastern electronic dub pounding over. The sisters join in, throwing themselves into a moment of unity. Later footage depicts this pagan pack tracking the land, hungover and morning-weary, to end up at a We Don’t Want You Here wall high in height, higher still in hostility.

As the group scan for entry points, Tavares zooms the camera out, further and further until it zooms the projecting screen side-stage, to reveal seven bodies in totemic stance, statue dancers that had been there the whole time. Behind them, a virtual reality style corridor unfolds suspensefully, reminding me of a dark Mayan pyramid, foreboding and forbidding. Just when it begins to get eerie, we hear the beginnings of moody techno. This animates the bodies.

They move in peculiar jolting coils, march-steps, looking for an exit from the tight pack they are squeezed into. Now, the dancing begins. As only Rambert dancers can, contemporary movement galvanises ballet technique in a build-up of speed and a heightening of intensity. They dance emotion, not narrative. Aisha and Abhaya’s feelings of displacement shown in the previous film section transmutes like the golden dancing figure in the wooden box, manifest in the bodies of the dancers onstage, thrust into a different form with the urgency of displacement. The rest of the piece follows the same formula: a poetic – but primarily, narrative – section of film, leading into overawing visuals of a strange and unfamiliar location, which blends the Rambert dancers on scene to portray the emotional details.

I’d like to mention one scene in particular, which one critic accurately likened to Metropolis… There is a visual backdrop of a homogenous crowd of figures moving as an opiated yet muscular mass, some towering overhead, others real humans on stage. They resemble an arachnid AI army, and to the sound of string-infused techno, this is a pretty compelling image, Tavares at his directorial best. For me, it is the most powerful moment of the piece; at oncerepresenting the intimidating new country that Aisha and Abhaya face up to, and the reserves of resilience needed to withstand such hostility. And the Rambert dancers truly give it their all! Hannah Rudd and Salomé Pressac stood out for me. If only was a way of transmuting their physical stamina into emotional stamina.

I hope that I have articulated my understanding of ‘Aisha and Abhaya’ clearly. I think that it requires a wide lens and an abandonment of expectation. Once I stopped expecting narrative, I began to enjoy it deeply as an artistic [rather than a dance] experience. I am glad that Kibwe Tavares showed his work in this ‘certain’ place, and I hope that post-Brexit, the Royal Opera House continues to accept collaborative proposals that are daring and most importantly, diverse. 


More Kibwe Tavares films (I especially recommend Robots of Brixton):

Images: Foteini Christofilopoulou

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