The Chennai-based Prakriti Arts Foundation over the past three years has through the institution of an award – the Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Award – decided to inject the contemporary dance scene in India with money, mentoring and opportunity according to Ranvir Shah, the founder of this art organisation. At the third edition of this award, sixteen choreographers presented original choreographic work over three days at Rukmini Arangham, the performance space in the hallowed grounds of Kalakshetra, Chennai.
Bangalore choreographer-dancer Archana Kumar started off the first day with A Slice of Qi where she, along with her husband musician Pervez and daughter Shiroyi Musafir, improvised through everyday actions of exercising, playing with her child, and involving her child in the work of creating movement. At the level of choreography, there wasn’t much to grasp but there was clear intention to this work – the effort it takes to make dance while living in a nuclear, artist family. Kumar’s work questioned the interruptions that life makes in the creative process, and in that exploration her work was thought provoking, while there were moments of ‘pure’ improvisation with her daughter occasionally disrupting the intended graph of the performance. These improvised interventions, at times, excited and at others, didn’t resonate.
Anjali Nair’s Seeing is Believing, the second work of the evening, began with the dancers using the length of a knotted sari as a skipping rope, playing and having fun before they went into frantic, jerky movements. This was interspersed with them on the floor uncurling with deliberate movements, all this working towards creating images of various kinds of women you would see in the city. The soundscape to the creation of these images were snatches from Nehru’s famous speech, women talking after the 2012 Delhi gang rape and traffic. While the work had strong moments like one of the dancers undoing her hair and dancing in the tradition of possessed or mourning women, there wasn’t much to hold onto simply because the piece came across as unpolished and lacking.
While the argument might be the aim of this platform to encourage works-in-progress, we need to interrogate the motivation of the choreographer behind presenting a work-in-progress, it must already display potential to become more, or even possess clarity of concept that can be bettered by the process of support and mentoring. In this regard, Sujay Saple’s Moonfool was one step ahead. The movement of the dancers in Saple’s work had surety even while darting, dashing and bolting across stage. There was also intense tenderness like in a couple taking various shapes on a mattress and performing private acts like touching, caressing and grabbing each other in an attempt to prompt the other to remember, to recall, previous times of intimacy. The inadequacy of the response from the other made this a heartbreaking scene. Saple’s theatrical background infused his work with the need to make each action cause a direct reaction that added to the completeness of the work despite it being an excerpt from a larger work.
The next work, Anuradha Venkataraman’s An “I” On Me was a solo with the dancer covered in white paint intended to look like a statue, and in this unadorned state, she experimented with basic bharatanatyam and the extension of these movements that allowed her to shuffle and occupy various locations of the stage in interesting directions. At the level of stage presence, Venkataraman occupied stage with intent and sharpness but the narrative text excerpted from theoretical writings on gender and identity that formed the major part of the sound weighed the work down with singular meaning forcing it to be read as too literal an unpacking of her concept.
Though the overriding playful approach and infusion of pop culture was refreshing from the constant showcasing of “serious” explorations that contemporary dance tasks itself with
While Venkataraman’s work was heavy-handed, Rukmini Vijayakumar’s For Sale was humourous, light and yet investigative of the unrealistic, impossible, commercial demands on the female body. It started off with the two dancers assuming postures that people use to take a selfie – hand outstretched, head tilted and plastered Cheshire cat grins – that eventually were pushed to look grotesque, and gave the effect of dolls breaking. There were movements of undulation that mimicked clothes being stitched except in this case, they were being tailored directly onto the body, there were actions of applying lipstick that were exaggerated keeping in mind that fuller lips are more kissable and every private action that a woman uses in the process of “putting on a perfect face” were mined for movement vocabulary and worked on to show the violent potential of these actions. The sound aspects of Vijayakumar’s work were bytes from beauty and cosmetic advertisements that substantiated the actions of the dancers as well as instructions that forced the dancers to even hop around stage with their foot in their mouth. While the movement of the dancers were thought-provoking, there seemed a potential that wasn’t fully pushed. Though the overriding playful approach and infusion of pop culture was refreshing from the constant showcasing of “serious” explorations that contemporary dance tasks itself with.
