GFEST is the umbrella name for nearly two weeks of films, visual arts, debates and live performances organised across London by the arts charity Wise Thoughts and focused on work by, or socio-cultural issues relating to, the LGBTQI community. A potential highlight of the 2014 edition was this double bill of commissioned performance by the British-Asian dancer Kali Chandrasegaram, plus several collaborators, and the American-born but Delhi-based dancer, choreographer and teacher Justin McCarthy. The night’s thematic motive was to spotlight the possibilities of South Asian culture (dance especially) as a vehicle for ‘a new and vibrant way of looking at sexual and gender energies’. A valuable intention, and intelligently curated in that the central topic was addressed both with modern-day relevance and from a more purely classical context. But what a peculiar evening it was – striking and memorable, at times, although perhaps for some of the wrong reasons.
This was particularly true of a first half featuring Chandrasegaram and company’s awkward, if heartfelt, chunk of political cabaret S(He)-dom: Freedom versus He-or-She-dom. Chandrasegaram is one of the few South Asian dance practitioners using classical foundations to overtly explore masculine/feminine imagery and roles. Tall, broad-shouldered and shaven-headed but with a neat little goatee etching his delicately handsome face, Chandrasegaram first appeared as a sinuous-wristed shadow cast upon an oblong of white fabric. When he finally emerged in the flesh, clad in black corset and Indian trousers, the immediate impression was of a cross between a gentle giant of a genie and a courtesan. He proceeded to dance in bharatanatyam style to a recorded track that was a tad underpowered – rather, alas, like the piece as a whole.
You can’t fault Chandrasegaram and team for ambition. Their project, I suspect, aspired to a kind of raw yet exquisite sense of inspiration from out of which each participant would be able to shine. The latter included Ajah, a likeable five-member female band who do rap/rock (not always, it must be said, the most intelligible combination of forms), and a weedy male spoken-word performer in frilly, dark punkish attire. Their joint efforts conjured a sort of transformational pride ritual entailing bits of semi-preachy text, a possible satire of homophobic street-bashing, a pretty ghastly scrim painting of a sinewy, smooth-crotched god/goddess, two costume changes for Chandrasegaram (first camouflage trousers and military-style beret, then flowing red skirt, sparkling earrings and bob-like wig) and a few songs (the catchiest containing the chanted refrain ‘We don’t need no superheroes’). If the cast sometimes lacked confidence, it may have been due to – I’m guessing here – both the lack of an outside eye and insufficient rehearsal time.
McCarthy has a solid reputation as a bharatanatyam guru at the cultural institution Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in New Delhi. Now in his late fifties, in looks he’s something of a pale, bare-chested pixie. His solo Mohini: God Becomes Enchantress exuded, to borrow a friend’s phrase, ‘old-world charm’. It was framed by projections of M.V. Bhaskar’s excellent kalamkari cloth paintings illustrating the characters and incidents McCarthy embodied, plus accompanying text. Featuring a soundtrack of Carnatic music, the piece was further enhanced by the use of simple flat masks on sticks held before the face.
McCarthy drew upon Hindu mythology for this world première, initially enacting the story of the demon Bhasmasura, a devotee of Shiva punished for amorous greediness by Vishnu in his gender-swap disguise as Mohini. McCarthy then offered a second story of Dhanvantari, another avatar of Vishnu, and a medicinal elixir of immortality coveted by demons, and a third (accompanied by birdsong and gongs) focusing on the romantic desire of Shiva for Mohini. The choice of tales was instructive and diverting but, more than that, I enjoyed being in McCarthy’s company. Layers of sweet irony were built into his performance, thanks, in part, to an innate Peter Pan quality and the subtle trickster’s merriment of his stage persona. But there’s a reserve to his set of skills that’s also potentially a hindrance. Despite adept characterisation (both feminine and masculine), and a patent ability in mimetic gesture and physical shapes, McCarthy may have simply been holding back too much during this debut airing of his work. I longed for a touch more fire alongside his often simpering abhinaya. Still, if McCarthy didn’t truly ignite my attention, he did engage it.