Breaking Through Unnatural Borders
Theatre spoken word artist, YaliniDream, explores truth, spirituality, activism, gender, sexuality, love and Sri Lanka. Her stage presence is at once a resounding cry for action and a soulful prayer for all things lost. Rarely without politicized intentions, her work, nevertheless finds room for reverie. She sat with art critic Natasha Bissonauth to discuss her views on inter-disciplinary art and collaboration as they relate to her political dreams for a different Sri Lanka.
Theater spoken word artist, YaliniDream, has built a career spitting and dancing to the beats and rhymes of truth, spirituality, activism, gender, sexuality, love and Sri Lanka. Her stage presence is at once a resounding cry for action and a soulful prayer for all things lost. Rarely without politicized intentions, her work, nevertheless finds room for reverie. Upon completing a queer women of color aerial dance theater production titled, "Quiet Come Dawn," she sat down with art critic Natasha Bissonauth to discuss her views on inter-disciplinary art and collaboration as they relate to her political dreams for a different Sri Lanka.
Natasha Bissonauth: So much of your work is rooted in storytelling. What constitutes a good narrative to you?
YaliniDream: Truths. People often visualize their experiences and others' within a singular narrative. I want to unearth truths otherwise overlooked and place them beside each other. I definitely appreciate oral history. Storytelling passes on history lessons for community. It also holds community accountable. I address dream and reality similarly; we can have personal responsibility and trust the universe.
NB: And how have you engaged with your surrounding art community? Can you elaborate on your interest in collaboration?
YD: I am currently working on two major collaborative projects: "Wounds Unkissed" and "Quiet Come Dawn." WU has been evolving for over ten years. It is based in spoken word with dance, song and theater. WU asks, "What happens when you have wound after wound yet to be addressed?" As I look at the larger political context of Sri Lanka—the civil war, colonization, the rise of different nationalisms, the conflicts, where we are right now—what does it mean to have wounds unkissed? I am interested in the personal of the political. Where does love emerge and how do we heal amidst war, disaster, violent immigration processes, gender-based violence, silence, and other destructive forces?
Since 2002, I have traveled WU's intimate journey with Varuni Tiruchelvam who has set its musical foundation through cello. Our collaboration has been seamless in large part because of our shared vision of a different Sri Lanka. We came together first as friends and through a desire to harness energy in the diaspora to support a Sri Lanka free of exploitation, bigotry and violence.
For about two years we have worked with other musicians like Ganessa James, Seema Pandya and Ranjit Arapurakal. Ganessa and I share a lot of community and have performed at the same events for over a decade albeit asked for different reasons. I think some saw me as the "hardcore political poet" and Ganessa on a more "feel-good love song tip." It is interesting to me how these are seen as separate. Upon collaborating with musicians like Ganessa (and Ranjit), I began to understand with greater depth how stories of injustice, loss, and oppression intertwined with tales of love and desire.
NB: Your collaborative work with other artists complements your inter-disciplinary practice. How does your engagement with various media resound with your political intentions?
YD: Unnatural borders, that is, constructions of race gender, sexuality, class, caste etc, block one's spirit from another; they also separate human spirit from the earth and our reality from dreams. Through inter-disciplinary work, I interrogate and break through these walls. Between spoken word, poetry, dance theatre or musical band, my work is not easily categorized and I enjoy the confusion that surrounds my media of choice because I insist on embodying them all.
NB: You have performed both in the diaspora and in Sri Lanka. How do your expectations shift between audiences? And, similarly, how do you navigate the reception of your work?
You cannot judge an audience. I used to tailor my pieces around audience expectations but the work has more to teach me about people than I realize. There are, however, grave differences to strategize around between say here and there. For instance, one cannot promote certain ideas in a public space without permission in Sri Lanka due to censorship laws. When my performances put me at risk—legally, emotionally, physically—I am conscious not to be counter-productive in my efforts.
NB: For years, your art and activism have demonstrated your commitment to trans-national dialogue, from your involvement with the Asian/Pacific Islander American collective, Mango Tribe to more recent community-based work, like the Andolan project around South Asian women domestic workers in Queens, NY. Do you ever think about your agency, or lack of, as a member of the diaspora?
YD: It is important to use this privilege of being in the West, not as a shield but as a carving tool. You cannot ignore the diaspora when looking at the Sri Lankan political context today given the countless connections. It impacts its discourse, economics, political forces etc; this "us" "them" dynamic is irresponsible. I am raised in the diaspora but I seek responsibility in supporting and amplifying vulnerable voices on the ground in Sri Lanka. I want to listen to multiple truths. We hear the dominant nationalist narratives but there are thousands of stories outside the Singhala, Tamil or Muslim nationalist and fundamentalist frameworks. Stories are even manipulated to be in opposition to one another. The stories of young Singhalese being massacred have been used to negate those of young Tamil murders. Likewise, Tamil displacement erases the stories of Muslim eviction. That's not to say that power relations or experiences are equal. But there is a need for space where multiple truths can surface and simultaneously exist.
As a younger poet, I thought I didn't know enough about Sri Lankan politics to voice an opinion. I wrote about being a Sri Lankan queer woman in the U.S. But as I interrogated my identity more, I wasn't able to separate the two seemingly disparate worlds. One led to the other.
NB: Your newest collaboration, aerial choreopoem "Quiet Come Dawn," opened in November 2009. How did this project come about?
I started taking rope dance, Corde Lisse with Kiebpoli Calnek, and the binding and muscle tearing coupled with the experience of being suspended in the air by my own power was invigorating. I wanted to build from that place of strength and struggle.
I also visited Sheba Chhacchi's "Winged Pilgrims: A Chronicle from Asia" at Bose Pacia, a solo exhibition in 2008 which meditates on the different iconographies of birds through time and space. The artist beautifully addresses ancestors, spirit, desire, flight, migration while also pointing to a dark ecological mayhem where birds are dying. I wondered what a performance installation would look like among Chhachhi's lightboxes of vertical and horizontal static rotating birds. And on a more fantastical note on evolution, I imagined what it must have been like for the reptile to first take flight, or for a bird to become human. And so when Kiebpoli and I collaborated, we started with an imagined reality where the birds were dying; a queer, empowering, healing, love story despite looming destruction.
In "Quiet Come Dawn," spoken word, theater and dance continue their lovely threesome. Since QCD is a dance theater piece, the script had to make space for dance to equally drive the story. Therefore, I only had so many words to really expose the characters with movement only revealing glimpses of their relationships.
NB: QCD is arguably full of missing pieces. How do these glimpses augment the production?
YD: I don't explain everything in the play for various reasons. For one, I would like the audience to incorporate their experiences as well as exercise their imaginations. In one of the talk-backs, some audience members read the empathic moments as orgasmic sexual healing from one of the main characters', Rook's hard history with sex work. While, as performers, our intentions were different, this interpretation can also exist. The play is also created by what the audience sees.
By offering a speculative reality, I place the onus on you to take what you will from the production. The work serves, not only as a catalyst to think about race, class, gender and sexuality, but for overall self-empowerment and agency.
NB: And lastly, what are your views on a finished work of art. You approach many performances with continuous revision adding dimensions to form and delivery. Your works evolve through time. Is a piece ever complete?
YD: It is possible. Although, I am a theater-head and believe in performing a work over and over again with renewed relevance. Once text is chosen and shaped, I continue to evolve performances. I can work on a single piece for years! This is only QCD's first birth. I would like to gather more resources and breathe the production into its full potential.