September 22, 2012

Bollywood dancing

Sister teaching me some Bollywood moves at special request.

Sister (N): Move your hips!
(Odissi teacher: Don't move your hips!)
R: But I am moving my hips!
(R flails about, hands follow the eyes, yatho hastas tatho drishtir and all)
N (disapproval writ large on her face): You're too classical. You can't do this.
R (stumped, mid chikni chameli move).

From the Gita Govinda

Yami he! kam iha saranam
(sakhi)-jana-vacana-vancita
Yami he...

To whom should I turn for shelter now?
All my friends have gone back on their promises
Oh! Where do I go? Where do I go?

September 15, 2012

Dance Dialogues in Bombay

My new love is Dance Dialogues in Bombay.

For the past ten months, with two dancer friends, I have facilitated a series of informal dance-related sessions that seek to engage with dance in ways that go beyond performance. We did think of various other names, but it felt as hard as naming a baby (though I don't know what THAT feels like), so we've somehow ended up with Dance Dialogues in Bombay, which came up somewhere, and stayed.

I could wax eloquent on how enriching and frustrating it is. But I'll stick with what I just wrote as an update for the Facebook page.

Every time when we're waiting for people to turn up, five minutes before a Dance Dialogues session, we're plagued by existential questions. Why are we doing this? Whom are we doing this for? There are many moments when it all feels so pointless. Today, DD in B completed twelve sessions, and we are still full of questions. And doubt. Perhaps it is a good state to be in.

Yet, after every session, the warmth that suffuses the room swallows all our angst. We meet new dancers; every session tells me a little more about this 'fraught' dance scene in Bombay. Many denizens of the classical and contemporary still show scant interest in getting to know each other (oh yeah!). but there is something about being able to have these discussions that gives us hope and the strength to go on.

We'd love to grow, to have more and more dancers participate at our dialogues, but we can only do this with your support. Support us through feedback, suggestions, in kind, and with your presence at our sessions. We hope to see more and more of you at coming sessions, and we'll endeavour to let DD in B remain an informal and personal space. All of you are part of the DD in B community as people we know, love and care about, and because we all care about dance. Thanks for being with us, and we'll see you soon.
We'd love to grow, to have more and more dancers participate at our dialogues, but we can only do this with your support. Support us through feedback, suggestions, in kind, and with your presence at our sessions. We hope to see more and more of you at coming sessions, and we'll endeavour to let DD in B remain an informal and personal space. All of you are part of the DD in B community as people we know, love and care about, and because we all care about dance. Thanks for being with us, and we'll see you soon.We'd love to grow, to have more and more dancers participate at our dialogues, but we can only do this with your support. Support us through feedback, suggestions, in kind, and with your presence at our sessions. We hope to see more and more of you at coming sessions, and we'll endeavour to let DD in B remain an informal and personal space. All of you are part of the DD in B community as people we know, love and care about, and because we all care about dance. Thanks for being with us, and we'll see you soon.

September 13, 2012

The Akram Khan Dance Company in Bombay

Something I wrote; this was first published in the Asian Age on September 13, 2012.



Eager crowds inciting near-stampede situations are an unlikely sight at dance performances. But once in a while, there comes a dancer who can drive audiences to a point just beyond reason. Akram Khan is one such artist.  In Mumbai on Tuesday, their fourth stop in a six-city Indian tour as part of The Park’s New Festival, the Akram Khan Dance Company finished their performance leaving audiences in a state of suspended anticipation.

A British-Bangladeshi dancer and choreographer, Akram Khan trained in Kathak with Pratap Pawar from an early age. Later, he studied at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, beginning to present solo performances of his work in the 1990s before co-founding the Akram Khan Dance Company with producer Farooq Chaudhry in 2000. What is interesting about the company is that it was, from its inception, a conscious collaboration between an artist and a manager who sought to form innovative business models in dance. In a not so well-publicised series of discussions travelling with the festival, the British Council features Chaudhry and Khan with local panelists in a discussion on contemporary dance and the business of arts in India.

