little stranger

Co-produced by Powerstone, Tinderbox and DU Dance

Statistics in official reports may be clinically effficient in conveying cold facts and figures, but it’s only when one comes face to face with the human fallout from their subject matter that reality kicks in.

In June of this year, the UNHCR issued its annual Global Trends Report, which recorded that, for the ninth year in succession, the number of people forcibly displaced by conflict, violence and persecution has risen and now reaches a record 82.4 million.  Of particular concern is the sharp rise in the number of unaccompanied minors, some striking out alone on perilous journeys, others becoming separated en route from their families or travelling companions.

During the cold winter of 2018, I was walking through Paris after an evening at the theatre and stopped to speak with a Syrian refugee family, huddled against the railings of a plush hotel near the Arc de Triomphe.  In spite of their dire situation, they were courteous, gracious and dignified. The father spread his hands in despair, as though to say, “How did it come to this?”

With him were his silent, sad-eyed wife, his clearly traumatised adolescent son and his daughter, who was aged about six.  As I said my goodbyes, she held out her hand, with a smile that could have lit up the city. Never will I forget the touch of that warm little hand, dry and roughened by the grime of the street.  Her name was Asha.

For months afterwards, I could not dispel that smile and that hand from my head.  Slowly I began to form an idea for a play, whose central character, a child refugee, might be portrayed by a puppet.  Scale was vital to the visual concept – a small person, pitched alone into an alien world, dwarfed and overwhelmed by hostile border posts, towering buildings, booming officials, daunting bureaucracy, strange languages.  Thus was born Little Stranger.

I ran the idea past Mags Byrne and Patrick J. O’Reilly, artistic directors of DU Dance and Tinderbox respectively, both innovative artists on whom I knew I could rely for wise counsel.  For many years, Byrne has worked on dance projects with socially disadvantaged young people in Palestine, South Africa and Ethiopia, as well as across Europe. O’Reilly trained at the École internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Parisand names as his artistic mentor the Spanish theatre-maker Carlos Garcia Estevez of Manifesto Poetico, a company whose storytelling philosophy is based on the spirit of imagination and emotional communication.   

The more we talked, the more evident it became that mere words could not do justice to the truth of Asha’s unimaginably terrible experience.  After a meeting in Belfast with two young people who had endured a similar ordeal, the old stage and screenwriting adage of ‘show, don’t tell’ emerged as the path to take. And so we started to look at creating a piece of dance-theatre, which could, over time, be developed into a large-scale public performance.

We turned to two intercultural youth dance groups run by DU Dance dance artist Sheena Kelly in her native town of Dungannon, County Tyrone.  Sutemos and its little sister Suteminis are mainly comprised of young people, aged between 8 and 18 years, whose families have made new lives in the area.  They come from Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, East Timorese, Estonian, Portuguese, French and Irish backgrounds and speak a dizzying number of languages.

The first phase of the project took place in February 2020, when twenty of them gathered for a four-day workshop, exploring themes of exile and enforced displacement through a combination of dance, movement and physical theatre. Under O’Reilly and Kelly’s leadership, the results were astonishing.  Using a faceless paper doll as the channel for the child’s story, the young people created a series of intensely moving cameo scenes.  At that point we knew that our long-term ambition for Little Stranger was achievable.

Then, a month later, Covid 19 took hold and everything changed. Our development plans were put on ice until March 2021 and were postponed again when the second lockdown called a halt to proceedings. Undaunted, we rescheduled for July/August and are about to complete Phase 2 of the project.

Live performance having been dismissed as a no-go area, we diverted to the idea of a short, non-narrative film, driven by a specially designed soundscape by Belfast composer Isaac Gibson and Viviana Fiorentino’s insightful poem Landing, translated into English by Maria McManus.

After endless Zooom meetings and rehearsals, navigating Covid rules and restrictions, the team finally came together in person and filming commenced in three contrasting locations. O’Reilly’s radical revisioning, coupled with Kelly’s minutely detailed choreography and the dancers’ individual interpretations, all unfolded along a disused railway line cutting in Peatlands Park, then shifted to a graffiti-strewn back street close to Dungannon town centre and climaxed on the Hill of the O’Neill, whose vast horizons encompass nine counties and four centuries of history.

In the process of making the work, we’ve tuned into the zeitgeist of an increasingly urgent global issue and now find ourselves in the company of a massive, uncannily similar piece of international performance art.  Good Chance Theatre’s Little Amal, a 3.5 metre-tall puppet of a Syrian refugee child, represents displaced children the world over.  She has just set out on a 8,000 km walk from the Syrian border in Turkey to Manchester, connecting en route with high profile artists, local community groups and humanitarian organisations.

Our little Asha resurfaces more modestly as an innocent paper doll, travelling blindly into the great unknown, blown like a leaf in the wind and ultimately given refuge and freedom by her new friends. As their performances show, these girls have taken Asha’s plight to their hearts.  Wherever she may be in the world, our wish is that she might know that in a small town in the north of Ireland a group of young people are dancing for her.

The first screening of Little Stranger took place at EastSide Arts Festival, Belfast on 14 August 202.

This article was first published in The Irish Times on 10 August 2021.

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