Much to do with little

Joshua Muyiwa finds that along the way to figuring out the bursts and burdens of creating work in Asia – with a particular focus on the Indian subcontinent – there are a lot of tired, hopeful choreographers and dancers.

Attempting to suggest trajectories in contemporary dance across Asia is a looming, urgent project, that requires a concerted effort and the steely will to steer clear of the dominant discourse (read: Euro American context) and a clear rendering of the limitations and boundaries of contemporary movement practices in this region.

At its simplest: contemporary dance in this region has either been a vehement turning away from the traditional dance practices, it has also been a distillation and tangential referencing to the traditional practices in terms of borrowing movement vocabulary or the re-interpretation of traditional and classical texts. In the recent years, choreography and dance-making are slowly, steadily growing leading to the questioning of self, which in tandem has required a rejigging of the notion of this self.

If dance is self-expression, then it is important to ask, what is that self I want to express?

At a work-in-progress showing organised by Lshva, a Bangalore-based artists’ space in September at the Shoonya - Centre for Art and Somatic practices, contemporary choreographer-dancer, Karthik R, began his presentation by attempting to define the lexicon of movement vocabularies that his choreographic practice is influenced by as well as the motive behind the creation of his yet untitled presentation, that sources content from the motifs in recurring dreams of the participating dancers. He said, “If dance is self-expression, then it is important to ask, what is that self I want to express? Then, in creating work it is important for me to be honest to the various movements and gestures that occupy bodies, not just those formally learnt but also the mundane, informal ones that define a person’s characteristics. I didn’t want to clone myself but to respect the energies, moods and abilities of each of the dancers, that perform this work.”

A still from choreographer-dancer Karthik R's work-in-progress

There is a growing attempt at formalising the informal, or investing the informal with content value, which could be seen in Unfold@70bpm by Delhi-based choreographer-dancer Riya Mandal, where she developed on modes in which the human body communicates through gestures, through postures and facial expressions to create a work that was highly stylised. Mandal’s work was part of a suite of contemporary dance solos, 5olos, an evening of contemporary dance, an outcome of the Delhi-based Gati Summer Dance Residency in 2014.

As choreographers, we need to be able to spend significant time at researching our concept and the drawing board stage, we need mentors to help us distinguish between being influenced and imitating, as well to help us translate our visions

The other works in the offering, also touched upon other possibilities of this form like choreographer-dancer Rachnika Goyal’s Looking within without, which was an internal, private work, and gave the viewer the idea, that performer was attempting to peel back the imposed layers only for herself, that required extremely primal movements of the flexing and relaxing of every muscle in her body to give a sense of defined movement and journeying, while not shifting her position on stage. This seemed to be a clear influence of one of the mentors at the Residency, Chennai-based choreographer-dancer Padmini Chettur, whose work is a disciplined, concentrated sharing of the abilities of the dancing body. Chettur’s work seems to make the argument, that the dancing body doesn’t always have fly through the air or cartwheel to make an impression but that even the tiniest gestures too must be weighed down with the intention and motive.

A detail from Venuri Perera's <em>Tratriot</em>

At the same showcase, Sri Lankan dancer Venuri Perera’s Tratriot dealt with the duality of labelling as well as duality of media representation with regards to the citizens of her home country expressing it through the possibility to read body and action in two ways: like upturned lips and bared teeth doesn’t mean that one is smiling, it might also be a put-on, a cover-up. Perera’s previous works have also dealt with similar content – that experiences from this location have to be read as blurred, where notions like truth, betrayal, non-conformity, obedience don’t hold the same meaning because of their history and who is expecting what from whom.

According to choreographer-dancer Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, who won the Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance, two years ago to produce his full-length production, NH7 - A Dance Trio, there are also bursts of contact work happening in the region, a lot of body-focused and body abstraction work taking place. There is also a marked shift in the kinds of bodies that occupy and perform on stage, which lends itself to breaking shapes and creating new ways of moving. “The interesting thing about the dancer in Asia is that most of them come from contemporary dance institutions and are well-trained, therefore their bodies are pliable to learning new physical vocabularies but there isn’t critical thinking, critical viewing and critical opposition available during the phase of creating work and therefore, the result might be something but isn’t pushing the possibilities,” he said.

A collage from choreographer-dancer Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy's <em>NH7 - A Dance Trio</em>

And the lack of pushing is mainly due to the everydayness of surviving in a modern metropolis, according to Karthik R. “The dancer, especially in the Indian context has to shift between teaching and performing for survival money, and in turn, feeds some amount back into creating their own work. The lack of funding also defines the scope of the work,” he explained. “While currently, there is a booming momentum to create new works, and one doesn’t want to miss out on this collective buzz in the air. The reality as a choreographer-dancer is one of incongruence to the contemporary, a sense of displacement simply because everyone around you might actually be able to access the fruits of the booming times better,” he added. “How does one make work, when one is trying to simply make a living?,” asked Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy. And this isn’t just a question in terms of earning one’s daily bread but also posits the problem, that if one is barely surviving, how can one make good art?

At this point, one might look towards Japan and South Korea and comment that their work seems to be free of these problems, both, in terms of presentation and representation, though, Indonesian dance scholar Helly Minarti in her paper, Rehearsing Desire: Insights and Issues on Contemporary Dance in Asia, writes, “On some surface, things may seem glossier when it comes to a few developed Asian countries – such as Japan or South Korea – which venture out to create impromptu market or ‘hub’ for the region’s performing arts, dance included. For a while they incorporated contemporary arts into their working politico-cultural strategy, but whichever varied their approaches are, they are still very much simplistically driven by the imagined future of regional economy in the global politics.”

But the truth remains, that despite promising bursts in the creating of interesting, intriguing work to truly create notable and challenging works, that inscribes itself within burning political discourse and without the burden of articulating cultural identity needs support, not simply financial but nurturing. “As choreographers, we need to be able to spend significant time at researching our concept and the drawing board stage, we need mentors to help us distinguish between being influenced and imitating, as well to help us translate our visions, for which, we might need lighting, music, stage design and so on. But right now, we are working with whatever we have, while it is exciting and exploding with potential, it is also restrictive, discouraging and extremely tiring,” he added.

Joshua Muyiwa
Shoonya-Center for Art and Somatic Practices, Lekha Naidu & Kha Foundation


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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