Expressing experiences of torture is difficult for refugees in a new country, but when a group of survivors got together with the Irish Modern Dance Theatre, a kind of liberation was born, they tell
WHAT DOES A torture survivor look like? That's what choreographer John Scott asked himself in 2003, when he was on his way to give a workshop to a group of clients at the Centre for the Care of Survivors of Torture (CCST) in 2003.
"I walked into the room," he says, "and I saw about 12 beautiful people smiling at me. And I thought: 'This is the wrong room. This is some planning meeting, and these must be people who work here.' "
We all laugh. We are sitting at a table in Sheries restaurant in Middle Abbey Street, Dublin. Four Irish citizens drinking herbal tea, a choreographer, a journalist, a woman who has come here from Romania and a woman who has come from Africa. The latter two have been introduced as "Nina" and "Kiribu" respectively. Neither wants her real name to be published in the newspaper, because although they've lived in Ireland for quite a long time, they still don't want to draw unwanted - and potentially dangerous - attention to family members back home.
The UN definition of torture is "the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering for a specific purpose". We tend to think of it in connection with the extraction of information or a confession, but it is mostly used to create terror. The aim of torture, the CCST website chillingly notes, is not to kill the victim, but to break down a person's personality. If a survivor is to make a new life for themselves, they may need help from multidisciplinary, holistic healthcare.
For Irish people, the realities that lie behind these words are almost impossible to imagine. Kiribu's husband, an opposition politician in their home country, was executed in front of her and her children. Nina suffers from a serious form of asthma, and after seven years in Ireland is still unable to talk about what happened to her in Romania. Both of them, however, have been able to dance about it. The dance workshop was Kiribu's idea.
"I had been in therapy for two years," she explains. "But certain things are difficult to recount, because it's hard to express yourself."
Social isolation is a major problem in this situation, so it was decided to get some of the CCST clients to meet as a group. There were various suggestions as to what kind of activity the group might pursue, but for Kiribu the next step was obvious and natural.
"In African culture we use dance to express ourselves," she says. "If we are grieving or if we are mourning, or even if we are happy. So I thought that for people who find it hard to talk, maybe dance would be good. Because then the body would talk for itself."
WHICH IS WHERE John Scott and his Irish Modern Dance Theatre (IMDT) came into the picture. The first workshop turned into a regular group session which, in turn, produced a 10-minute dance show, performed in June 2004. That should have been that, except that nobody, neither Scott nor the group, wanted to stop. So they created another show, Fall and Recover, which played at the Project Cube in September of that year. They performed it at the SFX, then did a tour of Ireland.
People in the group began to work with IMDT on other productions.
"We've been to Brazil," says Scott. "We've been to Paris. We've just brought The White Piece, which is about conflict and healing, to Israel and Palestine, with performances in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Haifa."
At the invitation of the artistic director, Laurie Uprichard, they're also reviving Fall and Recover, for this year's Dublin Dance Festival. The new production has the original cast, plus professional dancers, plus two new group members who have arrived in Ireland in the meantime, one from Eritrea and one from Ghana. It also has music from Kíla's Rossa Ó Snodaigh.
The piece has won over audiences, critics and choreographers alike, but the story of Fall and Recoverisn't just an artistic story. It's a real-life story of human growth which mirrors the growth of those - among them Nina and Kiribu - who've taken part in the dance group sessions from the beginning.
"I came to Ireland without my children," says Kiribu. "I stayed here five years without my children and it wasn't really very easy. Before I joined the dance I was crying all the time. I guess maybe I was depressed. I built a wall around myself, and if somebody tried to come through I kind of backed away. But after the dance I felt I was getting better. I could maybe laugh again, talk freely to people. I started making friends. I guess the dance kind of liberated me."
Nina nods agreement. Coming from Romania, she didn't have the same everyday connection to dance as people from African countries. But she, too, has found that it enables her to allow a cautious measure of joy back into her life.
