Exploring dance as a form of theatre

The other night I went to watch Swiss choreographer Cindy Acker’s two contemporary dance pieces — Lanx and Obtus. As I sat in the dark auditorium, I tried to make sense of what I was seeing. Contemporary dance is not something that we are used to. Audiences in Bombay, prefer their art and entertainment be accompanied by narrative. While form is appreciated, and complex aesthetics highly appreciated; content is still very much king.
A venue manager recently bemoaned the lack the experimentation with space and form in Bombay theatre.
While I was quick to defend my fraternity, and provide examples of several “experimental” productions, deep down I was aware that he might be right. While Bombay theatre has more varied work (linguistically and stylistically), than any of the other centres, we are very much governed by “narrative based” productions. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that our theatre survives only if there are “bums on seats”.
So there is a slight “selling out” when it comes to the choice of work staged. Rehaan Engineer the “experimenter-in-chief” over the last decade has folded away his director’s chair and moved to Delhi, leaving quite a void. Rehaan’s work, while often esoteric, was important for the fraternity because it always pushed new boundaries. However there is an interesting mixture of forms that has begun emerging. More plays are using live music than ever before; not just the conventional tabla and harmonium in the corner.
Now a full-fledged rock band on stage left is not an uncommon sight. Singing too has made a strong appearance on the Bombay stages thanks to influx of wonderful nightingales like Neha Saraf, Kataki Thatte and Mansi Multani.
But the form that has had the strongest impact in the last couple of years, has been dance, or rather movement. Many productions have begun to base their work on movement and rhythm. Gillo Repertory’s children’s work has strong choreography, Makrand Deshpande has begun using dance quite a lot in his plays like Sona Spa, even newcomers Rangbaaz have used live music and dance. And then there is writer Purva Rakesh, who wears her dance background on her sleeve and makes it the basis of almost all of the work she does.
I, myself, in spite of my two left feet, used movement in my last play. Manish Gandhi’s Limbo is supposed to have very strong movement elements. But perhaps the production that has gone furthest away from regular narrative and embraced movement whole heartedly is Sujay Saple’s Unselfed. While most of the cast is Bombay based, the play still hasn’t premiered here yet. But it is very much awaited.
All these new ways of telling stories, might seem like the old formats of our folk theatre, but these have a new energy with a more urban twist in narrative and perhaps a more sophisticated use of technology. Young writers and directors are clearly evolving a new way of telling their stories; ways that are different from “stand up and speak theatre” and also our own ancient traditions. While the form is not whole yet, it is incredibly encouraging to see that steps are being taken to push in a new direction.
Who knows we might be on the verge of a new Bombay experimental theatre!

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