Asian Music and Dance

Abhinaya Now And for Always

Balbir Singh and Seeta Patel talk to Sanjeevini Dutta about the role that abhinaya plays in their work. Seeta Patel is carving a career in performing solo bharatanatyam, and choreographing for theatre, circus and community dance. Balbir Singh, Artistic Director of his eponymous company, has many high-profile creations to his name including a dance and synchronised-swimming spectacular, and his most recent Learning to Dance, featuring his two teachers Shri Pratap Pawar (kathak guru) and Namron (contemporary teacher).

As a contemporary dancer, how important is abhinaya in your overall work?

SP: For me abhinaya is about much more than facial expressions and goes beyond the repertoire in bharatanatyam. It has helped me express myself in a way I feel is more fulfilling across the range of my work. Even in DV8 I felt my abhinaya training stood me in good stead to connect to the characters and text work that was asked of me. Abhinaya accompanies me across all my work in some shape or form.

BS: A lot of the work I create draws upon dancers with different dance backgrounds from kathak to contemporary, physical theatre and actors/storytellers. Abhinaya has become increasingly important as a strand of the work I make focuses on the human condition, emotions and narrative. This then requires the performers to use the art of expression as part of the desired effect of engaging the audience’s empathy and emotions.

 Some of the work I have created is more abstract and less about abhinaya but equally, working on a narrative with South Asian and contemporary dancers, exciting possibilities are created. Examples of this include Synchronised, a ninety-minute piece set in a swimming pool that is held together through the eyes of a performer witnessing and bringing to life the world of rivers and sea serpents. Full Contact was a rugby-based piece to celebrate the stories from the world of rugby in both a literal and abstract way. Abhinaya is at the heart of the work in engaging with audiences as part of the holistic theatre experience that is created.

In your last production, would you agree that there was a strong element of abhinaya?

SP: Absolutely. Physical, pure dance technique is a big part of my regular practice, but abhinaya is the soul behind everything for me.

BS: Recently-created Champion of the Flatlands is a love triangle between a BMX cyclist and dancer Sooraj Subramaniam vying for the affections of Abirami Eshwar. As well as the technical aspects of the piece, both with dance and cycling, it was woven together with abhinaya and a strong narrative drive, which is nice to draw upon the classical traditions of storytelling and techniques in a piece set in the world of BMX.

What techniques do you deploy to elicit emotion from your dancers? 

SP: Different people need different methods to inspire and understand how to bring out honest and nuanced abhinaya. I am still working out what works for each person that I teach/coach. I am still fascinated and learn so much from teaching and observing how to bring out the best in dancers I work with. Sometimes it’s about visualisation, the constant inner monologue/dialogue that needs to be within the dancer’s mind; the presence of mind to keep the abhinaya immediate and in the moment and the music is so important to respond to, as if the dancer is conversing with the melody and rhythm. This is just a small part of the way I work; it’s such a deep and rich field that I am still discovering more and more as time goes on. I’ve been very lucky to learn from the likes of Mavin Khoo, Pushkala Gopal and other great artists.  

BS: When I was learning kathak from my Guruji, Padmashri Pratap Pawar, initially it was the technical and rhythmic aspects that excited me the most. Beginning to learn about the expressional side of kathak was new and initially a difficult concept to make sense of, having trained as a contemporary dancer. But I have always stayed open to new ideas and worked outside of my comfort zone, so embraced the challenge. Over the years as I have made more and more work, this learning has been invaluable. With the dancers it is taking them on a journey to think and be open to finding an overall emotional connection with the work, going deep into the character they are portraying ‒ for example, a widow hearing the news of her husband’s death in the war and her relationship with rugby. A lot of learning for dancers comes from seeing, copying and osmosis to develop their skills. Guruji is a great example for dancers to see and engage with as part of developing the work I create. Some of it is about creating a safe space for the performers to take risks. 

Can you give an example of when abhinaya has reached you?

SP: I have been very lucky that it has reached me many times by wonderful artists, young and old. One special memory I treasure is in Chennai in 2005 watching an abhinaya performance by the late Smt. Nirmala Ramachandran. She sang and presented abhinaya pieces simultaneously, something very few people can do. Her charm and sincerity were so moving, and each tilt of her neck and sparkle in her eye made me hungry to learn more and I was lucky enough to be taught by her. There was a naturalness that is hard for people to find in this stylised and heightened art form.

BS: In Guruji’s shows, the ghazals he does are always special and a treat for me, ranging from a prince dreaming to a dying man wanting two metres of ground to be buried in. Also the beauty of his slow walk forward depicting a male looking in one direction and then a female looking in the other direction. From the masculinity of Guruji’s performance to all of a sudden a soft delicate moment is bewitching to behold.

I understand that you are working on a new piece. Could you tell us the concept behind it and how important abhinaya will be in the piece?

SP: My new work is still at the conversation and research stage. But I know abhinaya will be a part of it in some way as it is a part of me in a way I can’t be separated from. I’m not quite ready to share the concept until I have been in the studio with my collaborators as I want the freedom for things to grow and change as needed.  

BS: The new piece is called Learning to Dance that puts Guruji and Namron, who was the first black dancer to be employed by a dance company in this country, coming together. Both are in their 70s and legends in their contribution to dance globally. Loosely drawing upon the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot, they are both waiting for me to arrive on stage, both having been inspirational figures in my growth as an artist. Abhinaya is central to it as it is a piece about these two performers looking back and making sense of the journeys they have taken, how they learned, what made them stand out and achieve so much among their peers. Having them in the space together is a challenge. However, they are both brave, open and trusting to allow me to create the piece bursting to get out.



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