"When I met John for the first time, it was one year after I came to Ireland," she says. "I didn't speak English. I didn't speak French. I felt so lonely. So I think dancing . . . yeah, it's a way to express yourself."
"And it was a different kind of dance as well," Kiribu adds. "Not like African dance. Believe me, if you know John, you won't know that it's dance at all."
We all explode with laughter. Scott tries to look outraged at this radical deconstruction of contemporary dance practice, and fails. The group has proved to be more therapeutic than anyone could have imagined, he says, and not just for the CCST clients but for himself.
"I've learned from them as a human being," he says. "They were there for me when my mother died. I've learned a lot about international politics as well. This work has brought me into contact with racism, with the Department of Justice, with the Garda National Immigration Bureau. It has brought me to embassies and consular offices and the Four Courts - many places where I never thought I would be."
As a choreographer, he has also learned a great deal. "My battle has often been to make non- narrative work. With this group I was in a situation where the important thing was not 'how?' or 'where do you come from?'. It was about being in the room, and finding a way of working together, and letting go of all the things that we normally have in life. Stories and histories."
REAL-LIFE STORIES don't always end happily. Since the dance group began, two of its members have married and six have gained Irish citizenship. But there have also been losses. One member was deported to Nigeria in 2006, another returned to Iraq of his own volition.
"We think of them all the time," says Scott. "I call Ezekiel in Nigeria sometimes, and he sends me text messages. He's okay."
He repeats his assurance, possibly to persuade himself as well as the rest of us. "He's okay." And Said? "He promised he'd call as soon as he got there. We've heard nothing. I don't know."
A silence descends on the table. Despite the good work being done by groups such as the humanitarian organisation, Spirasi, the process of applying for refugee status is a painful one. It forces torture survivors, many of them with little English and with huge emotional and psychological difficulties, to attempt to justify themselves to complete strangers.
"You can say: 'They did this to me,'" says Kiribu. "You can have all the proof, all the scars, but still they won't believe you. If you can't express yourself, you are deemed to be lying. If you fail to talk, they think you are hiding something. And maybe you don't want to tell, because what went wrong is really too much to tell."
For Scott, there is a crucial point to be made about this. Fall and Recoveris not, he says, in the category of "victim art".
"It's not about the torture or about the past," he says. "It's about hope. It's about people's souls and their essences. It's a very joyous piece."
He has danced in two of the most celebrated contemporary dance pieces about the Holocaust, and saw Théâtre du Soleil's acclaimed piece about refugees in 2004.
"So I knew we didn't have to do documentary, because that has been done already," he says. "I get very angry when I see plays that are supposedly 'political', where you hear people screaming offstage. I don't need to know that because I'm with people who have lived it, people for whom it's a reality. And the reality is so much more gentle. So much more subtle."
"Gentle" seems like a strange word to use, under the circumstances. Yet here is Nina, nodding and smiling, shy and softly-spoken. And Kiribu, with her articulate optimism and wicked sense of humour. She reaches down under the table, digging in her bag and retrieving an envelope with a letter.
"Today I got these," she says, spreading out photographs of her two children, who are still in Africa, and two gorgeous grandchildren. We oooh and aaah. We turn to Kiribu, all smiles. But she is surreptitiously wiping her eyes. When she was awarded Irish citizenship, her two eldest children were already 18, so they haven't been allowed to join her in Ireland, Scott explains. For a few moments, we're all silent.
"After seven years living here," Nina suddenly volunteers, "I know my life is better, like, in an economic way. But for family . . ."
Her voice falters, and we go quiet again. Four Irish citizens, drinking herbal tea with tears in our eyes....
Fall and Recoveris at Project Arts Centre Space Upstairs this week (Wed-Fri), 8pm as part Dublin Dance Festival, which runs until May 23. www.dublindancefestival.ie. The CCST website is www.ccst.ie