Upstaging the Set Rhythm


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From “It was amazing!”, to “What just happened?”, to walkouts, you can catch this potpourri of reactions if you happen to be in the audience at a contemporary dance show. India is curious to know what could be contemporary dance, and foreign cultural centres have been whipping up this interest. An on-going move to tickle India’s artistic sensibilities is Danse Dialogue, an Indo-French Festival of Contemporary Dance that began on 11 April and will go on till the 29th of the month, with shows in seven cities.

High-brow, upper crust and crème de la creme of the city is who you may think you’d rub shoulders with at these dos. But surprisingly, the audience is fairly middle class, comprising language students (in this case French), their parents and friends, artists, and Francophiles who are there to check out what’s on display. And this lot of spectators is quite different from those that you see at a straitjacketed Bharatanatyam, Odissi or Kathak recital where, like an artist said, “you know who will be sitting in which row”.

It’s too early to say whether contemporary dance in India has managed to carve out its own constituency of viewers, but there is definitely a space that is being created. And this is largely being orchestrated by foreign cultural centres, through the regular staging of this genre of dance. They have also been steadily building networks for it through workshops, seminars, film screenings and masterclasses.

Let’s do a roll call. This is the second edition of a contemporary dance festival that the Embassy of France and Institut Francais en Inde are hosting in India (the first was in 2011). The British Council organises Impulse, again a biennale, that aims to showcase creative exchanges between both established and emerging dancers and choreographers. Earlier, they had brought in well known acts like the Akram Khan Company, the Scottish Dance Theatre, Aakash Odedra Company, and Protein. Later this year they have another set of performances, discussion groups, workshops. Then there is Max Mueller Bhavan (the German cultural centre), which has been lending a shoulder to contemporary dance from as far back as 1984, when it organised an East-West Encounter in Mumbai that set the pace for dancers like Chandralekha and Kumudini Lakhia to do path-breaking group work. In July this year Max Mueller Bhavan, will bring in wellknown choreographer Antje Pfundtner, to mentor the participants of Gati’s summer dance residency in Delhi. Clearly, there is a buzz around contemporary dance.

Two words that appear repeatedly in any conversation to do with this dance are ‘globalisation’ and ‘youth’. It’s the constant seduction of wanting to connect with happenings globally that is linking India’s burgeoning youth population to it. As Vivek Mansukhani, Director Arts (India), British Council analyses: “They don’t have to understand the grammar of the dance. It’s the state-of-the-art lighting, music, special effects, digital imagery and of course, themes like sexuality and the environment that are an immediate connect for the youth.”

That’s why probably, contemporary dance works as a form of soft diplomacy for these countries, where the genre has a long and established tradition. As Max Claudet, Director, Counsellor for Culture and Cooperation, French Embassy, says: “If we were to bring a theatre company, language would be a barrier. How many people understand French here? And getting the works from the Louvre museum would be beyond our budget. So we realised our dance companies in France would make the best cultural ambassadors for us in a country like India, where cultural traditions are anyway very strong.” Asked about collaborations between classical ballet of the West and traditional dance forms in India, Claudet is emphatic when he says: “We have tried it, but it just hasn’t worked in the past.” It’s probably got to do with the way these forms are structured in water-tight compartments.

That being said, this move to woo India with modern dance could also be a case of bringing something that might, in a way, fill in the gaps. This dance has very strong roots in Europe and the US. Compared to that, India’s involvement with the form is more recent. Today a lot of dancers from India go to the West to learn body movement techniques there. So, as Robin Mallick, Regional Programme Director South Asia, Max Mueller Bhavan says,“Bringing our artists, making them do workshops, seminars with the art fraternity here would actually help expand horizons. In contrast, we don’t have a guru system or a very rigid classical dance tradition, which India has. There are many Europeans, therefore, who come here to learn classical Indian dance. Also, India has a strong support system for classical dance, so we don’t have much to contribute there.”

Seeing packed halls at almost all contemporary dance shows, Arshiya Sethi, managing trustee, Kri Foundation realised she wanted to be part of this excitement. So in this edition of Danse Dialogue, she is presenting a collection of films on contemporary dance and comments: “Patronage in India has always prioritised the classical, but there is hope. Association, therefore, becomes important (in this case the French cultural centre).”

As for state patronage, Sangeet Natak Akademi, the apex cultural body of the country has been giving awards to practitioners of this genre for decades now, beginning with Uday Shankar in 1960 and coming right down to Tanushree Shankar in 2011 (Aditi Mangaldas, who straddles both the worlds of Kathak and contemporary dance, refused the award in 2012 as she didn’t think she had done enough work as a contemporary dancer). However, a year ago, the Akademi labeled ‘contemporary’ as ‘experimental and creative’ dance, and now it is said to be reviewing this nomenclature too. It is of course debatable whether this exercise of finding new names will help the art grow.

