Arts / Uber driver’s searing story told through dance

Dancers Rima Istambouli and Noah Gorrell as young Rohallah. Photo by Martin Ollman

A CHANCE encounter during a suburban Uber drive has become the inspiration for a Refugee Week production coming up soon at the Courtyard Studio.

In “Rohallah”, edgy theatre director Chenoeh Miller has been working with Tuggeranong Arts Centre’s director of urban dance, Caroline “Leena” Wall and her youthful Fresh Funk artists to recreate a real-life story in dance.

Miller, a well-known festival director and exponent of Butoh theatre technique, tells “CityNews” how she was summoned to Tuggeranong Arts Centre by CEO Rauny Worm last year for what she calls a “completely terrifying brief” to work with the local refugee community and young dancers on an original theatre work that would eventually play at the Canberra Theatre Centre.

“I’m always up for a challenge,” Miller says, “but I had no idea what to do. Then I met Uber driver Rohallah who, on hearing of my problem, said: ‘If there is anything I can do’.”

There was.

Rohallah, whose name means “the spirit of God”, then told her the searing story of his journey as a Hazara through childhood in bomb-ravaged Afghanistan and its positive ending here in Australia.

What a great story to put on stage, Miller thought, then consulted choreographer Wall about the possibilities.

“There’s no specific reference to Afghanistan in the production,” Miller says.

“I wanted to create a production that was quite universal, about people fleeing from threatening situations, even victims of domestic violence.”

Miller and Wall knew that Rohallah’s story was totally different from that of the Fresh Funk dancers. The central character belongs to a persecuted group, spent his early life on the run, seeing his father and brother “disappear” without a trace and at one stage hiding in the mountains with a huge group of family where, despite the dangers, he and his siblings enjoy playing childhood games.

Choreographer Caroline “Leena” Wall and director Chenoeh Miller.  Photo by Martin Ollman

Wall was immediately able to transform that into an innocent dance sequence, with talented 13-year-old Noah Gorrell playing the central role with the sophistication she could hardly believe.

“There’s a beautiful scene where the young Rohallah is being persecuted,” Wall tells “CityNews”.

“Noah shines in this, bringing beauty and an expression to it that is quite breathtaking to watch.”

Tragic subject matter abounds, but Miller and Wall saw through that to a positive outcome, a message of acceptance in Australia and Wall believes the positive conclusion lent itself to dance, particularly the hip-hop form.

“It’s fun and feel-good,” Miller says.

“These Fresh Funk dancers are amazing, they were ready and willing to learn Butoh, so different from hip-hop.”

As well, she’s brought in Katie Woodward and Alison McGregor from her theatre company Little Dove and Nick Delatovic to play the older Rohallah and Chris Endry to play piano.

And what of the real-life Rohallah? He was blessed to meet a couple from Perth who decided to adopt him, brought him to Australia and saw him through school.

“Although, on the whole, he is positive and has worked in refugee camps helping others, he still suffers from nightmares,” Miller says. “Initially he wanted to remain anonymous, but when I told him we might like to call it by his name, he was fine with it.”

He’ll be standing alongside Arts Minister Gordon Ramsay, on the opening night of this production, presenting a great message for Refugee Week.

“Rohallah”, Courtyard Studio, June 22-24, bookings to or 6275 2700.

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