“This is our city, nothing can happen to us here.”
It’s a line casually spoken halfway through Sujay Saple’s new work, Agent Provocateur, slipped in between animal grunts and trumpeting conches. A simple sentence that induces goosebumps because it stirs up so many recent instances when we haven’t felt safe – news of rapes, lynchings, murders and escalating hate are never far enough for comfort.
Director and choreographer Saple has drawn on Absurdist works and existentialist themes in his dance theatre productions before, but in Agent Provocateur, his first political piece, the questions of identity really land home. A female character played by Surbhi Dhyani and a male character played by Arpit Singh shimmy, writhe, pirouette, thrust and talk their way through a series of episodes. Also onstage is drummer Harsh Karangale, his compositions seamlessly propelling the players while conjuring up a sense of unease.
Singh’s first monologue sets the tone as he finds himself questioning the source of his movements – is it Kalari? Kushti? YouTube? Chau? – while devising a dance piece. He talks about the chair that his society gifted to his grandfather, which is now a symbolic seat of power that he takes with him everywhere. Nothing comes easy for Singh, who is left-handed, trained to use his right hand, rehearsing for an English play when the language sits hard on his tongue.
Dhyani is the emotional half, her facial expressions and fluid movements swiftly evoke fear, surrender and power. Her graceful ballet steps are a stark contrast to the painful memories that Singh prods her to recall, each tied to a chain of places from Srinagar to Muzaffarnagar.
Together, Singh and Dhyani explore the spectrum of gender fluidity, and in one humorous sequence, try to lose themselves in a dance of desire despite a censorious beeping.
More threads emerge – the play that Singh and Dhyani are rehearsing is Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinocerous, which explores our capacity for brutality and juxtaposes the tendency to conform with the need for moral courage. Saple’s voice-over takes off from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s narrative from the television show Cosmos, talking about how dogs evolved from wolves to become man’s best friend.
As the performers confront and yield to socially acceptable ideas of gender and political conformity, they propel us to consider all that is oppressed and suppressed by the dominant narrative. While Agent Provocateur has resounding relevance to our fraught times, it is also a comment on the human condition. What memories are too difficult to keep alive in the collective consciousness? How did we frame our own identities, and learn the right way to worship and dance and choose our partners? What are we being silent about?
Agent Provocateur is devised by the actors and the musician, and soars on their terrific performances. The production is both subtle and powerful, grounded by several theatre talents, with Ajay Nair as the assistant director and production manager, and dramaturgy by Rachel D’Souza and Vikram Phukan. Saple is behind the light design too. The production is a little over an hour but visceral, reaching a crescendo during Singh’s convulsive finale that will leave the audience unquiet.