‘The Strangers’ addresses identity, belonging and marginalisation in cross-country theatre

The performance urges the audience to broaden their horizons and think about what we all have in common.

The Strangers isn't so much pure dance as it is perhaps a non-verbal play based on the movement of dance (All photos: DPAC)

Someone once said to me that among all the art forms, contemporary dance is the most highbrow. It is not hard to see why, especially if one thinks of the abstract and conceptual ways a contemporary dance work is often talked about.
But abstract works can also probe, evoke and create access in a way that pedagogical practices cannot. That promises to be the case with The Strangers, a performance that isn’t so much pure dance as it is perhaps a non-verbal play based on the movement of dance.
Said to tackle the “antipathy towards cultural differences”, the performance was created to look at the human condition, cultural prejudices and the question of “me” within the construct of our societies and nations. In highlighting the elements that separate us — religion, flags, borders, languages and more — it inversely strips these very elements down to a level playing field, inviting us to instead examine the commonalities.
Showing for the first time in town this weekend as the closing act of the Damansara International Arts Festival 2019, the performance was born out of a melting pot of cultures. Initiated by the Osaka chapter of German cultural association, Goethe-Institut, The Strangers is directed and choreographed by Argentinian director Leandro Kees and dramaturg Julia Dina HeBe, and features dancers from various Asian countries — Sang-hun Lee of South Korea, Ying Yun Chen of Taiwan, Kanako Ihara of Japan and James Kan, representing Malaysia.
It premiered in Okinawa last year and the group has been travelling to other countries, inculding Taiwan, Thailand and Myanmar, to perform. In an interview with Options, Kees says the process of creating the work has been a rewarding one, even though he had little more than three weeks from the first meeting to stage it.


The show premiered in Okinawa last year and the group has been travelling to other countries

“When the show was proposed, the first idea that came to my mind was how many familiar people in our lives are treated as strangers. We think we know them when we likely don’t.  That is why I knew this work must be an international one, especially in crossing over to Asia and building a bridge here,” says the dancer turned director, who is well known for his cultural works that often raise philosophical and political questions.

Kees goes on to describe how the work is told through “images and scenes”, with movement that resembles miming and physical theatre. The dancers also interact with the audience through written cues and even photographs of themselves. In each of these scenes, the differences addressed run the gamut of nationality, gender, economic status and more. Through humour alternated with desperation and frustration, the audience journeys with the dancers in search of empathy and, ultimately, belonging.

“A priority when I make a play is that it has to be, at some level, entertaining. But I see it more as poetry than a novel in that it may affect you the same way a Shakespearean sonnet or a haiku would. I think the play works a lot in that way, expressing the emotions of belonging, or not belonging, or how it feels to have people create their own ideas about who you are. It becomes easily grasped. Even people who don’t understand dance can enjoy this work because it is said that drama is like life, so we are showing the feelings of daily life in the form of a performance,” he says.


The dancers also interact with the audience through written cues and even photographs of themselves

Kuala Lumpur-born Kan, who is currently based in Taipei, agrees. Calling it a tragi-comic theatre piece, he says the challenge is to present what can be a complex and emotional narrative through dance alone. “But I think it’s not about just watching movements, but watching another human being who may share the same traits or background as you. In that way, dance is very direct because you feel it — it is a kinaesthetic experience, not just an intellectual one.”

The National Academy of Arts Culture and Heritage (ASWARA) alumnus, who went on to train in Taipei National University of Arts and the Korea National University of Arts on scholarships, performs a solo in The Strangers, for which he initially auditioned in Seoul.

Praising Kees’ work, Kan says the incorporation of each dancer’s personality and background allowed him to revisit his roots, his character and even his family through the photographs shown to the audience.

“Then, in my solo, I have the freedom to express myself fully, and demonstrate my own process of transformation. The choreography is very inspiring and opened my mind to this thought, ‘Inside, there is always another me, and it is great to explore more of it’,” he adds, reiterating the tagline of the show, “Accept [it]! Everybody is different”.


The Strangers will be performed on July 13 (8pm) and 14 (3pm) at the Black Box, Damansara Performing Arts Centre, Empire Damansara, Damansara Perdana. Tickets are priced at RM68. Click here to purchase.

This article first appeared on July 8 in The Edge Malaysia.


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