Not Only Does 'Nayika (A Dancing Girl)' Explore Dance As Resistance, But It Navigates A 'Vulnerable & Difficult Conversation To Have In The Diaspora'

Created by Nithya Nagarajan and Liv Satchell, and starring Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, the production uses live music and Bharatanatyam to tell a passionate story about survival.

Vaishnavi Suryaprakash in Nayika (A Dancing Girl)

Vaishnavi Suryaprakash in Nayika (A Dancing Girl). Image Source: Supplied

Content warning: Domestic violence.

Nayika (A Dancing Girl) is no overnight project. Conceptualised during COVID-19 lockdowns, the stage performance has undergone several re-writes over the past four years. Plus, it’s taken months to get the whole team together under the one roof. Great things take time, and this is the philosophy that the production’s co-creators and directors Nithya Nagarajan and Liv Satchell have adopted as they look forward to Nayika’s opening at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre this week. 

Given the show’s sensitive subject matter, timing has always been important. Nayika (A Dancing Girl) is a breathtaking solo performance by Helpmann Award-winning Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, where live music and classical Bharatanatyam dance are used to help tell a passionate story about survival. 

“The protagonist of our story is going through this experience of intimate partner violence that is escalating,” Nagarajan tells Draw Your Box. “At the same time, she has another relationship with her body – one that is deeply pleasurable and that she eventually draws tools of resistance from, through her training and performance of this dance form [Bharatanatyam].”

Nagarajan’s idea for this production first came about in 2020, when she sent Satchell a copy of Indian writer Meena Kandasamy’s book, When I Hit You, which delves into domestic violence. After much thought, Nagarajan decided to steer away from adapting Kandasamy’s story to the stage, and instead create a production based on a “fictionalised account of lived experience of intimate partner violence”. 

Domestic violence remains a global issue, and the stigma deterring people from speaking about it in some communities only exacerbates it further. Moving to Australia in 2012, Nagarajan has witnessed the South Asian diaspora’s discomfort in openly talking about the prevalence of domestic violence, and what needs to be done to address it. She believes part of this taboo stems from a longing to fit into a new culture without added challenges of feeling on the outer or risking your reputation. 

“It's definitely really hard to talk about intimate partner violence, even in India, where I'm from,” says Nagarajan. “But there's something about the condition of the diaspora where people feel marginalised in a certain context. So you want to put only the best foot forward of your community in the public eye.

“You're already feeling so sidelined, that it becomes difficult to have conversations about your own community or an inward gaze, because you somehow feel like you're doing your community a disservice when they are already vilified and marginalised in the mainstream.” 

Nithya Nagarajan, Liv Satchell and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash

Nithya Nagarajan, Liv Satchell and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash. Image Source: Supplied

The fact that it’s such a taboo topic is what makes Nagarajan even more determined to explore it through her work, but she and Satchell had to navigate this sensitively so as not to alienate the audience, but rather educate and empower. 

“That is something that I think I considered a lot with the making of this show,” reflects Nagarajan. “How do you have the capacity to love your community and still hold space for difficult conversations about them and with them? How do you do those things together graciously? Because it is in the interest of all of us, and it is in the interest of the safety of women in our communities.” 

"It's a vulnerable and difficult conversation to have in the diaspora, but I also think as a community, we are now mature enough to be able to hopefully have tougher conversations, and art is such a great tool to help them through."

Satchell – who has previously written and directed The Grief Trilogy which explores women connecting through their experiences of grief and loss – equally emphasised how important it was to not only tell the story respectfully, but in a way that captivates audiences differently.

“We needed to find a new form to invite people to really listen to a story that we're all very used to and so maybe are taking for granted as a result,” she explains. 

While theatre often features the exchange of dialogue between multiple cast members, Nayika (The Dancing Girl) only relies on one voice to carry the show. 

“There are certain kinds of factors that you have to consider when you're making a solo work. You only have one body on the stage,” says Satchell. “How do you make the storytelling dynamic – which is often achieved through dialogue –  if there’s only one person on stage?” 

That’s where music, classical dance, and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash’s exceptional ability to carry a show come into play. Nagarajan had envisioned the star of the production to be someone who could perform Bharatanatyam, speak English and Tamil, and hold “cultural nuance around approaching the character”. After watching Suryaprakash in Counting & Cracking, Nagarajan knew she was onto a winner. 

“Not only is she a wonderful performer, but she has a really great kind of incisive story brain and she has been with us across every single development,” says Nagarajan. 

This production not only delves into the profound ways trauma can shape you, but explores hope, taking back control, and dance as resistance. Satchell hopes audiences can embrace the uplifting aspects of a performance that touches on the light and the dark. 

“It’s a great injustice to reduce the identities of these women to being victim survivors. Actually, there’s so much more going on. There is so much more delight, rage, joy, power, grief and play. They’re as full-blooded and alive as any of us. We risk losing that in the way that we are telling these stories currently.

“So the show is really trying to return to this cultural conversation in that yes, it is difficult, but also there is so much to be gained from facing it head on.” 

Nayika (A Dancing Girl) is playing at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre from April 30 to May 19, 2024. Ticket details are available here

For confidential support, please contact the National Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Counselling Service on 1800 Respect (1800 737 732).