Why we dance

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When an opportunity to create dance forces a dancer to confront her raison d’être, it is indeed a gratifying moment. A day away from showcasing their work publicly, at least two of five residents of the Gati Summer Dance Residency 2012 share this feeling.

The residency gives emerging choreographers a chance to create and stage their own works over nine weeks. Working with mentors from varied performative backgrounds, the residents interacted in classes and through presentations and informal sharing sessions. The mentors were theatre director Sankar Venkateshwaran, German choreographers Susanne Linke and Urs Dietrich and Swiss sound artist POL. The residents are Debanjali Biswas, Divya Vibha Sharma, Rakesh MPS, Sanjukta Wagh and Sunitha.
The resident choreographers share their works in presentations at the Shri Ram Centre in New Delhi today and tomorrow. What may finally emerge after these nine weeks is perhaps a distilled expression of process, for they have been deeply influenced by their engagement with various elements of the residency. If, for some, elusive ideas have now come to the surface, for others, the process has shattered every held, conceived or learned notion of dance as they knew it. By doing so, it has left them in spaces of heady choreographic liberation, yet ones tinged by naked vulnerability.
Take Divya Vibha Sharma, who in her second innings as a Gati resident finds that the choreographic process has shaken up her understanding of dance. She elaborates, “I don’t know how to start dancing or how to make technique my own. I draw on my background in illustration, working with my hands, and dance and theatre. There’s a song, a story, some objects, so I can’t say where the dance begins or ends. I am not showing a finished piece; rather, I use twenty minutes to show some exciting starting points.”
Divya remarks that her work, Peace of Plastic, has a ‘lot of world’ in it, for it deals with definite concepts – of the culture of consumerism, and of infinite production. Money takes centre stage as she explores her understanding of it through her choreography. “Money is convenient to exchange, yet we hate to give it away. We are afraid of money being scarce. In a way, you go to school to be able to make money. I talked to many people about their understanding of money, and some of this found a place in the piece. I am also fascinated by the mechanics of money – how it is created, how they print it — the very ‘making’ of money,” says Divya.
Meanwhile, for Kathak and contemporary dancer Sanjukta Wagh, the residency process was a golden opportunity to “make a mess”. She relished being able to play with different choreographic ideas under the watchful outside eyes of the mentors, who were, to her, a safety net as she experimented with her idea of dance. Her piece, Putana and I, explores her relationship with the mythological figure Putana, who offers baby Krishna the poisoned milk of her breast at Kamsa’s behest, only to be killed by Krishna, who sucks her life out of her breasts. “My piece shifts between being and becoming, where the focus is not their polarity, but the transition between them. I am greatly influenced by the Grotowski method; with every step I take, I shed a layer of behaviour, walking out of my body and going to Putana. Putana singly takes on one of the most powerful patriarchal symbols - Krishna. I am discomfited by what is done to her — her blood is sucked out, she is hacked to pieces and publicly displayed. I initially had a long sequence about Krishna and his interactions with Putana, but I gradually began to look for ways to go bodily engage with her character. I found reference points in literature, with AK Ramanujan’s poetry and Mahasweta Devi’s Stanadayini, the haunting story of a wet nurse. I interviewed women about their experience of breastfeeding. I want people to recognise Putana in someone they would see on the street,” she remarks.
Putana and I grows out of Sanjukta’s work with abhinaya, Kathak, theatre, music and her experiences with mentors during the residency. She describes, “From Sankar, I took the walking exercise, where the pace of your walk gradually increases as you concentrate on an action. Images that had started coming in began to strike me. I was also reassured of using the voice. Urs, meanwhile, gave me a keen understanding of the musculature of my movement. My soundtrack, recorded by POL, includes tatkar (footwork) with and without ghunghroos, a lullaby sung by me and the Kannada padam Krishna nee begane baro, which Sunitha sings. I have about eight drafts of the piece; perhaps because I did not work with a structure, it was easy to metamorphose. Suddenly, one day, I began reciting She had some horses, Joy Harjo’s poem, during rehearsal. Though it has no connection to Putana, or breasts, it stays in the piece.”
Yet another resident, Sunitha, comes to the residency from a background in children’s theatre rooted in local issues and Bharatanatyam. She has had some experience of bodywork earlier, but feels that the time spent here strengthened her understanding of centering and core strengths. Beginning two months ago with the intention of working on the archetype of the prostitute, Sunitha was riveted by Surpanakha, in her offering of her body, so full of desire, devoid of hesitation. Talking about her enigmatically titled piece, Woo Man Investigations, she says, “I thought it moving — the price she is willing to pay for her love. Surpanakha is often described as foolish, without a sense of humour, because she cannot understand the joke Rama and Lakshmana play on her. But she is someone who is unashamed of her body. A person who was complete by herself, then depleted by the people she offered herself to.”
Perhaps Sunitha’s experience at the residency may illustrate how dance learning could be, in equal parts, a realisation of concepts relating to the body and a study of technique. “When I move in this piece, I don’t see myself as a dancer. I am working with what is available in the body. I work with parts of the body to denote the price Surpanakha pays through her mutilation. While theatre offers perspectives for viewing the body, from Bharatanatyam I derive my gestural language, for the connotations of gesture can be really strong,” she says.
At the technical rehearsal, the stage gleams behind a translucent screen held together by a bamboo frame. Beyond it, a solitary dancer is perched mid-rung, on a ladder. As the lights flicker with deliberate intent, this image, of preparing, repairing and construction, seems to epitomise the process-driven evolution of the residency performances.

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