On Tuesday, the company performed Gnosis, an evening of classical Kathak and contemporary dance. Gnosis begins with Polaroid Feet, choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi. It incorporates an Ardhanariswara verse composed by Lacchu Maharaj.

A rectangular path of light that cut the stage in half, running upstage to downstage, was the space Khan began in, a grounding motif he would return to often in the course of his performance., Khan intersperses the austere heaviness of Shiva with the grace and languor of Parvati. Bursting with explosive energy, his body sometimes finds itself in unlikely forms, the vigour of Shiva lingering on in the lasya of Parvati.

The first few instances of tatkar (Kathak footwork) are met with resounding applause and cheers.  Kathak tends to exacerbate itchy palms in clap-happy audiences. The dynamic between dancer and musicians is fascinating and used to Khan’s advantage. The musicians get their spot in the sun; the vocalist Faheem Mazhar sings a fairly elaborate bandish as Khan disappears for a quick costume change. Later, Khan invites his two percussionists, Bernhard Schimpelsberger on drums and percussions and Sanju Sahai on tabla, to have a friendly dialogue, as he takes a quick breather between two rounds of tatkar.

What Khan and D’Lo, the queer political theatre artist/ comedian who performed on Monday share, is the ability to seamlessly weave the personal into performance, and in turn, an almost-courageous willingness to use art to reflect on life. Khan is at his charming best when he breaks off in the middle of his second piece, Tarana, to talk to the audience. He speaks of his strong rooting in tradition, and why he shall never break away. He tells stories that have shaped, for him, an experience of spirituality, over time. He says, “I feel the need to continue with tradition simply because I feel it is eroding away. When I work with the contemporary, I see it as research; that is my laboratory space. But tradition grounds me. I see classical work as imbued with the spiritual and I can never move away from it.”

And then, without much ado, as if that is what must logically follow, he recites the bols of teentala and proceeds to engage in percussive argument, throwing challenges at Schimpelsberger and Sahai. Every Kathak recital accompanied by musicians makes the most out of percussion-dancer jugalbandis. Yet Khan seems especially playful, almost belligerently tossing his head to mock the two percussionists after he executes a particularly complex phrase with his feet. There is mischief in movement, and that in costume – Khan’s dangerously low-waisted churidars peek out from under his achkan in particularly exuberant moments.

At the end of the first half, Khan begins a sequence of footwork; this seems to travel upwards, through his body, until his entire body unabashedly vibrates with the energy of the tatkar. Eventually, the last pool of light onstage bears down on him, and then the darkness swallows him whole.

The second, eponymous half of Gnosis begins with guest artist Fang-Yi Sheu, a former principal dancer of the Martha Graham Dance Company. This piece is inspired by the story of Gandhari from the Mahabharata, a queen who chooses to blindfold herself so that she can share her blind husband’s journey. It again begins in a square pool of harsh light, a pool that grows as Fang-Yi Sheu scopes the space around her and feels its boundaries. While trying to find her Gandhari, in one section, she keeps her eyes shut; this is followed by a section of intense partnering with Khan, a long white staff the span of distance between them. After the performance, she reveals – though she must open her eyes in order to work with Khan in the duets, she cannot make eye contact and thus her knowledge of his presence is greatly hinged on the sound of his movement. She demonstrates quickly - what she uses most often in Gnosis tethers her gaze to her body angles, whereas isolating her head and moving it sideways produces an entirely different quality of focus.

Beyond skill and virtuosity, creating engaging performance is the art of balancing infinitesimal quantities. As the company takes its final bow, spectators longingly wonder if there is more to come. It is clear that Gnosis assimilates fully the potential of ephemeral desires.

Ranjana Dave

September 10, 2012

Dear spammer,

I have begun to encounter spam with bad spelling.