Chitra Arvind’s aham & OTHERS was a lot of pirouetting, extended limb movements and used masks as props to ask questions of remaining “simple in the midst of complexity,” according to the programme notes. Arvind’s movement vocabulary was an excavating of her training in bharatanatyam, kathak and contemporary dance techniques, and while there was prowess in the movement, there were problems with some of the choices, especially with the props. Small masks were used as a mode explore the rasas, or emotions, and other times, they stood in for the “others” and perhaps because of their size didn’t succeed in amplifying, which seemed to be their intended purpose.
While in Prasanna Saikia’s Mind Diabolique, the strength and intensity in his action helped even small movements like the flicking of the tips of his fingers resounded. There was a clarity in the progression of the work to demonstrate the “psychological journey of self identity” except those times, the content seemed collegiate and too simplistic. Though, it was Saika’s precise, intentional control over his movements that made the work most receivable.
The common strain in the works of the first day that disappointed was a seeming shortcoming in working towards piquing the attention of the audience. There seemed to be nothing that was demanded from the audience but it was glad to be dealt with at the surface. They seemed focussed on unpacking the themes of their works rather than using the ideas as starting points for their bodies to unravel, peel back and unveil; attempting to show us rather than allowing “the body to sing” as dancer-writer Sanjoy Roy said, at a recent writing workshop.
Nongmeikapam’s choreography is pitch perfect and engrossing because it took a desire and simply electrified his own and his dancers’ bodies to leave us affected
And the evening’s showcase concluded with Manipur-based Surjit Nongmeikapam’s Nerves, a piece that seemed worked at and contemplative. Though, it could’ve easily have tilted towards the literal, it clearly stayed in territory of the figurative. The bodies on stage shuddered, shivered, bounced, tossed, were broken, battered by a long stick and dragged across stage with force, with commitment. The actions were unfinished and raw, but instead of taking away from the work, it tempered it. It magnified the division – the division of his people from the idea of nation, the division of access to learning – be it even contemporary dance techniques, given that most of his dancers have trained themselves in street dance styles off YouTube videos – and more such barriers that they must scale to just begin making. Nongmeikapam’s choreography is pitch perfect and engrossing because it took a desire and simply electrified his own and his dancers’ bodies to leave us affected. His choreographic work responded to the criticism of making political work, that most times it is mired in activist notions, but by simply accounting, by bringing up the bodies, in this case, onto the performance stage, he posits that it can tell its stories.
Virieno Christina Zakiesato from Nagaland started the second evening’s presentations with her quiet, disciplined, strong work, Desert Wind. It showed such restraint and accuracy in movement – it was done mostly in silence except for the moments of rustling, babbling sound like a strong wind sweeping away sand granules. Her back turned to the audience, she crept across the stage sometimes slowly, sometimes she’d speed up ever so gently but always deliberately. It was in striking contrast to the frantic, cathartic experience of Nongmeikapam’s work in its undulating form but equally bolstered with intent and presence.
At this point, one must digress to draw attention to the ordering of the performances because Ammith Kumar’s Thithi might have been too loud a piece to follow the quietness of the previous. Though on its own too, it failed to push beyond a nascent understanding of making dance. The bodies were berserk, overwrought and crazy. In this case, it didn't work. While it showcased a few skilled dancers, it did not translate any movement to emotion. Instead, the overpowering music seemed to bear the entire burden of hammering in the emotional arc.
While Kumar’s piece understood dance making as a series of epileptic flashes, the next piece, Binal Shah’s Genesis felt safe but in a different way. In this work, there was an attempt to recreate the movement and development of a being from point A to point B. The costume, a white gown, cued us to the amorphous, formless nature of the being in transit rather than anchoring each movement. Here too, the pulsing music provided the ebbs and flows of the entity’s journey rather than movement work.
