It is a game played by an invisible hand with one team of ten players on a square, red-carpeted floor with a broad, raised rim on all four sides, like a trampoline without the elastic. The height of the rim is determined by the height the players can jump, landing in a deep squat, and its width is just enough to take three players standing one behind the other. The dimensions of the floor area are roughly equal to the height of three players. Even though I am imagining these dimensions, such mathematical rules are at the heart of Conditions of Carriage – The Jumping Project, conceived by Preethi Athreya, who is also one of the players. Jumping is a dynamic physical action that is expressively neutral, and while the repetitive nature of Athreya’s game focuses our attention on the act of jumping, the patterns of the performers reveal the implicit rules governing each player’s game.
Like a chamber orchestra of athletes whose bodies are their instruments, each player has their own score but the composition of the work is evident only when they all play together. The performers are thus in a constant state of alert, watching intently when to join the game, when to leave and when to accent the score with their individual variations. In music we tend to take for granted the complexity of an orchestral score in the listening, and similarly the complexity of Conditions of Carriage is concealed in the seeing. The rhythmical texture of the ensemble has a meditative quality, enhanced by the transcendent look in the eyes of the performers. Since there is no conductor, timing is provided by a recorded musical score, by individuals calling out numbers or by internal choreographic rules.
At one point the jumping turns into variations on a traditional Indian game of kabbadi where one contestant strives to tag his or her opponent while the opponent vigorously defends from any touch by fast foot and body work. It is an exciting, virtuosic interlude played in pairs that leads into the final section that is slower, more circular, more harmonious.
The men and women are dressed alike in singlets, shorts and trainers but the massed, non-competitive nature of the choreography allays any suggestion of a sport while the repetitive use of a sports movement allays any suggestion of dance. In addition, Athreya has chosen performers who do not immediately suggest the ostensible effects of training in either sport or dance, and with an age range of mid-20s to mid-40s she has also thrown out the familiar social make-up of sports teams and dance companies. Conditions of Carriage is thus a performance that rises up from the fabric of society and brings audience and performers together through a common activity in an uncommon format.
Even the venue, under Hungerford footbridge, places the context of the performance beyond sport and dance, in a public space where any passer-by can stop to watch, a reflection of Alchemy Festival’s mandate to ‘showcase the dynamic creativity and cultural connections between South Asia and the UK.’ Nevertheless, the site’s shade and air currents are not conducive to the performers’ muscular exertion; far from their habitually warm climate, they prepare as if about to run a marathon and tend to their legs afterwards with equal diligence. But for us it’s worth all the effort.