Review: Mercenary (Battersea Arts Centre)

The darker side to the World Cup is explored in Ahil Ratnamohan’s dance-theatre production

Ahil Ratnamohan in Mercenary
Ahil Ratnamohan in Mercenary
© Koen Broos

Footballers and migrant workers are both hired guns. Those constructing the stadia for the Qatar 2022 World Cup are paid a pittance for their skills and their sweat. Those that will take to the pitches are most certainly not. In Mercenary, Ahil Ratnamohan draws attention to the iniquitous chasm between the two. He lets their labour blur.

Ratnamohan turns the physicality of football into contemporary dance. At LIFT 2014, he let a five-a-side squad of aspiring African players, all economic migrants, display the athleticism and grace they had honed in training. His style twists stepovers into samba steps, groin stretches into Kathak bhramaris, tyre hops into tap. It's not called the beautiful game for nothing.

When those moves are performed by Qatar's construction workers in this year's Mercenary, sweltering onstage in work overalls and high-vis, their heads wrapped in scarves to guard against sand and sun, they become starkly political. Football's global: anyone can play. Yet as Ratnamohan's five Asian performers build up a sweat, sneakers squeaking on a black dance floor, Mercenary asks whose labour is worth what, who gets to go pro and who gets to watch. In their bodies, you glimpse echoes of Ronaldo and Messi – men who make millions on millions on millions. The fact that they're good, all quick-footed and fit, begs as many questions about opportunity as it does virtuosity.

The cast of  Mercenary
The cast of Mercenary
© Koen Broos

But Mercenary's most concerned with identity, and by changing the picture, Ratnamohan constantly challenges our perspective. These five bodies seem one thing in protective kit, another in designer streetwear. Their training exercises morph into torture holds and, in formation, they seem braced for assault as much as attack. Giulia Loli's live DJ-ing shuffles up the score, muddling military fanfares up with bangra beats. Everything's slippery. No-one's quite what they seem.

Crucially, Ratnamohan's choreography is all dummies and trickshots: shoulder drops, stepovers, abrupt about-turns – skills intended to send an opponent the wrong way. Mercenary does the same thing with us. It confronts us with our assumptions and prejudices, and toys with our gaze. Early on, one Chinese man talks about paying to train and work overseas, never earning enough to pay off his debts. He wasn't exploited in the World Cup workforce, he just never went pro.

All these fake shots can be frustrating though, and they fragment a piece rather than driving it home. Ratnamohan's choreography builds on exertion over execution – the performers are untrained but well-drilled – but its necessary repetitiveness means we take our eyes off the ball, and while Mercenary puts in a good challenge, it never entirely tackles its subject in full.