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Seeing Sita of Troy Through Contemporary Lens

Director Khairul Kamsani chats with us about the joys and difficulties in helming his first devised dance theatre work-in-progress performance and why the classic text is still so relevant in today’s world.

How did this project - Sita of Troy - come about? How did you choose the classic text: Sita of Troy?

For the past several years, I have discussed producing a physical theatre focused piece using classic Greek texts to exercise and play using Viewpoints training with my fellow co-founder of Bold Moment, Kristina Pakhomova. Being caught up with getting my PhD and other projects have put it on the back burner but on receiving the Self-Employed Persons Grant (SEPG) offered by National Arts Council, I thought that it would be a great platform for us to attempt what we have been discussing and also, develop areas of our practice.

Personally, whenever I read or think about ‘classic texts’, a part of me just can’t help but feel how dated they are; the positionality of the characters, the narrative choices, the themes and the morals of the pieces. While these texts can serve to teach us about ourselves and modern society, it also requires a specific lens in order to break down the moulds of the original into a relatable and socially conscious theatre. Despite being written years and continents apart, the parallels between the stories and characters of Sita and Helen, as well as how the stories have met in our contemporary minds, fascinated me.

When you started working on this project, what kind of research did you do?

I started by assigning each mythos to specific writers and researchers. Sita’s stories to Hemang Yadav and Rajkumar Thiaragas, and Helen’s stories to Celine Sara Thio. My brief to them was to bring into our studio their stories, problematics, contradictions, legacies and social impacts for us to play in a theatrical manner.

In order to find the connection between these legendary characters and real contemporary women, I started with the thread of how these characters were discovered and conjured, and how relevant they were in the mind of our actor, Nadia, who is also the third character in the play. By bringing these fictional stories into the room while listening to real experiences, I was able to draw out similarities and build on the themes that are still relevant in today’s world.

I understand that there were a series of workshops the team had to go through in order to achieve certain objectives of the project. Can you explain in detail the objectives and how the workshops achieved them?

The project was initially divided into 3 teams - the writers, the technologists and the actors. I met each team separately to facilitate a devising session using the artistic processes that they use in creating their work, whether it be costume design, poem writing or dance. As the proposal for the SEPG was premised on a Professional Practices Processes pilot workshop, the artists shared among themselves their usual practice and an element that they wanted to develop in their own skills. In the learning and creation process within each team, the raw material was prepared and eventually shared across all teams. As the teams met and continued developing or refining the material, we created what became the show that was presented.

What did you find most challenging about Sita of Troy?

This might relate to any devising process but the initial thrill and excitement of opportunities seemed boundless yet had to be reined in to become a tangible, logistically realistic, cohesive and relatable experience of a piece. Given the timeframe and budget, many of our big ideas had to be shelved for future iterations, just to make sure we had a ‘finished’ product that can be developed later on.

What is your favourite part of the project?

My personal favourite part of the process was choreographing textual responses into physical moments. My own challenge for this piece was to helm a dance-theatre piece, an endeavour that I’ve planned on taking on for a while and was only then able to attempt. Usually, in my directing work, I guide actors through a process which prioritizes their own impulses, finding authenticity and ‘truthful’ behaviour, but choreographing felt like the antithesis of my usual practice; to use physical shapes, gestures and movements to tell stories symbolically and in abstract means was challenging yet exciting.

What themes were you particularly interested in exploring and what do you hope audiences take away from watching Sita of Troy?

Probably the most significant theme of the show was ‘self-care’. A wonderfully tragic line that stuck with me which Sita/Cassie said was, “I can’t keep lighting myself on fire to keep someone else warm”, which worked in perfect parallel to Sita’s story of walking through fire to assuage the honour of her husband and how Cassie’s story in her contemporary self goes through a similar gesture in order to keep her relationship with a man afloat. So, while thousands of years apart, the story has not really changed. Kristina’s personal story of motherhood and the loss of self in order to raise another is also a challenge that the story raises. Nadia’s navigation of self-discovery to find her own narrative of her life while battered with words and moulds that others expect her to fit into complete the triumvirate of themes that any audience member can take away into their own narratives.

Will there be a continuation of Sita of Troy since it was a ‘work-in-progress’ performance?

We hope so! In my head, Sita 2.0 would have to be at least 3 hours long to go deeper into the narratives of our main three, how their time-spaces interplay and create an experience for the live audience in the space. Would probably be interesting to have a larger ensemble to play between the constant questions of ‘who is Sita/Helen/Nadia’ whenever the actors switch between the characters and their own selves.

Coming soon: Catch the audience's reactions to Sita of Troy on our Facebook!

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