In Hemabharathy Palani’s C-Dance, an interesting vocabulary emerged in her blending cabaret and her already unique movement lexicon that draws from her extensive training in Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and contemporary dance techniques. The male dancers on stage executed the movements with such exaggerated grace that really worked for the piece. The power of cabaret lies in its precise ability to be subversive and thus make political commentary. In Palani’s piece, the echoing voice-over of, “she was standing all alone on the road, screaming, crying for help none of you, none of you came to help” tilted that fine balance that cabaret makes possible.
Nimit Gandhi’s Is this my place? decided to go the route of checking the list of contemporary dance-making. Elements from classical training – for example, the pointed foot. Check. A floor-based movement element – for example, a spinal roll. Check. Random Indian public place as soundtrack – in this case, a cafeteria. Check. Speech – a story of boy on his way to college got splashed by a speeding car. Check. You’ll be left baffled and wondering why. Check.
Diya Naidu ’s Red Dress Wali Ladki was striking in movement because it seemed like a frenetic, violent excavation of the everywoman from within herself. It was looking at an individual as an archive for all of the actions and manifestations of their gender – both aggressor and victim. At this stage, the work seemed to want to encapsulate every narrative from woman as child to woman as prophet and its ambition took over. But Naidu’s piece had fodder that showed opportunity for editing, for rethinking and reframing, to be stitched together as a cohesive work that is more impactful.
Avantika Bahl’s Home had a lot of assured movement. A body in a green spaghetti top and shorts cuts across the stage in a poised, measured manner making shapes. There was even a little trick in the piece, when Bahl slowly drew out a black string from her mouth and used the string as tension between executing and holding certain poses. The interesting bit of this moment in the choreography was that it seemed to make tangible that elusive, invisible line that runs through the body.
Her performance allowed us to see something intimate and private, but it was like we had come upon it only because she’d left the door ajar
The last performance of the two-day platform was Mehneer Sudan ’s 8/Women in Love, which used the idea of ashtanayikas, or the eight types of women in love from the Natyashastra and hoped to stitch their various moods. Sudan’s work used a video projection of her walking through various places in a city to add to this emotional atmosphere of the nayikas, or heroines, always either in search or waiting for their lovers, and every state being in relation to their lover. Mehneer’s movements were gentle yet anguished, slow yet hurried, aggressive yet pained, all the contradictions, impatience and reconciliations of a woman waiting. Her performance allowed us to see something intimate and private, but it was like we had come upon it only because she’d left the door ajar.
While a few of the works over the two days, refreshed, energised and gave us a lot to process and question, a majority of them seemed to struggle with translating an idea to a movement, a movement into an emotion. It seemed like the idea superseded its duty as a catalyst and instead elements seemed forced or sacrificed to highlight the concept. Like in Anuradha Venkataraman’s An “I” On Me, Hemabharathy Palani’s C-Dance, Nimit Gandhi’s Is this my place? and Diya Naidu ’s Red Dress Wali Ladki – the text, as voice over or the dancer speaking, didn’t add to easy access but seemed to overwhelm rather than layering the content, which shone a glaring light on the shortcomings within the choreographer’s thought behind the piece. Also, in the cases of the dancers speaking, perhaps, more supplementary theatrical and voice training is required for it to steer clear of sounding like elocution or even private banter.
There were elements even in the impressive works of the platform, which took away from the overall affect of the pieces. In Nongmeikapam’s Nerves, the initial projected newsreel of atrocities in Manipur undercut the ingenuity of the choreographic work and attempted to add heft, which it could’ve easily done without. In Saikia’s Mind Diabolique, the projections didn’t add anything to the work but rather overshadowed the showcasing of the dexterity and intent of his movements.
If freedom in contemporary dance-making means escaping the bounds of a rooted, strict vocabulary, then it must mean freedom from being restricted by one’s initial ideas, it must mean researching and editing, it must mean a disregard for the literal and an attempt at channelling the emotional through the corporeal, it must show tension and strain in the muscles, it must show work. While self-expression might be a well-intentioned starting point, it must be conceptually and bodily worked at, it must be contextualised in an effort to cue an audience but it should never spoon-fed. Rather than as a mode of self-expression, dance-making might need to be thought of as a labour of love.
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