As culture commentator and scholar, Sadanand Menon points out: “There is no point just giving awards to artists. Sustained assistance by way of scholarships to upcoming artists, workshops and discussions on the genre, as also funding for new projects need to be provided.” So much so, it is a sad reality that an artist of the stature of Astad Deboo says: “I produce 90 percent of my performances.”

Another reason for the interest in modern dance is akin to watching the new kid on the block. Art afficianados are somewhat tired of the same fare that classical dancers dish out…the same costumes, the same stories, the same gestures. There is no “revamping” of the style, for fear that the purity of the dance gets diluted. Mangaldas reflects: “Classical dancers are complaining they don’t get funding, they don’t get foot-falls. But we all need to re-examine our work. It’s not classical dance that is stuck. It is the classical dancers who are stuck.”

There are dissenting voices, however. Sanjeev Bhargava, founder, Seher, an organisation that has been organising big-ticket cultural shows, couldn’t care less about creating a platform for contemporary dance. “I feel there isn’t enough thinking that is going into this work, and audiences are getting taken in by the leotards and the backless cholis. Besides, I am happy staging classical dance in all its variety, and don’t have time for this genre.” As for grabbing eyeballs and foot-falls, Bhargava’s annual dance festival, Ananya, held against the backdrop of the Purana Qilla in New Delhi every year, has thousands in the audience. “If you put up short, well-choreographed classical dance ballets that do not in any way detract from the purity of the form, people watch. A two-hour, solo performance is for a more discerning audience. What matters is how you package your programmes” he says.

Then there are comments like “trained classical dancers who can’t make it on the performance circuit end up doing modern dance.” But this is vehemently refuted by many, while admitting that a lot of over-the-top, meaningless work is also being staged. That’s why the walkouts perhaps.

A takeaway from observing the goings on at these contemporary dance festivals is that using terms like “collaborations” and “dialogues” with Indian artists could be a trifle exaggerated. For instance, a cursory look at the Danse Dialogue catalogue will reveal only three Indian performers in the line up. Of them, two (Padmini Chettur and Preethi Athreya) have been clubbed together in a performance with French choreographer, David Rolland. Then there is Astad Deboo, who is anyway well-known and a big draw internationally. Aren’t these foreign cultural centres playing safe when it comes to sussing out and promoting Indian talent? Why go for the usual suspects? Where is the “dialogue”? It’s more like a talking to. Also, shouldn’t they be spreading their network wider? Talk to any official from these centres, they put forth the same small bunch of names who they “consult”. But like people would say, ‘something is better than nothing,’ and this at least is a beginning.

Leap of Faith 

Artists on their experimental work

Mandeep Raikhy, dancer, choreographer and managing director, Gati Dance Forum India: “Anusha Lall and I started Gati in 2007 when we realised we were working in the field of contemporary dance, but there was no one watching us. There was no context. So we created a dance studio where we could do our group rehearsals and could also let out (they rent by the hour) the space for other dance troupes to come and practice. As for funding this venture, the first time we got any was when Max Mueller Bhavan gave us Rs 30-40,000 to set up a website. Over time, Gati has become an inclusive space where discussions on dance happen, creative work happens, work-in-progress is shown and workshops are conducted.”

Astad Deboo, dancer and choreographer: “I learnt Kathak from the age of six till I was 16, but I soon got attracted to modern dance. With experience, I realised the grammar in all Indian classical dance trains the body to move in a particular way, which eventually makes it rigid. It was important for me, therefore, to learn how to “unwrap” the body and make it flexible. I think I have done it by constantly working on it and training in various contemporary dance companies all over the world. But even after all these years, I still take at least a year to stage a new production. Today, the problem with a lot of dancers is they pick up current topics like rape or conservation, but they don’t have a distinct dance vocabulary to “perform” these subjects.”

Aditi Mangaldas, Kathak and contemporary dancer: “When I say “contemporary”, there is a paradigm shift in my dance, but the core of Kathak remains. The difference is in the centering of the body, the movements, the position of the spine. Conceptualising is also important. For instance, the underlying emotion in Kathak is shringar (romance and beauty). But when I wanted to dance a piece called Claustrophobia, I had to remove the shringar platform from Kathak as it was getting very ornate and pretty. What is most important, however, is to find a way of instantly connecting with the audience. All experimentation will fall through otherwise.”


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