This year, Ignite! succeeded in receiving support from the national government for the first time, with the Sangeet Natak Akademi becoming one of the festival’s sponsors… The festival team also managed to garner enough support just weeks before the festival’s launch to raise 1.5 million rupees through a successful crowd-funding campaign.
Ignite!’s selection process is a rigorous one, where a jury made up of practitioners in the visual arts and dance, as well as curators, considers each proposed work individually and makes selections by unanimous agreement only.
While the number of practitioners working in the idiom of contemporary dance has grown in India in the past decade, so have the platforms for established artists to showcase their work. At the beginning of the year, the two biggest and most important festivals in India showcasing contemporary dance took place within a few weeks of each other at opposite ends of the country: the Ignite! Festival of Contemporary Dance in New Delhi, and the Attakkalari India Biennial in Bangalore. It is at international festivals like these that Indian contemporary dance and its practitioners are receiving increasing recognition, while audiences get the chance to see local and international dance companies. These events also attract contemporary dance enthusiasts, festival curators and directors from around the world.
Ignite! Festival of Contemporary Dance
Organised by the Gati Dance Forum based in New Delhi, the third edition of this biennial festival was held from 11 to 18 January 2015, following previous editions in November 2010 and November 2012. The Gati Dance Forum is an autonomous arts initiative made up of local dance professionals dedicated to developing contemporary dance in India and addressing its needs. Since its creation in 2007, Gati has built its own dance studio, held regular workshops and master-classes, and created an annual ten-week Summer Dance Residency.
Gati also wants to serve as an incubation space for discussion on dance in the region. Consciously avoiding the use of borrowed terms and ideas from other parts of the world, its members feel it’s imperative to define the Indian contemporary performance scene in its own context. Mandeep Raikhy, managing director of Gati, elaborates: “Our one guiding principle is to make it inclusive so that people could come together who could contribute to discussions and challenge the use of terms like ‘contemporary dance’. We have rejected this term and are looking for a new way to describe it but haven’t found an alternative yet. It’s important for us to make sure we don’t define its parameters and box people in or out as a result.”
On offer at the 2015 edition of Ignite! were eight days of performances by emerging and established contemporary dancers and choreographers from India as well as a wide range of transnational collaborations, with companies and performers from close to a dozen countries participating. The festival opened with a crowd-pulling headline act attracting 1,500 spectators at Delhi’s Siri Fort for Terence Lewis, a popular Bollywood choreographer and judge in the reality TV series Dance India Dance. Festival highlights included well-known contemporary dancer-choreographer Padmini Chettur’s new work Wall Dancing, a three-hour ‘series of movement propositions’ presented in a multi-room gallery setting with five performers; well-known bharatanatyam exponent Navtej Singh Johar in a duet with Lokesh Bharadwaj in Frenemies, and German choreographer Helena Waldmann’s collaboration with Calcutta-based Vikram Iyengar in Made in Bangladesh which explores the exploitation of the garment industry and parallels it with the ‘sweat-shop conditions’ of the dance industry.
Surjit Nongmeikapam, a young Indian contemporary dancer from Manipur, has attracted a lot of attention at national and international levels in the past few years, regularly performing at past editions of Ignite! and the Attakkalari India Biennial and winning the 2014 Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Award (see article by Sanjoy Roy) for Nerves. Here he performed in two works: a production by Singapore’s Choy Ka Fai called Softmachine featuring a double bill with Indonesian dancer Rialto; and in his own performance work U Define created during Attakkalari’s FACETS residency and presented at their Biennial in 2013.
Also included in the festival programming was a series of street performances in the run-up to the festival, selected film screenings, a work-in-progress sharing, and master-classes and workshops with UK-based Saju Hari, kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas, and Swedish choreographer and performer Rani Nair.
A new addition to the festival was a three-day conference, designed to encourage exchange and discussion. “We introduced a conference because during previous editions, dancers just came, performed and left without any conversations or discussion happening,” explains Virkein Dhar, festival director. “It was practitioner-led, and conceived with the practitioner in mind, engaging them through conversations and lecture-demonstrations.”
The Challenge of Funding
Finding funding for the contemporary arts is always a challenge in a country where the preservation of the classical is given priority over the development of new forms of creative expression. “In India, there are few opportunities for contemporary dance and new work,” explains Juee Deogaokar, Gati’s general manager. “Many don’t see value in contemporary dance because it’s not easy to understand, so it’s a challenge to generate funds and secure funding from corporate sources.”
The Ignite! Festival has received consistent support since its first edition in 2010 from the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan and the Royal Norwegian Embassy. In fact, the Max Mueller Bhavan has been supporting the development of contemporary dance in India from as far back as 1984 with the first ‘East-West Dance Encounter’ in Mumbai. This year, Ignite! succeeded in receiving support from the national government for the first time, with the Sangeet Natak Akademi becoming one of the festival’s sponsors, a significant development. The festival team also managed to garner enough support just weeks before the festival’s launch to raise 1.5 million rupees through a successful crowd-funding campaign.
The Selection Process
Ignite!’s selection process is a rigorous one, where a jury made up of practitioners in the visual arts and dance, as well as curators, considers each proposed work individually and makes selections by unanimous agreement only. In response to an open call, works can be submitted from anywhere in the world. As long as the proposed work is ‘Indian in context or content’ and contributes to the discussion on dance in the subcontinent, the jury will consider it. “We consider each proposal and decide on them unanimously, this is not about the majority,” explains Mandeep. “If some don’t agree, then the others have to convince them. We have tried to define pointers for the jury to determine what kind of work fits. There’s also an element of ‘criticality’ or how to define contemporary. Is it an attitude or lens? Is it critical of itself or its context? Is it feeding into or coming out of a rigour in thought or process? These are the parameters we look at.”
Another new aspect of this edition of the festival is that its scope was expanded to include other countries in the subcontinent. “In terms of programming we have expanded the geographical reach from India to other South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh,” says Virkein. “We would like to continue this for the next festival and see if we can bring work from countries like Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal.”
Attakkalari India Biennial 2015
Meanwhile in South India, Attakkalari has put Bangalore on the map as a centre for contemporary dance, and its India Biennial has become an important meeting-place for choreographers and dance enthusiasts from around the world. From 6 to 15 February 2015, the 7th edition of the festival showcased ten days of performances by dance companies from India, New Zealand, China, the UK, France, Germany, Korea, The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.
Highlights of the centre stage performances included the spectacular opening by the Tao Dance Theater from China, Korea’s Bereishit Dance Company who were back after receiving a rave response at the 2013 festival, a new group production called Timeless by Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, a charming ‘old-world’ retrospective of solos by Cesc Gelabert from Spain, Switzerland’s Compagnie Philippe Saire’s Black Out which combined dance and visual art, and a thought-provoking closing performance by Mandeep Raikhy from New Delhi, A Male Ant Has Straight Antennae, exploring ideas of masculinity.