Weaving a Tapestry of Welcomes

22 Oct 2021

Somerset House recently welcomed Little Amal, a 3.5m tall puppet of a 9-year-old Syrian refugee girl, to the Edmond J Safra Fountain Court. Part of The Walk, presented by Good Chance Theatre, this production seeks to bring the story of unaccompanied refugee children to our doorsteps.

To mark the moment, Somerset House’s Future Producers Cherece Lucina and Valeria Salina Toro spoke to team members of this collaborative project to gain insight into all the lives it’s influenced.

Words by Cherece Lucina and Valeria Salina Toro

Based on Good Chance Theatre’s world-renowned play ‘The Jungle’, international festival The Walk seeks to bring the story of unaccompanied refugee children to town centres and share Little Amal’s urgent message “don’t forget about us." Curated by Good Chance’s artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi, the festival sees Little Amal make a journey of a lifetime; spanning the Syria/Turkey border across Europe to the UK, before reuniting with her mother in Manchester.

On Saturday 23 October Somerset House welcomed Little Amal to London, using communication that went beyond language. The courtyard hosted a live Brazilian band and intergenerational dance troupe of 50 people from the ages of 9 to 90. Choreographed by Ruby Portus, a story is woven that reflects aspects of Amal’s experience we can all relate to. This eclectic event was a stunning celebration of life and love as Little Amal became closer to reuniting with her mother.

Dance has been used throughout history and across seas to express the variety of human emotions and celebration of life, death, and the experiences between. We focused on the experience of the dance troupe performing at Somerset House to see what inspired this performance. We began our exploration of The Walk’s performers and curators with dancers from the alumni group at the National Youth Dance Company at Sadler’s Wells. Professional dancers Nicole and Heather from the alumni cast shared what dancing meant to them as people and performers. Nicola believes “It's an expression and form of language to communicate and socialise without voice.”

We spoke about the intentions they had for the take-home message from the piece and what they wanted to invoke. Nicole spoke of “a sense of belonging, like we all belong together... Here there’s unity, community, and family”, while Heather agreed, adding, “I think with Amal, welcoming her is like saying everybody is welcome into this

Additionally, Chris and Isadora, elders at Sadler's Wells Theatre Company shared insight into their experience rehearsing for this project. Chris stated “this opportunity makes us see where we may be able to extend. Extend our own choreography and extend our own physical movements.” Ruby’s intention of choreographing dance routines for all cast members to do together gave Isadora the freedom to dance like “no one is watching” as “we are judged too much on what we look like... There’s so much to live for when we can work together to make a beautiful world.” 

We spoke to Ruby who shared their process choreographing the dances. She said: 

“We were looking at the different themes throughout the walk... what images, thoughts, feelings came up for our intergenerational cast. We talked about what family means for people and reflected on our 9-year-old ideas of the world: who our networks were, how big the world seemed, homesickness and new homes. As well as celebrating children and their ability to deal with traumatic things.” 

Ruby wanted to reiterate these feelings in the dance but from a joyous perspective: “We don’t want everything to be doom and gloom and reminding Amal of her reality, there is space for that, but there is also space for giving her something really positive. And that’s what our group could offer, escapism for her”. Our hearts were warmed by the focus on joy and celebration, as this feeling is a privilege often overlooked for its worth. Those escaping a crisis rarely get this feeling, so creating joyful moments is a beautiful experience to honour and share. 

It is easy to become consumed by the horrors of the world and the experience of displacement caused by political conflicts. However accessible projects such as these, that exist outside the confined spaces of institutions and galleries, which interact with everyday lives, remind us that the world is a lot smaller, and our neighbours are not limited to the ones right beside us.  

When we asked Ruby what she hoped people would gain from this experience, she said “I find as an artist working on projects that engage with these topics, it deepens your understanding, care, feeling of responsibility and urgency with the issues. I hope this project will help people find all those things and more.”

This response reminded us of our Future Producers manifesto point: We believe in making intentional interventions into the world through activism and art-making.

We are in awe of The Walk’s approach to this sensitive topic, choosing a focus of joy and celebration for all the helping hands and welcoming arms along Little Amal’s journey. The ability to inspire and educate across generations with this festival is a truly incredible achievement. We are so excited to welcome Amal to our home and learn about ourselves and our welcoming spirit in the process.

We also had the great opportunity to interview the co-founding artistic director Joe Robertson, who has been with Little Amal from the very beginning. As the festival was curated during the Covid-19 pandemic, Joe stated “there was a real need for connection and happenings. This could be the perfect project that would allow people to emerge and come together again”. A new focus arose, an "urge to empathise’’ seeing that unity and solidarity around the globe became tethered, as identity and empathy were compromised concepts. Joe continued “this [festival] allows us into a window of what refugees have to go through every day" and as a result  “Amal and their journey and story are humanised [...] She is shifting the narrative of what a refugee is to an opportunity that arrives when you welcome people.” Welcoming brings out the best in us.

This project spans international communities and has created a beautiful journal of in-person interactions and social media records that immortalise the communal joy and interaction across generations and cultures. What The Walk and Little Amal have demonstrated is that people can come together through individual expression, connecting art and humanity, creating a diverse display of joy, craft, family extension, and intergenerational union.