Director and performer Ahil Ratnamohan shares his experiences of working in Europe on Michael Essien I want to play as you… This ambitious performance project was initiated in Antwerp in 2011 and supported through the IETM-Australia Council Project. Sophie Travers, Project Director, spoke to Ahil about the range of outcomes from this ambitious project and how he hopes to forge a way of working between Australia and Belgium.
Sophie Travers: Can you describe the genesis of this project?
Ahil Ratnamohan: Michael Essien I want to play as you… was borne out of my interest in creating socio-political work as well as observing football as a movement form in performance. It was in 2010 that I first stumbled upon the fairly hidden phenomenon of human trafficking and exploitation of young African footballers seeking to make it big in Europe. At the time I was touring my first solo, The Football Diaries, to South Africa, so I decided I’d start researching this issue. We had barely any funding but a lot of support from Michelle Kotevski, then at Urban Theatre Projects. She introduced me to David Pledger, then Director of the IETM-Australia Council for the Arts Collaboration Project, who supported a creative development.
Having spent some time researching in Europe and Africa with Daisy, my partner, we returned to Antwerp in Belgium and I had a bit of luck in discovering a cultural centre only 400 metres from where I had been training with a group of African footballers. Although maybe not the ideal environment for a contemporary performance, the centre was very supportive and I soon had eight footballers to work with part-time for six weeks. Following a well received final showing, we achieved support from the City of Antwerp, European Sport Capital in 2013.
ST: What are some of the highlights of the process?
AH: The performance we created together was as good as what I had dared to dream. Although my focus was the artwork, I hoped that this being strong would bring a social change for the players. The feedback from artistic peers was really humbling and the genuine interest from presenters along the line has allowed me to keep dreaming, even if it doesn’t always materialise.
The performance played nine times and was attended by around 700 people. Our press coverage gathered a lot of momentum with a total of nine newspaper articles, three television segments, five online journal articles and one radio interview in Belgium, France, England and Australia.
ST: And the challenges?
AH: The Belgian scene is incredibly hard to get one’s head around as a new artist finding a place for one’s work. I feel like I am starting to get there after three years of exposure, but even then I am finding that certain things still feel odd. There are very defined cliques here and you need to be aware of where you stand.
Sometimes it feels like people weren’t that interested in coming to see my work even though we’d had quite engaged dialogues. But now I realise that this might be more of a case of second-chance-complacency? In Sydney I will go and see a work from someone interesting knowing that even if it’s good there might not be another chance. Whereas here it seems that shows tour rather easily and can be seen again nearby. Another factor is probably the amount that’s going on here. I can’t believe how many companies and spaces there are in Antwerp alone.
ST: What is the future of the piece?
AH: At the moment it’s still unclear. I’ve been speaking with presenters, but they need to see the work before programming it. The artistic director of the Monty, a great venue here in Antwerp, loved the show and his recommendation carries some weight with peers.
Another positive side is that several NGOs have shown interest. I am talking with FARE Network about re-mounting the show in Paris in connection with a conference regarding discrimination in football they are hosting and they’ve also talked about contributing to touring costs.
ST: Can you talk about some of the related projects that have spun off from this project?
AH: One of the biggest successes that have come out of this opportunity is the range of additional projects that are emerging. I am now in the planning phase for a new piece in which I will work with three of the footballers at the Monty.
A connection made through Sophie Travers has led to an invitation for me to undertake a residency with Ankur Productions in Glasgow in April that could lead to the creation of a new work for the 2014 Commonwealth Games cultural program.
Later this year I’ll be presenting The Phorena at the Mestizo Arts Festival in Antwerp. I’m also trying to keep up the performance training with the footballers, in the hope of creating a repertoire of small pieces for ad hoc performance invitations.
ST: Any observations about working between Australia and Europe?
AH: I’m trying to work out a method; maybe in a few years I will be able to write a handbook. It’s hard because we operate with different systems. For example, I was invited to work on a show in Germany where two months of rehearsals were followed by a festival season. In Australia the process is much more broken up and fragile. My aim is to set up a system where whatever I am working on is being presented on both continents, be that through touring or re-creatable models. With a sustained effort over a few years I hope it will become easier.
For years many of us in Australia have lamented the lack of diversity in our theatres and audiences, but this project has enabled me to recognise that we’re actually doing rather well. In Antwerp I was shocked by our inability to draw an African audience to a show that was so rooted in their community. Although the Belgian government has launched a few initiatives addressing diversity, I feel like it has some way to go and I would like to be part of that progress.
IETM-funded Essien Creative Development 10 October – 18 November, 2011
Ankur Productions Residency, 7 – 28 April, 2013