Amina Khayyam’s Yerma is a kathak adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s 1934 play of the same name, the story of a woman whose desire for a child is so desperate and whose position so untenable – her husband is stony, and society unforgiving – that she commits murder. It is a play that pits burning desire against cast-iron convention, and erupts in violence and tragedy.
Khayyam pares the story down for a cast of four: herself, in white facepaint, as Yerma, and three others (Iris Chan, Lucy Teed and Seetal Gahir) who double up in the roles of the husband, friends and other women. In keeping with the spare set, muted costumes and stark lighting, all these roles are performed less as human characters than as archetypes – woman, man, society – with Yerma’s yearning as the axis around which they turn.
That axis is often spatialised literally: Khayyam at centre stage while the chorus of three march and lunge around its perimeter, feet planted and arms held stiff, as if marking the limits of her freedom. The choreography switches between this sparse symbolic mode of zones and archetypes, and interludes of more classical kathak, both abstract (rhythmic interplay, spins and patterns) and mimetic (Khayyam imploring her husband, or ornamenting herself before going out). The music too mingles styles, Debashish Mukherjee’s traditional tabla skills complemented by Lucy Rahman’s sonorous vocals and offset by the dark stabs and swells of a cello trio (James Barralet, Sebastian Comberti, Ryan Madhok).
The choreography looks contained by its own propriety.
All this makes for an unusual texture, in both movement and music. But it is not a dramatic one. The opening cello section, for example, has a wonderful timbre, but its eight-count measures, repeated without variation or development, create a leaden effect. That might serve to suggest social rigidities if the dancing were more combative, took more issue with the music. As it is, the choreography looks contained by its own propriety, the dancers comfortable within classical convention but tentative outside it. One scene is tellingly different: here, Khayyam lets down her hair, smears her facepaint and builds up some fury, violently swinging the empty cradle of her arms, her body racked with spasms as if she is – finally – giving birth to her passion.
It is the dark and gripping heart of a story that shows up the two flaws that appear elsewhere. First, the production illustrates Yerma’s story more than it tells it: Lorca’s text remains a rather hidden subtext, not quite translated into performance, so it can be hard to follow what is happening, and why. Second, the choreography is too well-behaved for its subject matter. When Yerma beautifies herself with ornaments and earrings before going to her husband, we feel the decorousness of her action rather than the desperation; and the murder scene is in disappointingly good taste. Ironically, given its subject, this Yerma is itself rather restrained by convention, which Khayyam would do well to break, or take command of, or both. What the production lacks is not skill or technique or beauty, of which it has plenty. It is blood, and guts.