Peeling apart the second skin

Asoka Mendis de Zoysa, a participant at the Writing on Dance Lab, examined the affect of the costumes across the various platforms – mainstage performances, presentations of young choreographers and showcase for emerging South Asian performers – at this ten-day Biennial.

The contemporary dance’s choice to wear a costume located in a particular context: a gradual rejection of the tights and leotards that were worn closest to the natural skin: was seen as a move from modern to contemporary often a second skin was appropriated to make statements on race, gender, ability, class and at times, even on tradition. The shedding of costume was prescribed to be seen as romantic. The fluidity of the costume in modern dance was seen as being too superficial, or even too lyrical. The contemporary dancer has an array of costumes. The cloths were everyday like the kind available in shops that cater to globalised notions of streetwear then it seemed intended to just provide the context of “being global”. At the Attakkalari India Biennial 2015 – costumes were used in eclectic ways to further later the manifold themes of the works presented and showcased.

Choreographer-performer Hemabharathy Palani’s Twine presented at the FACETS Choreography Residency showing at the Biennial dressed all three dancers – two female and one male – in a delicate, diaphanous halter long dress. The costume seemed to be making a reference to the costumes from song-and-dance sequences from popular cinema and television. It seemed a reference to background dancers of the Indian film industry. They were also accessorised with long plaits, that was fixed to cropped hair of the male dancer as well – though, the male dancer engaged with the accessory but it seemed simply to work at the level of conformity. There were slits at the side of the skirt to facilitate extended leg movements but the hairy leg of the male dancer didn’t aid the the statements of unity that work attempted. 

At the Platform 15: Emerging South Asia programme, Rahul Goswami’s Animal Connections, which featured the dancers – Goswami and Ryan Martyr – bare-torsoed but in the warm, thick, rough texture of long johns as opposed to tights and pantyhose. In the discussion section of the performances, the choreographer Goswami said the choice of thermal underwear for him was an easier, more convincing manner to convey the switching roles of the dancers between being “animal/dog” and “master” than to appear nude or simply in underwear. Though the use of the winter underwear in the work did turn over the lack of the erotic that one traditionally associates with winter wear. It did also remind me of that long johns had been thankfully reestablished as erotic via the advertising of Calvin Klein in the mid-80s, who had reinvented them as more fitted. 

Each time, choreographer-performer Marcia Barcellos in Les Chants Des L'Umai exited and emerged on to stage, she was in a different costume designed by Christian Burle, it seemed to highlight the idea of the diva performer. There was also Karl Biscuit’s surreal visuals projected on a backdrop and a gauze screen in the foreground, the sci-fi inspired music added to the wonder to each section of the performance, which were divided by chants. In this work, the high-end quality and effect of the costumes were an integral element to creating the illusion of otherworldliness. 

Some performers with a dance background rooted in South Asian traditions chose costumes that were inspired by their own surrounding. Choreographer-performer Shilpika Bordoloi, who presented excerpts from her work, Majuli, at the Platform 15: Emerging South Asia programme chose to make a reference to the white outfits of the monks of the Satras, or Vaishnavite monasteries around the river of Brahmaputra. The culture, the music and people around and of the river island of Majuli were her inspiration of her work. Though, it did need to be conversant in the visual markers of the region to get it. Though the costumes in Surjit Nongmeikapam’s Nerves, also showcased at the Platform 15: Emerging South Asia programme, were inspired from his own home state of Manipur in the North-East of India it did resonant beyond specific cultural landscapes. The choice of a tee-and-blue jeans in the opening sequence and silencing of that voice showed the disregard for freedom of speech in Manipur. His short excerpt also showed the political situation in his home state by juxtaposing the costumes inspired by tribal royalty and the urban impression of the tribal’s clothes, which gave us strong images of the human situation in Manipur.

In terms of referencing the traditional, there was Revata Sarabhai’s Ru/apture, from the Platform 15: Emerging South Asia programme, which seemed to make a visible reference to the flow and fluidity of the kathak costume, which aided in highlighting the circling movement of the dancers as well as orchestrated this effect of bodies trailing across the stage. And for LDR, a “fusion” work, where he attempts to translate mudras, or hand gestures, from Bharatanatyam into a contemporary, globalised body language – he is dressed as a “dude” with tight orange pants and grey-fitted tee-shirt. The costume in these works made explicit the shifts in and out of the traditional.

The flamboyance of the kathak costume was tackled in choreographer Preethi Athreya ’s Across, Not Over, which was shown at the Platform 15: Emerging South Asia programme, performed by Vikram Iyengar , which had him bare-torsoed in black pants and a yellow belt. It made the audience focus on the minute movement of muscle on Iyengar’s back that highlighted the musculature and technique required to perform the movements of this classic idiom. The loose black pants also took away from the usual fascinating footwork of the form, which confirmed the area of focus in the work.

