A private glimpse of Seneka Abeyratne’s WIP | Sunday Observer

A private glimpse of Seneka Abeyratne’s WIP

8 January, 2023

Gratiaen Prize winning playwright Seneka Abeyratne who is also a practitioner in the art of ballet and choreography, unfolded an informal, ‘’work in progress’’ dance theatre performance at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery on the evening of December 21.

The delightful evening was an event attended only by invitation, and saw Abeyratne together with and his young student, 17 year old Anjaleeta Cantlay, present a nonverbal theatrical performance in the form of a choreographed mimed narrative. The basis of the performance was the substance of the poem “Daddy’’ by renowned American writer Sylvia Plath.

The teacher and student duo were attired in outfits in the motif of ballet dancers and presented a small ‘warm up’ to the audience before getting into the performance proper. The audience seating was planned to encircle the performance space. Abeyratne later told me, the seating style is called ‘theatre in the round’, and that as far as he knows, the arrangement was a first for a dance theatre performance in Colombo.

In his welcome note to the audience, Abeyratne gave a description of the textual basis on which this dance theatre work was planned; currently being a Work-in-Progress, and explained the many layered themes Plath presents in the poem ‘’Daddy’’. Cross-cutting themes of fascism, racism, persecution and brutal male dominance are to be found in the text of Plath’s ‘”Daddy’’ as explained by Abeyratne who believes they are still valid today although Plath wrote about them more than half a century ago.

Textual narrative

A recorded a reading of the poem Daddy was played on audio for the audience to grasp the textual narrative that lies beneath the performance to unfold. The recording had an American accent and was in truth not the most clearly discernible to my ears. It is my opinion that had the voice recording of the poem ‘’Daddy’’ been by an articulate Sri Lankan voiceover artist, the effect would have been much better.

Alternatively if the poem was read to the audience by a trained reader, that too would have added a better aspect of ‘presentation’ of the textual basis upon which the performance was built. But of course considering this was a Work–In–Progress, all aspects of that performance should be viewed in the light of a WIP.

The performance was a wordless narrative of figurative and symbolic movements that were visually enhanced with lighting and music to create the shift of moods as Abeyratne and Cantlay choreographically portrayed the father and daughter respectively, to give expression to the thrust of Plath’s ‘’Daddy’’ as a dance theatre rendition. Nazism and Vampirism were symbolically donned with simple yet clearly communicated effects that came in the form of wearable symbols as insignia and masks.

While the dance aspect of the performance was delivered with appreciable agility by the teacher and student duo, better pronounced facial expression would have enhanced the theatricality from a point of characterisation. Both Abeyratne and Cantlay delivered performing personas that were not too deeply concerned about projecting the inner being of the character through their countenances.

Choreographed bodies

However, I wonder if perhaps the not so expressive faces were part of the style that was adopted and directorially crafted by Abeyratne, to place emphasis on the narrative driven by the motion of the choreographed bodies rather than draw the audience’s attention to facially expressive characters whose character would thereby be read more by their faces than the bodily mimed narrative.

The choreographed narrative showed the different stages through which the father and daughter progress in their relationship. The final blow, the stabbing of the oppressive authority figure by the oppressed fledgling seeking strength to break the shackles cast upon her, marked the finale that gives stark expression to Plath’s filially irreverent final words in ‘’Daddy’’.

What kind of troubled relationship did Plath have with her father, I wondered, putting aside the symbolic political thrust conveyed through the poem. The diametric opposite of Eastern filial piety is what one finds in Plath’s ‘’Daddy’’ at a surface level. It is an unapologetic, and I dare say a boldly celebrated ‘filial irreverence’ that Plath projects to the reader, and in this case the audience, through the words of the poetess and Abeyratne’s rendition of a dance theatre experiment.

Seeing as how what was brought to life on December 21 was a Work–In–Progress it will be interesting to see how this work of performance may be developed into a finalised production in the future.

The evening was well attended by a host of well wishers and persons in the arts and letters and mass media as well as the diplomatic community, all of whom who were hosted to a reception following the performance.