Interview: Amina Khayyam - on Yerma & 'the passion of kathak'

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Amina Khayyam

Amina Khayyam wants to tell stories through her dance – which is grounded in Kathak, but embracing other forms of live art and new technology. Although she comes from a Bangladeshi Muslim background where dance was frowned upon, Amina now performs and makes work with her company, as well as teaching on the the BA Hons Dance and Culture degree at the University of Surrey. She is particularly concerned with issues that affect marginalized women and is currently touring her her latest production Yerma , which is based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s play about a childless woman living in rural Spain… Catch it at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells this weekend (1 & 2 November)

What was it about Garcia Lorca’s play which inspired you?
When I first started creating my version of Yerma back in 2011, I had just given birth to my child – a fact that made empathising with Yerma’s yearning for a child slightly problematic. However, having a little cherub of my own in my arms, I could see why Yerma would yearn for one of her own. But that is not why I had started on my journey to meet Yerma; I grew up with stories around me from my own community where if a woman was unable to bear a child, she would automatically considered to be at fault, she would be discarded away! The family would then force the husband to remarry so he may get a second chance to have a child. Although this is not the case with Yerma, everything else in the story resonates. Amazing! Yerma, entrenched in the bosom of European literature, was written some 80 years ago and yet still today there are new Yermas seething on the fringes of inner-city faith based, culturally diverse new communities of Europe. But I am concerned that sometimes our society see it differently – merely as ingredients to sensationalise rather than get to the root – that hidden behind the insularity of these communities are women’s issues that still have a long way to go… It is easy to judge them as ‘backward, uneducated, and different’; labels that only push the communities into closing their guards.

How has Kathak helped you to tell the story?
Kathak is fundamentally a storytelling form that traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathakars or storytellers. The name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘katha’-meaning story, and Kathakar in Sanskrit means ‘the person who tells a story’. So to me, to dance story is always intrinsically to tell a story.

I have approached the re-telling of Yerma using the passion of Kathak. I use Abhinaya – the gestural facial expressions – as the central movement within it, but I subvert it by negating it – so that my Yerma wears a face of death – there is no prettiness, no jewels, glitz, or glamour. The rural Spain of Lorca’s Yerma transposes to inner city Britain: some values remain the same.

Were there any challenges in this approach to adapting the story?
I think from a dramaturgical point of view, there were challenges in that Yerma is typical of a work sitting across two sets of audience expectations. I like to make work with women who I want to raise issues with – these are women who may never have seen a live performance, but as a company, we also want to take the work to the main dance stages, which makes the process of balancing the references and accessibility to the sophistication of the two audiences, a challenge. But that is the ethos of the company, and so in making Yerma, a chunk of time was spent in finding a dramaturgical approach that would sit comfortably across the two audiences without compromising expectations.

You have been doing a lot of outreach work in addition to stage performances, how did that come about?
Opportunities for certain sections of audiences to see and engage with performance are limited because not everyone can go to a theatre – so I have been taking parts of the story to places where audiences will benefit and engage with the work, such as community groups and women’s centres and refuges. I think it’s important to take Yerma to these places to reach our audiences. Through my work and experience of my own community, I come across women whose stories are never heard, in many cases there is a general conception that some issues have been dealt with, but actually, no — the position of some women is still that they fear the pressure of bearing children, if they don’t, they are often cast away. In my Yerma, I have approached a way of reaching out to these women – for that reason the outreach work of going out to community groups is as important to me as to perform on a professional stage.

Yerma is at Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells on 1 & 2 November 2013 and touring to Guildford, Luton and Crawley
Online booking

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