To flashing lights and a techno beat, an ocean throws up two bedraggled sisters whose ornate costumes betray traces of a better life - the opening of a new ballet at London's Royal Opera House.

The dance show follows the fate of two sisters - Aisha and Abhaya, whose names mean hope and fearlessness - as they flee a fictional troubled homeland, evading danger to navigate camps and city streets.

Director Kibwe Tavares hopes his ballet, inspired by the 2015-16 migrant crisis that saw more than a million people reach Europe fleeing war in the Middle East and Asia, will challenge audiences.

"The ambition was to try and get people thinking," Tavares told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the world premiere on Thursday evening in London's Covent Garden district.

"In a world that feels like the status quo is now to be separated, this is about coming together."

Drawing on the "Little Match Girl" a fairytale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in which an impoverished girl dies selling matches, Tavares said he wanted to achieve more than entertainment through his modern multimedia tale.

The refugee sisters watch as their mother is violently killed, meet other refugees - both sinister and supportive - sleep rough and hold onto their ideas of home.

The world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record according to the United Nations, with about 71 million people globally forced from their homes due to conflict and persecution.

About 4,600 people have arrived in Europe by land and sea since the start of 2020, according to the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR).

Young men still make up the majority, but women on the move face specific dangers from exploitation and gender-based violence to psychosocial trauma and health complications, particularly when pregnant.

"Art and advocacy combined is a powerful tool that can help elevate the voices of marginalized populations," said Sarah Costa, executive director of the Women's Refugee Commission, which advocates for the rights of displaced women.

"Whether through film, music, dance, opera or other mediums, art provides a platform upon which the rich stories of refugee women and girls can be told to new audiences around the world – and that can be transformative."

Disputes over immigration have divided the European Union, with governments split over who should take responsibility for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

The issue threatened to bring down German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, when hundreds of thousands came each month.

The dance show will travel to Berlin in March and then globally in 2021, said director Tavares.

"Ultimately, the real work is for people to go and think about things beyond their own stories," he said.

"Everyone's got a story of how they arrived, in a way... everyone has a struggle."