Away With Home captures the “optimistic nihilism” of Vancouver youths

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      The five young people select­ed to star in the hip-hop-inspired revue Away With Home have got it pretty good. After all, they’ve just spent the summer working with professionals such as choreographer Amber Funk Barton, singer Dawn Pemberton, and taiko musicians Bonnie Soon and Jason Overy. Now, they’ll get to bask in the spotlight at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, working as an ensemble but each also getting to write and deliver a monologue in which they’ll detail some of their most pressing concerns.

      And when they do, it’ll become clear that maybe they don’t have it so good, after all.

      “The focus of the show is really looking at some of the more complex issues in the youths’ lives,” says Miscellaneous Productions cofounder Elaine Carol, reached at home in East Vancouver. “Issues of belonging and issues related to mental health really feature in all of their pieces—along with stability, instability, connection, disconnection, and alienation.”

      And then, she continues, there’s the even more pressing issue of existential dread, fuelled by climate change but also by an increasingly authoritarian culture. “There’s a kind of cynicism that’s been bred into these youth, because they feel they have no clear future or no real opportunities for a future. They’re terrified,” says Carol, who’ll direct the show. “And at the same time, they have an attitude about things that they call optimistic nihilism. So they know the world is coming to an end, but let’s dance anyway.”

      If this bleak prospect seems at odds with the sunny public face presented by the oldest member of Away With Home’s cast, that might be testament to how earlier Miscellaneous shows have empowered their young stars. Arjun Panesar, a 22-year-old Surrey resident, first hooked up with the company in 2015, for a performance of Haunted House. Now he’s back—as a performer, but also as something of a mentor to the rest of the cast, some of whom are as young as 14.

      Away With Home, Panesar says, is a piece he’s been longing for, especially as his monologue will allow him to address a topic close to his heart: the stigmatizing of mental illness within the South Asian community. “There’s almost a distance between our parents and ourselves, and I find that that’s partly due to the lack of communication in both personal matters and more direct matters, like mental health and love and such,” he explains in a separate telephone interview. “And the culture reinforces that in some ways. Men are supposed to be strong like a rock, like a diamond almost.”

      Arjun Panesar uses his role in Away With Home to address issues of mental health.
      Amanda Skuse Photography

      Theatre, the actor and bhangra dancer adds, allows him a welcome chance to express his own vulnerability, while helping him to overcome his anxiety.

      “Being on-stage, being able to open up—not only just as myself, but as a character who I can relate to—there’s some sort of therapeutic feeling coming from it,” Panesar says. “As well, performing on-stage makes me ecstatic. Being on-stage is just something I live for, you know. How can I put this? I wouldn’t rather be anywhere than to be on-stage, with the lights in my face.”

      Miscellaneous Productions presents Away With Home at the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Friday and Saturday (September 27 and 28).