RAFT, Gwyn Emberton Dance, Riverfront, Newport

October 20, 2017 by

Yet again dance shows it has the power to communicate with us in a way that theatre so often fails, thanks to the direct appeal to the senses that words often fail to reach. So much contemporary, well-meaning (and award-winning)  spoken drama slides into agit prop and cliché when put into spoken words, while music and movement can transcend such pitfalls.

Gwyn Emberton’s RAFT looks at one example of the contemporary disaster of political and economic failures in so many parts of the world that have galvanised mass movements of population in search of refuge and/or a materially better life. The choreographer has taken the most visible form of this tragedy, people risking their lives to cross seas, as the basis for his dance which it would seem divides into the journey and the arrival.






This is a very dark piece in both the subject matter and the lighting and while the physical gloom of the production encapsulates the theme and atmosphere it also inhibits some of our ability to appreciate (i.e. see) the faces and details of the movement. For the first half of the show I sat at the very front of the Riverfront auditorium and it was near and light enough to  see these facial contours, the open mouths of despair, the desperate gestures and wide eyes of exhaustion and fear. For the second part I sat much further back and while there was more spectacle (many people walking across the stage to either ignore or embrace, blank or clothe the dispossessed landing on their shores) it was harder to see, to appreciate details and I rather wished I had stayed right at the front.

Emberton has assembled a strong group of dancers and while I would not guess at their nationality or ethnicity I did think of the furore poor Music Theatre Wales has found itself in, casting non-Asian singers portraying Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai chefs. I am sure similar casting issues determined the make-up of this troupe and I am unaware of any complaints about having blond, white people presumably representing largely Middle Eastern and African migrants/refugees. (I have subsequently been advised by the choreographer that they are not representing actual migrants/refugees, see comments below). The importance for me is what the artists are saying in the work and so the expression through dance of isolation, mutual support and dependence, misery and exasperation through a gamut of intense solo, immersive ensemble, and intricate duets, shouted out beyond skin colours, as all art should.


The dancers are battered and bruised, tossed and traumastised by the sea as they clamber, grasp, collapse on, in and around Becky Davies’s set, light metals frames and  floating panels that can be anything from containers to broken craft, battered by a fierce musical soundscape ranging from tunes for each of the UK home nations, discordant extracts of speeches and broadcasts and Sion Orgon’s throbbing, unrelenting pounding music. The first all at sea section could perhaps be trimmed to the length of the second section, to concentrate the emotion and intensity of the movement. For this touring production groups of local people have been recruited to come on to the stage in that second half act as our castaways (figuratively and literally) find themselves beached (again figuratively and literally) on new shores. Some walk on by zombie-like, others comfort and tend to the new arrivals, while in the background a cracked wall is beautifully employed by Emberton for his dancers to express through their movement their experiences and emotions on terra firma.

Emberton is capable of creating brilliant dance that is aesthetically gorgeous and deeply intelligent in narrative and emotional communication. While his work can also be difficult to comprehend in this dance there is no such problem as the message and form of conveying the message is clear, effective while also visually engaging. It is a hard task and possibly a little ironic conveying horror and ugliness through the beautiful aesthetic of dance but there is no conundrum here.


3 / 10 / 2017 Canolfan Y Celfyddydau Aberystwyth Arts Centre 7.30pm

5 / 10 / 2017 Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon/Aberhonddu 7.30pm

7 / 10 / 2017 The Stiwt, Rhosllanerchrugog 7.30pm

10 / 10 / 2017 Ffwrnes, Llanelli 7.30pm

19 / 10 / 2017 The Riverfront/Glan yr Afon, Newport/Casnewydd 7.30pm

24 / 10 / 2017 The Hafren, Newtown/Drenewydd 7.30pm

27 / 10 / 2017 Galeri, Caernarfon 7.30pm


Gwyn talks about Raft:



Images:  Warren Orchard

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  1. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your review of the work. Glad to see you have amended the name from Mid Wales Opera to Music Theatre Wales.

    As the choreographer, I must address the point you raise about us and our casting for Raft. The choices I have made about who is in the work, how the work is developed and what is portrayed are all very considered. The topic is hugely challenging and requires analysis, consideration and sensitivity.

    My intention for Raft was to reframe the topic of migration, to offer a different perspective, to the audience whom mostly, I imagine, have grown up and lived in Wales/Britain and not needed to seek asylum. As it is unlikely that most have not been refugees, I wanted to create an empathic shift for the audience so they might challenge how refugees and migrants have been made into ‘other’ and more greatly so by the media and politicians. They have been dehumanised in the eyes of the public when we should and could be doing something more to help from our place of privilege.

    My main ambition for the work is to propose the question to the audience how it might be if it were them or someone they knew who needed to seek refuge, and how this might impact on their views and use of language about the crisis and those that are affected by it. By using a cast with multiple ethnic origins and from various countries I hoped to challenge the notion of birthright and privilege and also this growing fear of other in this time of political change around Brexit. By seeing people who might look like themselves on stage, the audience hopefully will connect to the journey of these performers, placing themselves at the heart of the work. This was also one of the reasons for using the local cast.

    I would just like to point out that there is no reference to any particular Middle Eastern or African conflict or refugees from those parts of the world in the work. Not placing the work in a particular location allows us to be open to the possibility of it affecting anyone, and be anywhere, or at anytime.

    It is not my place to represent someone else’s experience but I can reflect on them as I find they deeply affect me. As an artist working today, I can and must challenge and question what is happening in the world in which we live, and with the refugee crisis being one of the greatest disasters in our lifetime this should be even more so.

    With thanks,


    1. Absolutely, and this was the point the review was also making. Also, in reference to MTW, as I commented at the time, themes of displacement, exploitation, vulnerability, are not restricted to any race or creed and, often in the arts, the individual players are representative of all. As a journalist as well as a critic I also have a responsibility to communicate fairly, accurately and in a balanced way that is so lacking in much of our digital information age. Correcting the name of the opera company was, of course, done immediately.

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