Stockholm syndrome — the bizarre psychological phenomenon that occurs when hostages identify and empathise with their captors — has inspired an ambitious new dance theatre work at the Judith Wright Centre.

White Porcelain Doll, the first full-length work from Lizzie and Zaimon Vilmanis’ Prying Eye Productions, is billed as a fairy tale based on real life horror stories of women held captive by men for years.

“I can’t imagine what I would do [in a long-term hostage situation] and how I would survive,” Lizzie says. “I would probably kill myself. You’ve got to have that will to survive that’s almost like an instinct. I was inspired by that will to survive and that will to live. In these situations there’s this underlying power within a human to be able to push through, and find a thread of hope to hold on to, which is the one thing that keeps people going.”

“What we started looking at was a female’s resilience against masculine violence,” Zaiman adds. “We probed psychologists to find out how a victim in a situation like this could survive and walk out and have a happy life. What is it in them that kicks in and enables them to survive? A lot of people say, ‘If that was me I would just curl up and die’, but that’s the thing. Some people don’t give up, and they keep going, so we spent a year or so researching the kind of person you’d need to be and how you could negotiate survival in such a small and rigid environment.”

Lizzie — who plays the hostage — is a former Expressions Dance Company (EDC) performer and an in-demand choreographer. Zaimon — the captor — has also worked with EDC, as well as Leigh Warren and Dancers and the UK’s Random Dance Company and Attik Dance Company.

As if there wasn’t enough psychological depth to the power play between White Porcelain Doll‘s captor and hostage already, Lizzie and Zaimon aren’t just talented dancers and choreographers — they’re also a couple.

“I think whoever I was doing this with,” Lizzie says, “I would just need to trust them so much to be able to do this show. Because Zaiman is my husband, there’s an opportunity to debrief afterwards with each other, to pull ourselves out and be ourselves again, which is a luxury you wouldn’t have if you were working with someone who wasn’t your partner.

“People that know us really well go, ‘Wow, it’s strange to see you both on stage playing such different characters to who you are in real life’. Psychologists would probably have a field day with us!”

Though White Porcelain Doll is a confronting production, Zaiman hopes people will ultimately take a positive message out of it.

“Yes, it is a confronting situation, and yes, it is confronting subject matter to look at,” he admits, “but the real crux of this work is looking at the female in this situation and asking that question — what is it that keeps them going? What is that strength that’s within themselves, whether it be hanging onto the memory of someone in their family, or clutching onto the child they left behind, and the hope they’ll be able to see them again one day?

“These girls never went into these situations prepared, like a soldier would. They didn’t have the training to endure a hostage situation. I have this huge amount of admiration for these women who survived physically and lived to tell the story. I think they’re stronger from the inside out. I think it’s an important story to look at and share.

“I’d like the audience to feel enlightened, and feel like they’ve seen, experienced, and understood these relationships that have been forced upon people unwillingly. I hope it gives people some understanding of the relationships between these people.”

White Porcelain Doll shows at The Judith Wright Centre from Saturday 26 July to Saturday 2 August. For more information, visit our event guide.