Ātete - To Resist

Te Whare o Rukutia, 20 Princes St, Dunedin

15/10/2022 - 15/10/2022

BATS Theatre, The Propeller Stage, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

13/09/2023 - 16/09/2023

TAHI Festival 2023

Production Details

Concept, production and Choreography - Swaroopa Prameela Unni
Music - Jyolsna Panicker, Sandeep Pillai
Lighting and Sound and Tech design - Stephen Kilroy


Witness the power of resistance in this mesmerising dance-theatre performance.

As a woman, do I have the right to make decisions on my body? Who decided that a woman’s body can be used as a site where power is contested and negotiated?

Ātete is a solo dance theatre choreographed by Swaroopa Prameela Unni exploring a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. This is choreographed in Mohiniyattam, a South Indian Dance form, known for its portrayal of ideal womanhood and Swaroopa will juxtapose how this very concept shaped the pattern of violence on women’s bodies. Ātete will use spoken words, movements and digital media to narrate the stories of women who resisted against the system.

Additional Music composed by Jyolsna Panicker and Sandeep Pillai from India. 
Content warning: mentions of gender violence

“She moves like a valley river does, placid and serene on the surface, but with strength and unswerving, powerful currents underneath.”

Swaroopa Prameela

Dance , Dance-theatre ,

60 mins

Swaroopa Unni’s bravery is inspiring

Review by Vaishalee Bhana 28th Sep 2023

The sound of Swaroopa Unni’s voice penetrates the darkness of The Propellor Stage at Bats. She wears ghungroo, Indian ankle bells that glitter around her voice as she steps onto the stage. Dressed in traditional wear, jewellery adorning her ears, wrists, head and neck. Unwavering in her movement, Unni draws us in. A spotlight casts a shadow of her body on the back wall, in my mind, portraying the dominant shadow of what looms ahead as shebegins her descent into Ātete.

Ātete – Resistance – ചെറുത്തുനില്പ് is an exploration of the exposed woman in changing climates, as she attempts to meet societies unrelentless expectations and the submission she must adhere to at the hand of her husband. Expressed through Mohiniyattam, The Dance of the EnchantressUnni’s fluid movement and gentle yet precise gestures clearly convey a story that must be told. 

Laughter ensues from the audience as Unni speaks out against the standards, women of the world, (particularly those of South Asian descent) face today. “Your dress is too short”, “Walk like a girl”, “smile”. Noticing the proportion of South Asian women within the audience, this laughter was perhaps replete with relief. 

Curiosity grows as three bowls laid downstage are drawn to my attention, they are filled with red, green and white paint.  A ritual emerges throughout her performance with Unni submerging her hands into the paint, covering her face, hands, and arms, perhaps tainting the “perfect” exterior that others expect of her. She then turns to the mirror upstage and washes away the colour as we watch her reflection in the mirror. As if the paint were never there; as if the pain were never there. This experience resonates with my own childhood, where washing my face was the only solution to tear-stained cheeks.

There is a powerful finale, where Unni enters as the bride at a big Indian wedding wearing gold, a smile plastered across her face portraying a grim sense of false hope. I watch and anticipate the shattering of its beauty as the doors close and violence ensues. Stripping off her jewellery, face painted white, offering her gold to her husband. The shimmery façade replaced by the shame, stigma, and deafening silence of female submission, contrasted by the low grumble of male melody filling the theatre. Her fear is revealed through her eyes as she begs for peace, only to be destroyed at the hand of the husband. As the palpable silence of the audience squeezes us, so too does our sorrow and empathy for other women in Unni’s situation in our society.

A waita sounds through the theatre, images depicting gender violence, rape culture, and equality projected on the upstage wall. 

As a young South Asian woman, reflecting upon the shame felt when speaking up about violence and assault, I feel moved, but distraught. Unni conveys these important issues with delicacy, as the dance form of Mohiniyattam allows, yet with an explicit nature that the culture doesn’t often permit. 

Swaroopa Unni’s bravery is inspiring. 


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Beauty and Formality Belies the Challenge

Review by Hannah Molloy 17th Oct 2022

Ātete – To Resist, is a new iteration of Swaroopa Premeela Unni’s work of a few years ago and grievously is just as relevant and poignant as it was when I reviewed it then.

Ātete explores a woman’s right to bodily autonomy through the medium of South Indian dance form Mohiniyattam, which is “known for its portrayal of ideal womanhood”. Swaroopa uses the beauty and formality of the dance language to subvert this portrayal and it’s unsettling and challenging, but still very beautiful to watch. Swaroopa dances with a serenity that belies the message her work tells – it lulls the audience into watching and absorbing that message. There are moments where she shocks us – “she asked for it. SLUT”, the slides at the end of protests around the world – and there are collective intakes of breath and that simple hush that falls over an audience sometimes when a point is really driven home.

In 2022 with the repeal of Roe vs Wade, women protesting in Iran, rising transphobia and the myriad other forms of gendered oppression and violence sweeping the planet, as the political climate seems to shift further and further to the deeply conservative right, Ātete swells with indignation and pleading – what do we actually have to do to create equity and a sense of safety and peace for all humans? When will the patriarchy and the colonial structures we live inside start to crack – how do we jam crowbars into those cracks until they shatter into dust? Who is hiding the crowbars from us?

Maybe not too many people think of dance as a crowbar, but why not? Let’s make our own crowbars in forms that the patriarchy and colonial institutions won’t recognise until it’s too late. Swaroopa’s retelling and ongoing development of this work is an extremely effective crowbar – gentle and palatable on the surface for those who don’t believe there’s a problem, but with a core of steel that will resist both pressure and apathy and give heart to those who know there’s a problem and it affects all of us.


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