Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Actor-Director Anita La Selva says she is moved to juxtapose beauty and brutality in her work. This duality finds eloquent expression in her multimedia performance work Stones, which features a diverse 6-member cast of female dance artists, including Gemini-Award-winning Sarah Murphy-Dyson, and examines the history and practice of stoning (also known as lapidation).
Stones is a collaborative creation that presents a timely insight into the history of stoning and its prevalence, in all its barbaric implications. Stoning is a prolonged means of killing, still used as a form of capital punishment in many parts of the world and across cultures — predominantly against women. It is a particularly torturous method of execution that is almost always conducted in public in order to serve as a menacing and shameful means of social discipline. Many stonings are performed by members of the victims’ own families in the name of honour to preserve the family’s reputation. As it is impossible to determine the person who throws the killing stone, the throwers are implicitly absolved of any residual guilt. A perverse psychological insurance protects the killers while destroying the victim. Disturbingly, there are reports of stonings as recent as 2015.
The Stones Project is rooted in The Witch of Edmonton, a 1621 tragi-comedy by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford that La Selva directed at York University in 2011. She was dismayed by the continued persistence — nearly 400 years later — of the practices of shaming and scapegoating women that are depicted in the play. During her research, she learned of Du’A Khalil Aswad, a 17 year-old woman stoned to death in the streets of Iraq in 2007, the victim of an honour killing. Aswad’s killing was exposed through the release of phone-video footage online. La Selva and the ensemble took Aswad’s story as a point of inspiration for Stones.
With the advent of the #MeToo Movement, revelations of pervasive violence against women – in countless forms both subtle and brutal – have catalyzed unprecedented female solidarity and impelled activists to demand deeper, lasting social and political reform. In this context, “I was thrilled to be invited in,” says Ms Murphy-Dyson of her participation as a performer in the production. “It is an honour to be the voices for these silenced women.” In fact, the more Ms Murphy-Dyson learns about stoning, the more urgency she feels to shine a light on it. Though stoning is not commonly practised in the west, it recalls the myriad other forms of abuse, bullying and harassment collectively directed at women to suppress and dehumanize them. La Selva describes violence against women as a spectrum, ranging from physical violence at one end to emotional and psychological derision at the other. “Things that I certainly have experienced, and I think most, if not all, women have felt at some point in their lives” are a disturbing reality that “connects us all,” avers Ms Murphy-Dyson.
In addition to Ms Murphy-Dyson, the ensemble features Nickeshia Garrick, Roshanak Jaberi, Lilia Leon, Anoshinie Muhundarajah, Roula Said and Waleed Abdulhamid. Their diversity, plus their range of dance styles, help them to represent and speak for women around the world. Their various dance backgrounds have “melted together and become a shared expression of hope and pain and anger, loss and resilience. It is very, very physical, earthy and grounded movement, testing and stretching my modern dance skills to the MAX,” Ms Murphy-Dyson admits with a smile. “I came in later than most [of the other performers.] Three of the six women have been collaborating and workshopping with Anita for over four years.” Despite the all-female cast, she insists that the piece is “certainly not anti-male by any means,” and notes the 4 males in the creative team (one musician and three designers). That said, the piece “deals with the stories of specific women, and by extension, all women. We do talk briefly about some men who have been stoned to death (for being gay or dressing too western or for adultery), but primarily we are women, telling these women’s stories.”
What attracted Ms Murphy-Dyson to this collaboration? It’s simple: it “fulfills almost every artistic inclination [I have], and beyond.” It has enabled her to expand an already extensive range, while reminding her again “how lucky I am to have had a life where generally I have always felt safe.” That life has seen her become a Gemini-Award winning actor, after being a First Soloist with The Royal Winnipeg Ballet. After retiring from the ballet, she started to find her way out of the “I’m just a dancer” box, and has never looked back. She is clear-eyed about pursuing her passion: “Any art form, any outlet that helps me express or tap into what I’m feeling is something I follow. I listen to my guts now. Trust my impulses, and it has led me into more and more and more experiences that feed me and heal me and set me free.” She continues to perform in and choreograph musical theatre, and has even performed as a stunt double. She has also starred in the premieres of five plays by acclaimed Canadian playwright George F. Walker, as well as her award-winning, semi-autobiographical solo show The Naked Ballerina, which she also wrote and choreographed.
Finally, she has a full slate of current web, movie and theatre work. She currently plays Anna in the CBC web series Off Kilter, a mockumentary about a choreographer trying to make a comeback in the world of professional ballet. “My character Anna is a professional ballet dancer, so I got to get back in the dance studio to dance with some of Canada’s top professional ballet dancers [Brendan Saye, Harrison Wynn and Chelsy Meiss from The National Ballet of Canada]. And I got to work with an old friend and colleague, Alejandro Alvarez, who plays Milton Frank.” She also plays Noreen in The Dark, a feature film that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival this year. “That was a new experience for me,” she beams, “plus one of my fellow cast members was an old friend and castmate from Dirty Dancing!” And this fall she will appear in Fierce, another Walker play in Ottawa. In her spare time, she is “collaborating with a couple of bands on choreography for music videos, and I’m raising a beautiful strong daughter and lovely stepson,” she smiles. “Life is full and good.”
Joining the Stones ensemble has been an immersive and intense form of education: “I have learned to sing Middle Eastern songs in Arabic. I dance, I fight, I mourn, I celebrate, and I get to play many characters.” These characters include “a scientist, a reporter, a woman begging for her life from prison” — all the way to “more abstract roles that might feel like a blood-thirsty dog, cracking earth, smashed rocks, breath, hate, strength, love, and many more.” Ultimately, the difficult subject matter gets an evocative and creative treatment across media: “There is dance, acting, live music, spoken word, major fight choreography, projected visuals, ugliness and beauty,” she explains. “Through these mediums, we are telling the stories of murdered women: their lives, their suffering, their bravery, their pain and their power.”
The brutality of this subject matter is not hard to find – but where is the beauty? “Where we can find beauty in this particular exploration is in the strength of women,” asserts La Selva: “In women coming together in community, we are revealing that in knowledge, there can be hope.” The juxtaposition may be difficult to envision, but Ms Murphy-Dyson asks for faith, and promises an experience unlike any other: “This piece is so hard to encapsulate when people ask about it, so I hope they will come because it is a . . . special, important, and powerful piece that may be challenging in places because of the magnitude and weight of the subject matter — but will also be a fluid, multi-dimensional, entertaining, resonant, night of theatre.”
News You Can Use
What: Stones, conceived and directed by Anita La Selva; Co-produced by Aluna Theatre and The Stones Project
Stones was created by Anita La Selva with Nickeshia Garrick, Roshanak Jaberi, Lilia Leon, Roula Said, Katelyn McCulloch, Tosha Doiron, Krystal Kiran and Michelle Polak
When: May 30-June 10, 2018
Where: Geary Lane Studios, 360 Geary Avenue, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: alunatheatre.ca
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya