Asian Music and Dance

Contemporary Choreography in Indian Dance International Conference  

Ketu Katrak reports on a Conference cum Festival held in Toronto which examined issues of ‘contemporary’ in south Asian dance and paid homage to the iconic dance maker – Chandralekha. 

Contemporary Choreography in Indian Dance International Conference (January 24-25, 2009) and Festival (January 28-31) in Toronto, Canada organized by Kalanidhi Fine Arts, Artistic Director, Sudha Khandwani, and Menaka Thakkar Dance Company was a unique gathering of artists, scholars, and rasikas from India, Canada and the US. The participants engaged in dialogue and braved snowstorms to get to the Fleck Theater to revel in new and revived choreographies by dancers from India—Aditi Mangaldas, Anita Ratnam, Madhu Nataraj, Indian-Canadians Natasha Bakht, Hari Krishnan, Lata Pada, Nova Bhattacharya among others. In future, a consolidated four-day conference-cum-festival (without a gap) would better sustain audience time. Khandwani and Thakkar, since organizing the 1993 conference have their pulse on the Indian dance scene, today a global phenomenon. Even so, regional contexts remain significant for arts funding and intellectual support. 

The Conference, a tribute to the late Chandralekha, featured Sadanand Menon, her long-time collaborator who spoke insightfully about her life, art, approach to choreography with excerpts of her speeches. “Where does the body begin? Where does it end?” Chandra was certainly an innovator though she never described her work as ‘contemporary’. Her parameters embraced Indian aesthetics, bharatanatyam (without fake religiosity and over-decoration), yoga and Kalaripayattu (martial arts of Kerala). Simultaneously, Chandra was, as Menon noted “in touch with the best minds” in India and elsewhere. One such friend and intellectual sounding board, Susan Linke, German dancer-choreographer presented her memories of Chandra and performed Kaikou-Yin (Transmigration). 

Menon recounted Chandra’s unique concretization of abstract notions of time and space, circuits of male and female energy, sensuality, sexuality, and spirituality as integrally linked, and her commitment to women’s dignity in private and public spheres. 

Several useful issues and questions emerged from the papers by Lata Pada, Natasha Bakht, Aditi Mangaldas, Sunil Kothari, Anita Ratnam, Uttara Asha Coorlawala among others about the contemporary state of Indian dance for performers, choreographers, presenters, scholars today. Debates included what is classic and contemporary in Indian dance, how to bridge this binary divide, how to select hybrid movement vocabularies with honesty and integrity in creating new work, how to create space for edgy and risky work, how not to be bound by ethnic, genre, gender, and national labels. A disturbing recent trend was noted-religiosity as a stand-in for dance, with classical dancers revered as near-goddesses. Funding constraints under Canada’s multicultural arts policies was analyzed. Several speakers expressed that dance is under siege, facing competition from film, television and new media in our age of spectacle.

As a fitting tribute to Chandra, two of her works, Sharira and Shakti (a segment of Sri) were performed in conjunction with the Conference. Sharira was the ‘crystallization’ noted Menon, of all of Chandra’s work (first performed in 2001 in Chicago, the day before 9/11 with its macabre spectacular violence). The performers Tishani Doshi and Shaji John were trained by Chandra who evolved an extraordinary movement vocabulary representing female and male energies on stage. The female’s primal energy opens the work with her body alone on stage for twenty-five minutes before the male enters. Live music by the unparalleled Gundecha brothers intoning in Dhrupad style reverberated perfectly for Sharira. Dhrupad’s unique stretching of the human voice to unimaginable highs and lows paralleled the slow-moving (giving ‘slowness’ a new dimension in choreography) bodies on stage, not in sync with the musical arc but rather, the sound and movement drawing energy from and nurturing each other. It was an enthralling sixty-four minutes that flew by in the blink of an eye. Sharira uses no recognizable dance vocabulary; rather, the key to this tour de force creation is in the very vibrations of its slowness that fill time and space (abstractions of time and space return in other works in the Festival). 

Shakti was recreated successfully by Menaka Thakkar’s Indian-Canadian dancers with rigorous three-month training by Geetha Sridhar (London-based), herself trained by Chandra. Shaji John, Chandra’s dancer, trained the dancers in Kalari. This method of having a dancer trained by Chandra teach other dancers for future revivals of Chandra’s works is worth emulating. 

Shakti’s polished performance opened with a group of women with bent backs (an image made iconic by Chandra via this work and now a part of our collective unconscious) moving laboriously across the stage, replicating their hard lives, gazing as it were, inwards and suddenly fixing a sharp stare at the audience. The image echoed ever so intangibly in the group energy of bodies moving with their backs to the audience and then turning to give the audience a sharp look in Hari Krishnan’s Bollywood Hopscotch. Anita Ratnam’s 7 Graces opens with her back bent as she pulls imaginary energy into her gut/womb in a slow walk backwards referencing femaleness and mothering.

The Festival presented a panorama of new and old content in choreography that flowed and ruptured across movement vocabularies of Indian classical dance, yoga, martial arts, and modern dance. Among Indian-Canadian artists, Natasha Bakht’s (Ottawa-based) White Space was outstanding for precision, technical virtuosity and an eclectic musical score by composer Alexander McSween (a memorable three-dimensional surround sound of a crashing monsoon downpour stays with me). Bakht’s artistic journey includes three years with Britain’s Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company after twenty years of bharatanatyam with Menaka Thakkar in Canada. 

Other compelling Festival performances included InDance Company’s (Toronto-based) multi-ethnic dancers energetically performed Bollywood Hopscotch, a hybrid choreography by Hari Krishnan. Melodramatic Bollywood stances as well as speedy bharatanataym that is de rigueur today were parodied whimsically. Krishnan also presented India’s Anita Ratnam in a moving, solo excerpt of 7 Graces. 

Conceptual journeys into abstractions of time and space were presented by Delhi-based Aditi Mangaldas and Drishtikon dancers in Timeless, and by Missisauga-based Lata Pada and Sampradaya Dancers in shunya. Mangaldas’ mastery of kathak was admirable though the piece was too ambitious in probing various notions of time/lessness. Accomplished dancers trained in bharatanatyam, kathak and their contemporary abstractions explored ‘the paradox’ of shunya as ‘zero and infinity at the same time’ (Pada). The live musical ensemble of Praveen D. Rao (composer), Ernie Tollar, and especially Arabic singer Maryem Hassan Tollar’s soulful voice worked effectively. The one false note was this singer’s inability to articulate a Sanskrit sloka that would have been pronounced more pleasingly by music composer Rao. 

Other performances by Canada-based Janak Khendry, Usha Gupta, Roger Sinha remained uneven, perhaps better regarded as works in progress. 

In conclusion, the organizers hosted a very successful conference and festival that fostered dialogue as well as presenting emerging and established artists. More such arts adventures need to be held in the US, Britain, South and Southeast Asia, indeed, in many regions of today’s global Indian diaspora.



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