A beginning, an end and an organised detour

Nithin Manayath, a participant at the Writing on Dance Lab, attempts to understand the role of spectatorship in contemporary through the reading of his own experiences.

Sitting at Ranga Shankara waiting for 4: Still Life to begin. We hear Vivek Madan’s voice announce the performance. I’m reminded of Ruhanie saying she knows exactly how to place that voice in the context of Sri Lanka. Ruhanie Perera is a co-participant at the writing workshop. She’s on her way back to Colombo now. The lights don’t go off, yet. We’re all very well lit. A man has decided to move to a seat closer to the stage. The squarish white stage with six rectangular panels upstage looks expectant. I look up at the stage lights and they’re on. Just then they go off and fade back. The sudden shift from having looked at the bright stage lights makes me see black spots floating on the white panels. Bauhausian circles? That has to be design. I’m delighted.

A still from <em>4 : Still Life</em>

The delight perhaps comes from recognising oneself in the formal element of the design. A feeling that this performance configured in some distant place knew something of the place where I was located. But if I learnt later that the light not going off immediately was a glitch, does that change anything? It can’t change what I experienced then but I am now made aware of the nature of my misrecognition. Like when you have waved back at someone only to realise that they were waving to the person behind you. Or consider the inverse, when you can’t recognise yourself as the addressee of someone’s intended communication.

Now the delight of recognition is often communicated by an emotional state. With 4: Still Life, I am largely placed in a state of paying attention to and figuring patterns. Like sensing circularity in the sound of the marbles in the soundtrack. The dominant pleasure was the pleasure you find in cracking patterns in a number game. But there was also the intermittent pleasures of being amused, being charmed, sensing the strength of the two dancers, etc,. Or of sensing a larger pattern in how I was emotionally connecting with the dancers on stage every now and then before this connection was broken to get me back to the state of being simply confronted with some simple pattern like a circle or a triangle, until a contemplation of both would happen simultaneously.

Is this experience of mine any different from watching a bharatanatyam performance? Perhaps not, because even there I am being drawn into this simultaneous recognition of patterns and emotional states, with the effort on the part of both performer and spectator being to hold on to the dominant emotional thread. A regular solo odissi performer’s repertoire could make us contemplate the emotional states that has allowed the dancer to acquire knowledge of the form, make us notice patterns and their relation to emotion, and finally nudge us into a state of rapture in relation to the specific emotions under consideration. But in the world of contemporary dance as showcased by the Biennial, we are largely called upon to occupy a place of knowledge recognition. It’s as if the contemporary dance performer is interested in helping us recognise ourselves primarily as inhabiting a state of knowledge making and ideas. That such a world is mostly navigated by writing proposals in which ideas are discussed is only symptomatic.

This poses a particular challenge to the South Asian contemporary practitioner and spectator, who have come from training in a tradition that is clearly very different in design. The performer – even as her training has been in an intuitive embodiment of far more complex design – has to reduce her repertoire to gestures of sentence making, She is caught between the rock of feudal classicism and the hard places of emerging and equally unequal global economies of contemporary dance. The more unfortunate contemporary dancer, who has trained or danced with a particular institute or contemporary dance repertory, embodies these practices in much the same way that she has learnt the classical form. Because these spaces seem caught up in figuring repetitive movement vocabularies with their students and are driven less from a space of teaching contemporary dance as a method of critical originality. Much like the works of Diya Naidu and Hemabhrathy Palani whose bodies are unable to detach themselves from the movement training of Attakkalari (noticeable particularly in extensions and turns); or Revanta Sarabhai’s ensemble piece which could very well have been his mother Mallika Sarabhai’s; or even Abhilash Ningappa in Constanza Macras/Dorky Park & Oscar Bianchi’s The Past doing what we’ve seen him do in almost every performance of his.

The passionate emotional communications of a Pradeep Gunaratna, Surjit Nongmeikapam or Venuri Perera are able to retain the complexities of embodying emotional states while also offering original movement. Perera’s work performed in the Platform 15: Emerging South Asis showcase, wanted to “implicate the audience” in the politics of her performance. One of the device she uses to achieve this (in the form of her visual jump cuts) interestingly also offers us an experience of surprise, even a pleasurable delight. But even as we are “implicated” with her manic “are you happy?” at the end, I was left wondering how many people felt ashamed and how many responded with a banal ‘I-can-feel-your-pain’ sympathy.

But the question remains; can’t a classical rendition of a traditional narrative, of powerlessness in the face of brutal authority, not make us, at least those of us who share both the aesthetic vocabulary and the social context of the art form, feel these emotions more strongly: in so far as we don’t spend our energies in deciphering new narrative codes. Doesn’t the traditional dance form perform this function faster in it’s reliance on shared aesthetic practices such that we can get at the emotional states more strongly? Yes the traditional form can get caught in the tyranny of formal elements but how different is that from the mechanical location of contemporary art viewing from where we are expected to recognise “original” movement. What the Bauhaus manifesto calls the “apelike excitability called talent.”

A still from <em>4 : Still Life</em>

Back to 4:Still Life. The moment of endless repetition has thrown me out. Just for a little while. I’ve been thinking of random things. I wonder is this is also design. A recognisable pattern of incomplete identification. In Bauhaus, it was a way to accord higher value to pattern and order. I watch the final dance of the rolling stage panels and stand up to clap during the curtain call. The thing about curtain calls is that it will always ensure that we return safely to status quo. 

Nithin Manayath
Darshan Manakkal


Ligament, the online dance journal, has been launched to reflect the keen rise in the interest to contextualise, reflect and voice the goings-on around contemporary dance practices in the South Asian region. It has been envisioned as an avenue that is aimed at prompting and encouraging a sustained engagement between contemporary dance practitioners, thinkers, writers, artistic practitioners from other mediums, stakeholders and the wider public. Over the past editions of the Attakkalari Dance Biennial, there has been a continuous effort to create a space for writing on dance; and with this squarely in mind, Ligament has been conceived as a platform to facilitate the much-needed articulation and thinking through this evolving language. We hope to accomplish this by looking at this artistic practice through the perspective of historical threads that helped shape, through practice and creation of work, which is adding and solidifying the ever-changing lexicon and its presentation, or even through research and scholarship. The endeavour is to make this an open, creative and vibrant forum that invites ideas, contributions and suggestions allowing for the collective development of this artistic practice in the South Asian context; as well as mapping its links and impacts on contemporary dance as a whole. On one hand, it is about looking at contemporary dance as a growing repository of our present realities and on the other hand delving into our rich heritage of physical and performative traditions in an attempt to seek continuum and elucidate the now. In an attempt to ravel the medium of contemporary dance, We aren’t simply interested in text as a mode of expressing, reading, examining and looking at contemporary dance but to reflect the dynamic and interactive nature of the movement arts, we are also looking towards image, sound and video and the practitioners of these mediums to create and catalyse conversations. We hope that dialogue and discourse enabled through Ligament opens various entry points into the ongoing shifts in contemporary dance for its lovers, practitioners, enablers and its future.

- Jayachandran Palazhy
Artistic Director, Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts

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