Politics, Detention and Dance - Michael Mathieson-Sandars discusses 'For Reza Berati'

Jodie, Courtney, and Alethea Below is a little piece about a new collaborative work I've been part of as part of The Human Detained, a project by Kupka's Piano and MakeShift Dance Collective, which will be given its full showing at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Brisbane at 7:30pm on October 30th. You can get tickets here.

Reading back into my emails, it seems like it was some time mid last year that, in discussions between KP and MakeShift, we settled on The Human Detained as a theme which could unite our collaborative project. We felt it was open and deep enough for our collaborative sub-groups to determine their own interpretative paths. It was bubbling with possibilities; both abstract enough to approach musically and visceral enough to explore in movement. Part of the reason we settled on The Human Detained above other themes, however, was that we felt it would be particularly pertinent and socially resonant given Australia's policy to imprison asylum seekers in offshore detention camps. While the other groups have taken this theme in a number of exciting directions to create a fascinating array of unique works, I was always enthusiastic to explore the The Human Detained as an explicitly political topic.

In the past twelve to eighteen months, it has been greatly saddening that the situation for refugees has only intensified, with further abuses coming to light at home and anti-refugee rhetoric escalating abroad. In the face of this, however, it has been greatly encouraging to see that the spirit of protest is alive and well, and even more so when considering that the tone of protest has been an uncompromising demand for compassion. It is in this spirit that my group's new work for The Human Detained, For Reza Berati, was first conceived.

Reza Berati, an Iranian asylum seeker, was twenty-three years old when he was killed during an attack on the Australian-operated detention centre on Manus Island in February last year. But how has this translated to music and choreography? Such a tragic death - the result of such arbitrary cruelty designed to divide us as much at home as it is to separate 'us' from 'them' - could certainly lead to a negative artworld. Modern art can often be permitted only to say what is lost or what is alienated; a kind of anguish that what we once had is gone, and we can never have it back. With this work, and in deference to this topic, however, it seemed appropriate to aim for something a little different. Since his death, Berati's image has become a symbol in protest movements around the country: in this context his death has become a demand for all to be treated with dignity and justice, with an absolute respect for life. This is the approach we have tried to take with the piece; we wanted to explore the oppression, alienation, and violence in this situation, but to also demonstrate that there is, in resistance to the situation, long-reaching solidarity and a vision for real and positive change.

Reza Berati

The basic structure of the work reflects the process of coming together. For the two musicians, violinist Alethea Coombe and flautist Jodie Rottle, this happens in a couple of ways. Firstly, there is their physical orientation: the performers begin facing away from one another, but across the work they come to face one another in order to play “together.” Secondly, there is a progression in what is musically asked of the performers. There are three broad sections in the work: in the first Alethea and Jodie are improvising with very limited specific musical direction; the second they perform notated excerpts and are asked to improvise from one to the next so that each player maintains a loose relation with the other; the third section is fully notated and detailed in what they must perform. The aim is to represent a change from alienated individuals, playing at the same time but not together, to two individuals who must work together as chamber musicians, in communication with one another to organise towards a common goal; a coming together to play music as a coming together to protest.

The notated music, meanwhile, can be seen as a “working through” of the tension between the lines towards an arrival point. Each line of musical material is based, very abstractly, on repetitions of the chant “No prisons! No Fear! Refugees are welcome here!” in varied tempos and interpretations. Spoken (whispered and yelled) excerpts of the text are also drawn into the music, transforming from an isolated “prison!” or “no!” to the whole chant. Apart from the symbolism of this linguistic inversion, the chant is included along with marching stomps to capture some of the essence of a refugee rally; a certain kind of sadness turned into positively-charged anger and loud defiance. It can also be seen as the process of being drawn from a situation of turmoil into action to make a change.

The role of our wonderful dancer/choreographer, Courtney Scheu, is perhaps a little more complicated, especially in her relationship with the musicians. At times, Courtney represents the oppressed, and the musicians the oppressors; at the other times her actions are more abstract and allusive, or more reinforcing the music. We were particularly careful to explore possible readings of Courtney's and the musicians' movement. Because of the explicit political content in the work, we wanted to avoid creating a reading where Courtney would be seen as an asylum seeker, with Jodie and Alethea as both the oppressors and the (western, imperial) saviours – a misleading idea given how active asylum seekers have been in organising resistance to their incarceration. We have aimed instead for the choreography of the work (especially Courtney's movements, but those of Alethea and Jodie, too) to depict the oppressive framework that's been established, offer solidarity to those who are detained, reinforce the overall narrative of isolation to collective engagement, and provide a direct human connection to the work itself. While that seems like a very difficult line to tread, I  hope we have been successful in this!

For me personally, it has been a great pleasure to work towards this piece with Alethea, Jodie, and Courtney (who's also put in a great deal of work on co-ordinating the rest of the show!), and quite an eye-opening experience for me as a composer. It has been at times difficult to engage with such a heavy topic, but I am extremely proud of what we have managed to accomplish. I look forward to coming up to Brisbane to finish the work off and (lucky me as a composer) getting to see the whole show. Hope to see you there!