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Mercenary review at Battersea Arts Centre, London – ‘football-based dance’

The cast of Mercenary at Battersea Arts Centre, London. Photo: Koen Broos
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The human cost of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar isn’t so much FIFA’s dirty little secret as an ongoing Amnesty-certified human rights violation. Thousands of migrant workers, housed in sordid accommodation with their passports confiscated, endure substandard labour conditions and extreme heat while constructing vast air-conditioned stadiums for the world’s wealthiest to enjoy.

This is the subject of footballer-turned-dance artist Ahilan Ratnamohan’s Mercenary. It’s an apt title as both adjective and noun, laced with the irony that today’s travelling soldiers of fortune – exploited immigrant labourers – can’t expect much in the way of personal gain. Death, however, remains a real possibility.

A cast of five, including Ratnamohan, use the physicality of football to depict the gruelling reality behind a Qatar 2022 theatre of dreams – the dextrous fancy footwork and pounding rapid-fire steps of a training drill are here given mechanistic uniformity.

A man and a woman, clad in breathing masks, hi-vis jackets and headscarves, manage a fleeting embrace. Snatches of dialogue allude to loneliness, wage discrepancies and rushed toilet breaks. Workwear cast aside, the group seem to find grooving respite in Giulia Loli’s Middle Eastern-infused electronica but before long they’re made inhuman once again, their perspiring bodies manipulated into strange and painful positions.

Kneeling and bent forwards, a man drips sweat into the face of another, lying supine. It’s a shame that these very striking sections are a little undermined by the work’s wandering structure. Greater detail and sharper focus could enhance this piece’s political and personal impact.

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Effective but occasionally obscure football-based dance piece about Qatar 2022’s migrant workforce