Finally, Navtej Johar and Ben J Riepe make a song and dance over men and their sexuality, says Aditi Saxton
AFTER HIS casual inhalations of breath move to frenzied staccato gasps, Anish Bhatt stops abruptly and grins. It is a recognisably smug baring of teeth, simpering with satisfaction, reeking of completion. It’s pretty disturbing. As his body first pulsed like a slow-moving piston, then pounded with the persistence of an electric drill, then blurred in a crazed jackhammer of motion the audience was primed for a final expiration. Just not of the le petite mort sort.
Male sexuality is a strange, cloistered thing and a new work choreographed by Navtej S Johar and Ben J Riepe, titled Don’t ask don’t tell is a strangely liberating dance around it. The tape that binds men to sex is narrow: inches count, it’s marked off in punch lines about virility, and it stretches dangerously close to the “caution: crime scene” ribbon. It rarely spools out of its notched grooves into any real measure of how men think of sex, as an act of gender, because a man is a man is a man, right? A fixation with the act is healthy, normal and brooks no discussion. It’s the opposite of that unpleasurable friction for women; the perpetual push and shove of what kind of woman are you. Nostalgia, pain, discomfit about desire are matters of a feminine persuasion, best dealt with the morning after, by the judicious administration of a pill.
But feelings inscrutably press up against sex, in defiance of whichever machismo no-show clause that’s in effect now. So how do you begin to present the difficulty of the interchange between men and sex when they go generally unacknowledged? Johar and Riepe find an astonishingly obvious way to skirt the issue — shorts — crisp, cotton shorts of a length no longer deemed appropriate for grown men. Five men in a catholic version of a PT kit, classic white, buttons and collars, socks pulled up, are uniformly regressed into adolescence. Past a certain age, the attendant anxieties of sex stay much the same. Pubescence, with hormonal surges not yet tamped by propriety, is the perfect time to transpose charged questions and comparisons onto.
Don’t ask don’t tell opens with a tennis volley in exaggerated mime. The rackets are positioned suggestively, balls are cupped deliberately and you’re already at a setback if you don’t catch the pun on ‘set’ up. The dancer’s bodies lean and swing widely, their motile jaws and widened eyes flashing a sort of sporting blood lust. When the music shifts to courtly minuet and they waltz into each other’s arms, the transition is seamless since it was obvious that both the match and the dance were vertical expressions of a horizontal desire. As mating rituals it gets at the slippery squeamish something usually relegated to the female preserve. A dominantly male troupe is dancing, but there are none of those expected acrobatic flourishes, the long legged leaps and showboating which can make an audience forget the flaws of a less schooled body. Don’t ask don’t tell is a theatrical experience; dance hitched to its near rhyme of performance.
If the physical is muted, the audible is really, really loud, imprinting itself upon every posture and gesture. Shibboleths like “I life you” and short spoken word segments loop in tandem with crescendos and caesura. A female figure clad in black, Rekha Raj, intrudes with a trilled siren song that escalates in pitch till it’s a shriek, then a cackle. There’s a bit when dancer Daniel Torres takes his clothes off, attaches a hose pipe to his underwear, wraps all the bits and bobs in silver foil, sticks the pipe in his mouth and then proceeds to paper his head. And though there could be real empathetic concern about whether he may be asphyxiating, all that really registers is this atonal, almost banausic music synced to variations of breath— minor wheezes, almost sneezes, even a Hindi-film-death-scene croak, a sort of group emission.
The 70 minute Indian-German collaboration doesn’t dip even a teeny toe into cultural exotica, thrusting forcefully instead into a gender no-go zone. This is a dance that’s strictly bedroom.
The performance will travel to Kolkata, Dhaka, Karachi and Bengaluru next
Aditi Saxton is Features Editor, Tehelka.