During the showings of the FACETS Choreography Residency, many of the male performers drew attention to the muscular male torso in all its aesthetic beauty. Often the audience’s attention was drawn to the shapes created by the torso muscles of these male performers by illuminating these movements with the help of an overhead, flashing naked bulb or even a gas lamp moved across the body. At the times, the spotlight focus on these movements didn’t add the coherent reception of the works.

Male performers in the South Asian context are permitted to dance with an uncovered upper body especially in the traditional or folk dance forms. In keeping with this tradition, the female body is expected to be covered modestly keeping hidden the tensions, the relaxations and the contortions of her dancing body. At the last edition of the Biennial, I was most intrigued by the costume of Chennai-based choreographer-performer Padmini Chettur’s Beautiful Thing 2, which seemed to have become an organic part of her body.

At this edition of the Biennial, the practice of undressing on stage created some memorable moments like in South Korea’s Bereishit Dance Company’s Pattern and Variable when three well-toned male dancers stripped down to black tight-fitting short shorts or even the female dancers in the same kind of shorts and sports bras highlighted the strong gender references the work seemed to be making but unfortunately this theme didn’t seem consistent throughout the work. The moments of changing costume on stage allows the audience to the see a gradual metamorphosis of the dancers’ bodies or even peek into a changing of character or mood in the work.

In a strong thread that connected the works at the Biennial, there seemed to be a love for the “black box” as performance space. In keeping with ostensibly cool ambience of the stage, the costumes of the performing companies such as the British Alexander Whitley Dance Company in The Measures Taken and China’s Tao Dance Theatre in 5 remained in the shades of black and seemed daring when it went towards steel greys and white. The costumes of the performers of the Tao Dance Theatre didn’t hide their bodies but rather like the first work – 4, it contributed to understanding the dynamics of the four stamping bodies on stage and in the second work – 5, it enabled the audience to see even the most minute movements. The Chinese company’s costumes also smothered out the gender differences between the bodies, which kept the audience guessing the number of male and female performers in each of the work. There seemed to be a similar attempt in the grey silk costumes of the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company’s Timeless but their ill-fitting nature made me wonder if it would’ve been simply appropriate to wear a costume more located in the tradition of Kathak even if the movements seemed to be a mish-mash of movements from kathak and kalaripayattu that seemed to be an easily consumable package of Indian traditions that could be easily presented world over.

On the other hand, gender politics were sustained and yet constantly challenged in Nicole Beutler’s performance 4: Still Life. Costume changes took place on stage and behind the screen that seemed to demarcate places as the “dressing room” or the “dance floor. The shoes worn throughout the piece located it in the realm of social dancing. The audience was kept with the question – Why the boy and girl take such a long time to change into simple costumes? Why off-stage? Whispered conversations to each other heard during costume change were part of this well-designed work. An intimacy was created between the dancing couple, which is seldom seen in the contemporary dance works.

Constanza Macras, Dorkypark and Oscar Bianchi’s The Past, a performative tribute to cities undergoing change required many costume changes because the characters were fluid. Here the costumes denoted class, gender, age and even ability. Costume changes happened off stage. During the “carnivalesque” scene – strange costumes and masks emerged leaving the space for open interpretations. The massive steel construction facilitated multiple urban narratives to appear in multiple spaces at the same time. The largest ensemble at the festival with the largest set and multitude of costumes seduced and educated audience. The central theme of “memory attached to given space” was crowded with chaotic images enabled by the various costumes.

As against this, the solo performances of Mirra Arun of the Platform 15: Emerging South Asia programme and FACETS Choreography Residents – Avantika Bahl, Diya Naidu , Soo-Hyun Hwang and Pradeep Gunarathna were able to convince the audiences of their intent in a fixed, almost empty stage with a minimal costume changes. Even Venuri Perera from the Platform 15: Emerging South Asia programme didn’t resort to any costume that might hint on contextualising her work – Traitroit, which sourced material from a militarised Sri Lanka. The costume to me in all these works didn’t seemed subsumed by the theme.

The days of flowing skirts and bustier tops for females and leotards and tights for males seem to be vanishing from the contemporary dance scene. The dancer’s real skin was eminent in most of the expressive pieces. The muscular male body seem to have had an advantage over the female body due to the tradition of being able to be visible on stage. If we venture further, we may ask – Why the male dancers tends to exhibit the body devoid of body hair? Does the colour of the exposed skin, the context of the performance and the audiences inform the race politics of the work? Do works sourced from a traditional idiom need to reference that form?


Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface (2011) by Anne Anlin Cheng
Choreographing Difference: The Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance (1997) by Ann Cooper Albrigh

Asoka Mendis de Zoysa


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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