Nirbhaya Jyoti Singh’s gang rape and murder story inspires dance production in Illinois

More than 3 years ago Delhi streets witnessed the most gruesome crime of its time when India’s daughter, Nirbhaya Jyoti Singh, an Indian student was brutally tortured and gang-raped by six men and left on the side of the road to die.

Yet the torture and gang rape of Jyoti Singh hasn’t been forgotten or ignored, the Nirbhaya story has inspired an interpretative dance production, some 7,500 miles away from Delhi, in Edgewater, Illinois, from March 4 through March 19.

The interpretative dance production, to be held at the Ebenezer Lutheran Church, is a 50-minute, five-story theater production by Bindis and Bruises, a production of Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble.

Conceived and co-choreographed by ensemble member Indian American Priya Narayan, and directed and co-choreographed by Ellyzabeth Adler, the performance will tell the story of five women suffering from sexual, dating and domestic abuse in Indian-American culture and the stereotypes and shame that often silence women.

The multiracial, 10-woman cast will focus on the experiences of five Indian-American women, but their stories are cross-cultural, Adler said in a then-empty performance space at the church in late January.

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“Even if you are educated, even if you have money, (even) if you are an immigrant, everyone can end up in these relationships,” Adler said.

Narayan and Adler met while Adler was a teacher’s assistant at Columbia College. Narayan was one of Adler’s students in a creative process and theory class. The goal was to take work and turn it into a stage performance.

“She was very moved by what happened to Jyoti,” Adler said, adding that Narayan’s family is from Bangalore. Adler had taught at a girls home in that area of India, and some of the girls she had worked with had been raped and abandoned by their parents, Adler said. Last year, for Adler’s 40th birthday, she returned to the girls home with Narayan.

“I like to talk about these performances as laboratories of creativity, between inception to performance, and I was very close to the culture,” Adler said. “When (Singh was raped and murdered, Narayan) and I started talking more about how this is very prevalent in this culture. but it’s not talked about there at all.”

Along with co-writer Maren Rosenberg, Narayan and Adler created five micro-scenes that bridge the entire show together. Infused with statistics, the performance finds ways to point out that 1 out of 4 women will experience dating or domestic violence at some point in her life, and 1 out of 3 women will be raped, according to a Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble press release.

Domestic violence and abuse are behaviors used by one person in a relationship to control the other, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, the press release said, 15 percent of gay men experience rape, domestic violence or stalking by a partner.

“The play is centered around Dr. Sita, (a therapist) who has collected these five stories that we are sharing, and she is bringing up how this has happened in many cultures, and I think that has been the interesting thing about this play,” Adler said. “I have had someone … email me, he is a fan, and he had been in a relationship for 10 years. (A 6-foot-2-inch-tall gay man,) he had his own story. This happens in every multiethnic background. We talk about how there is such innocence, how you end up in relationships like this.”

Adler is herself a survivor of dating violence and rape from a college relationship. She founded and is the executive director of the Chicago Danztheater Ensemble, which is now in its 15th season. The company has a social justice mission, but this is the first time that the ensemble has created a show around this topic.

The five stories address generational physical and emotional abuse; incest; abuse and manipulation of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender coming out process; and verbal abuse. The fifth, 10-minute story talks about the impact these stories have on the fictional psychologist, Dr. Sita. An activist, she is also a survivor who has spent her life listening to stories like these.

“One of the scenes with (one of the characters) Tara, her story is mostly centered around verbal abuse,” Adler said. “The monologue is all voice-over. The way it will be staged is that it’s very dark on stage, we will only see shadows of Tara. We won’t see her face. I want the audience to listen to the words that are said to women on a daily basis. (For instance,) you can hear the word “bitch” in a song, but to a woman who goes through verbal abuse, it means a whole hell of a lot more than that.”

“There are some moments, some stories, that you should tell through words, images, dance — whatever it is to get the strongest message across,” Adler added. “Everybody learns differently. When it came to the scene with Tara, and creating shadows, I started thinking about when you are alone in your house and, a lot of times for survivors, sleeping is really hard. You have dreams. Sometimes you just lie awake in your bed at nighttime, and you start thinking, and you might only have a moonlight or a street light shining in your room, and that’s all you see. Shadows are things that people see but don’t talk about. That is something that follows you, just like words are haunting.”

Finding ways to tell these stories has been a two-year process for Narayan, Adler and Rosenberg, and Adler said they have struggled to tell them in ways that are impactful but not over-imposing. She seeks to create an environment that is safe for audience members to come to. Adler said she and others in the theater group would be available for a discussion around the show, as well.

“The reason for sharing all of these stories — it’s supposed to focus on healing, and self-preservation, and moving past the hurt, and not being ashamed that it happened to you,” Adler said. “(It’s supposed to be about) not allowing these circumstances to define the rest of your life. Through building a community, one can move forward.”

Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, $10 for college students and seniors with ID, and free to high school and elementary age students. To purchase tickets, visit, or call 773-486-8261.

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