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PuSh Festival artist in residence Rakesh Sukesh creates an entire show rooted in micro-aggressions

Rakesh Sukesh PuSh Fest
Rakesh Sukesh addresses the roots of xenophobia in his show, entitled because I love the diversity. Photo by Irene Occhiato with artwork by Irene Narys.

January 17 update: The PuSh International Performing Arts announced that Rakesh Sukesh’s show, because I love the diversity (this micro attitude, we all have it), has been cancelled “due to unreasonable delays in the approval of artist visa applications”.

As I prepared to write this article about choreographer Rakesh Sukesh, it was tempting to immediately launch into a rather bizarre story of racism. It left a lasting imprint on Sukesh’s psyche. And I knew that this would provide the type of anecdotal opening that newspaper editors love.

Who wouldn’t want to read about a progressive and well-educated brown man innocently going about his business when something weird happens? Especially when it unexpectedly thrusts him in the centre of a right-wing propaganda campaign.

But Sukesh is so much more than a victim of one racially charged incident. In addition to being a choreographer, he’s a versatile dancer, teacher, and storyteller.

He’s also a cosmopolitan traveller who divides his time between his home in Belgium and his birthplace in Kerala. Moreover, Sukesh has performed in several European cities and lived in Madras, Delhi, and Bengaluru, as well as his hometown of Kozhikode. Plus, he knows an enormous amount about the spiritual connections to yoga in Hinduism.

He’s truly a citizen of the world, with his feet firmly planed in the East and West. As this year’s PuSh Festival artist in residence, the last thing Sukesh needs is to be reduced to a single component of his multi-faceted identity.

So, I’m going to start with something entirely unrelated to racism. It concerns one of the many fascinating things that Sukesh mentions in a Zoom interview—“Theyyams”.

Shagill Kanur photo of Theyyam
Theyyams are ritualistic dances performed in parts of South India. Photo by Shagil Kannur.

Sukesh speaks of god energy

I like to think I know a few things about India. But this term is entirely new to me, so I ask him to repeat it.

He replies that Theyyams are Hindu ritualistic dance forms personifying spiritual energy. According to him, dancers manifest this “god energy” in transcendental performances in temples in the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka. In the process, they convey messages to those around them.

“They don’t eat for 24 hours and they embody these specific gods that belong to certain castes,” Sukesh says. “It’s not of the high castes. It’s for certain lower-caste community rituals.”

He points out that members of these castes have fought against authorities in the past, sometimes sacrificing their lives. Therefore, these Theyyams are deeply meaningful to the participants.

So, what does this have to do with Sukesh’s upcoming show, because I love the diversity (this micro-attitude, we all have it), which will premiere at Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in late January?

“In the piece, I am using the essence of the Theyyam ritual dance concept and investigating that in contemporary dance,” he reveals.

In sharing this story, this article can open without simply reducing Sukesh into a victim of racism—which is just a tiny sliver of all that he is.

Photo by DJ Sturm
The right-wing populist party has a great deal of support in Estonia. Photo by DJ Sturm.

Trouble occurs in Tallinn

In the Zoom interview, Sukesh notes that the aforementioned incident of racism occurred in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. People in that country had invited him there to teach at the university and perform on-stage. He was excited to do this. He felt very happy about the generous welcome.

“When you’re living in the art world and you’re dealing with artists, you somehow get an illusion that the world is in a very beautiful place because we’re all trying to understand each other,” Sukesh says.

In this milieu, he believes that there’s genuine openness to other cultures.

“But when you go out in the street, you realize that your reality is a very small reality,” he adds.

While Sukesh was in Tallinn, someone surreptitiously filmed him as he was crossing the road.

“He was following me,” Sukesh recalls. “I could feel it in my peripheral vision that the camera was on the face.”

The moment that the choreographer turned toward the man, he flipped the camera away. To Sukesh, it felt sneaky. But then he ignored it, assuming the man might have been shooting a tourism video.

However, after returning to Belgium, a friend called from Estonia with some shocking news.

A right-wing party was using imagery of Sukesh in a campaign raising fear about immigrants taking over certain low-skilled jobs. Moreover, the campaign claimed that some of these immigrants were dark-coloured, dangerous for women and the community, didn’t pay taxes, and didn’t speak English.

“So, they used my face in creating their entire narrative,” Sukesh says.

Rakesh Sukesh
PuSh Festival artist-in-residence Rakesh Sukesh addresses the roots of xenophobia in his show, entitled because i love the diversity. Photo by Irene Occhiato with artwork by Irene Narys.

Pondering others’ perceptions

He acknowledges that what happened to him wasn’t physically violent, but it still had a significant psychological effect. And it led him to question how he’s perceived by people around him—which is a key aspect of his PuSh Festival performance.

Award-winning Vancouver playwright and director Marcus Youssef is the writer and dramaturgic adviser of because I love the diversity (this micro-attitude, we all have it). Alessia Luna Wyes is the choreographic assistant and dramaturgy-aesthetic adviser. Music is by Pol Sinus and Mat Voorter is responsible for the costume.

“The piece is about these micro-aggressions that we feel in the skin in certain places,” Sukesh says.

Initially, he planned to include actual video of Talinn in the show, but Youssef advised him to pare it down, saying the story had to come from him. So Sukesh is combining personal reflections and dance in what he describes as a minimalist production.

“It is going to be a text-based work telling a lot of stories and my experiences connecting with my culture, my identity, and my struggle of being in Europe and, as well, in India,” he says.

Sukesh suggests that the issue of micro-aggressions is incredibly complex. In addition, he says that every one of us, to a certain degree, is biased.

At that point, he cites Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi’s comment about how a small drop can make a big wave.

“What it means is if you want to have a bigger change, we have to focus on the micro things that we all might have,” Sukesh states.

Very passive aggression

Sukesh has encountered incredibly different reactions since settling in Europe about a dozen years ago. He once visited a village in Portugal where people were so excited to have an Indian in their midst. It was overwhelmingly positive.

But on another occasion in an airport in Norway, a hostile airport employee told him that he couldn’t fly with his Belgian identification.

After a supervisor overruled this official, Sukesh proceeded to his flight. But not before the employee turned his face away in a show of hostility.

“These things are subtle,” Sukesh says. “It’s very passive aggression.”

He recognizes that the younger generation wants a more inclusive society. Yet he says that there’s still a lot of manipulated pushback, including from political parties. And that’s sowing confusion and superficiality, both in India and in Europe.

“There are a lot of layers going on,” he says.

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival and the Cultch will present because I love the diversity (this micro-attitude, we all have it) at Performance Works from January 29 to 31. The show is supported by Granville Island, ROPA, Ultima Vez, Tictac Art Centre, and En Archipel. The festival runs from January 19 to February 5. For information and tickets, visit the website. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.