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Review: Nayika: A Dancing Girl, Belvoir St Theatre

Rating:

A profound display of partner violence and victimhood, perfectly timed and executed.

Belvoir St Theatre‘s successful presentations of solo work (Every Brilliant Thing, Blue, Lose to Win) and South Asian storytelling (Counting and Cracking, The Jungle and the Sea) coalesce in their new show, Nayika: A Dancing Girl. Performed by Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, it is a powerful insight into the trauma of intimate partner violence – addressing the year’s most important issue with bravery and candor.

Nayika: A Dancing Girl is a one-person whirlwind. In it, Suryaprakash plays multiple characters. These range from Nayika – a Sydney-based professional who trained in Bharatanatyam dance as a teenager in Chennai, India – to the minor roles of Nayika’s overseas mother, ex-best friend, and high school dance teacher. However, the story is less about those roles. Instead its focus is on Nayika, the boy she met in Chennai, the physical, mental and emotional harm she experienced during their relationship, and the ongoing trauma it causes her.

Vaishnavi Suryaprakash in Nayika: A Dancing Girl. Photo credit Brett Boardman.

Nayika: A Dancing Girl bills itself as “mixing storytelling, live music, and Bharatanatyam dance”. It does not so much mix these as it fuses them perfectly together. On the storytelling, Co-Creators Nithya Nagarajan and Liv Satchell have crafted a tale that is raw and heartfelt. Their script bounces from the innocence of puppy love, to the awkwardness of teenage relationships, to the pain of suffering at the hands of your narcissistic, manipulative partner with an alarming sense of authenticity. It does not shy away from the brutal realities of partner violence and the hurt it causes, touching on topics like shame, self-guilt, and hopelessness. Their co-direction is just as masterful, employing clever and nuanced sounds and lights to help tell the story.

Vaishnavi Suryaprakash in Nayika: A Dancing Girl. Photo credit Brett Boardman.

The fruits of their direction are best seen through Suryaprakash and her utterly spellbinding performance. By playing up to the script’s early humour, she quickly develops an intimacy with the audience. She uses this intimacy to narrate the story beautifully, moving on from the early humour to charmingly depict Nayika’s blooming relationship with her partner, and then to contrast this with a raw representation of a deceived, scared, and isolated victim. She does all of this with a strong sense of rhythm, her pacing letting each moment have its appropriate resonance, infused with the perfect emotion and energy. The engagement and sympathy are real; it is simply world-class.

Perhaps the one criticism of the show is that Suryaprakash was not menacing enough as Kali, the Goddess of Death and Destruction. But, therein lay her greatest strength: she conveyed Nayika’s trauma so effectively, that we so wanted to see her lash out in revenge and seek retribution.

Vaishnavi Suryaprakash in Nayika: A Dancing Girl. Photo credit Brett Boardman.

The live music and Bharatanatyam dance complement all of this beautifully. The former, courtesy Marco Cher-Gibard and Bhairavi Raman, allows the sound to range from traditional Tamil music to Kesha’s TikTok. It heightens the mood of the show well, whatever that mood might need to be.

The latter adds a dynamic layer to the show. The theme it explores is shocking: that victims might acquiesce somewhat – for want of a better word – in order to end the terror, pain, and suffocation. It leads to an ominous realisation that there is no solace from all those things that cushioned your life thus far, and gave you purpose and meaning – family, your revered scriptures, the philosophical underpinnings of your cherished art. Each of these pillars will have to change if you must go on. As Suryaprakash says, “Eight Nayika (heroine) archetypes? I don’t fit any. I must be a new kind of Nayika.” This is the very same call that is out now – not just in the India of thirty years ago, but the Australia of today.

Vaishnavi Suryaprakash in Nayika: A Dancing Girl. Photo credit Brett Boardman.

Ultimately, amidst the discussions on women’s safety that this country is having (with shamefully limited results), this show brings the physical and psychological harms of partner violence to light. Nayika: A Dancing Girl is complicated yet simple, spiritual yet physical, engaging yet confronting. To hear and see it all first person, was confronting, and deeply disturbing even days later. But it is a narrative that must be visited, even if to understand the current discourse on this very issue in our national consciousness.

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