Until now, the spam that managed to land in my inbox had decent spelling. They offered me sums of money dancers don't usually earn. And they were sometimes very specific, offering me performances in lands unknown. I was moved by the thought of someone who had done such solid research that they knew I danced; so moved that I almost replied to them saying - thank you for your interest in my performance career but I think Nigeria is too far away, especially if you are not paying for my air ticket.

But if you send me spam that reads 'have s xe with otu coe mieet metns', even if there were any chance of us getting together, it would be stubbed out faster than you could type 'have s xe with otu', for I abhor atrocious spelling. It is a huge turn-off.

Beauty lies in the eyes of the copy editor. Even if you spam.


September 06, 2012

Half-full or half-empty?

This was first published in the Asian Age on September 6, 2012. 


“You cannot be a dancer for half a day,” asserts Ketaki Desai, Odissi dancer and digital media professional. She continues, “Choosing between other day jobs and dance is making the choice between earning a living and living; it is a tough but necessary choice. Every profession, including a part-time one, requires commitment, and with other jobs and social obligations to take care of, one is being unfair to dance.”

This is a debate where all the answers are personal and extremely complex. Is it possible to strike a balance between a serious career in dance and a day job in an unrelated profession? In the urban context, the young dancer constantly sees classmates in school and college surge ahead on the path to conspicuous consumption with conventional jobs. To earn a livelihood, the dancer often falls back on another ‘career’, funnelling some of what is earned back into dance.

Often, free will and professional decisions are not the best of friends; one is left with no choice but to cut down on dancing and do some ‘real’ work. Yet it is interesting how we set up, through language, the distinction between ‘dancing’ and a ‘career’. No matter how serious the pursuit of dance is, one is inclined to associate ‘career’ with a profession that guarantees returns and ensures survival. While work brings enough money, it leaves one with less time to dance. This can be a vicious circle, for many dancers take to other work to subsidise their dancing; gradually, they notice that they are financially secure but have almost given up on dancing.

Odissi dancer Supriya Nayak worked in another profession for about five years before deciding that she would focus on dance. She says, “Dance was extremely personal; it was my identity, the first thing I would relate to. But I possibly wasn’t ready to step either way and decide. There is the uncertainty of making dance work for you and of earning a living.”

Meanwhile, history and lore make much of the single-minded pursuit of a goal in any sphere of life. They speak of Arjuna, the archer who focused on the eye of the fish. There are hardly any paeans to multi-tasking, unless one counts divinities with eight or ten arms, or ten heads. Members of the Odissi ensemble Nrityagram, in residence at the NCPA recently, continually emphasised the need to be completely dedicated to dance. In an interview many years ago, Nrityagram’s artistic director, Surupa Sen, famously likened dance to a jealous husband who would not permit other commitments.

Complete dedication is a tough decision to make; it is also a luxury that is afforded to one only in certain situations. While one could be a good dancer and hold down another job, can one reach excellence and work wonders in the boardroom? Conversely, given that it is near impossible to make a living out of dance performance, does a fulltime dancer find it hard to focus on her own practice while trying to eke out a living in dance? Often, dance teaching is seen as an easy back-up plan for dancers who don’t make it on stage or as choreographers. Many young dancers who have consciously come to dance teaching are wary of that complacence. They have also grown to realise that all other activity, including that which is dance-related, can impinge on their practice.

Bharatanatyam dancer Charles Ma, who worked in advertising and concentrated on building a career as a soloist for many years, believes that one has to fight for survival in any profession. Reminiscing about this experience, he says, “In some ways, it worked for me. I rehearsed in the mornings and then went to work. But later, I’d be working in office and thinking of dance. The stress and worklife habits – eating junk food, for one, were making me abuse my instrument – the body. Now, though I only work in dance, it is still as hectic. I teach at my studio each morning, then at a school, from where I return and practice by myself into the night, followed by dinner which I cook, before going to bed for a few hours.”

With the pressure of having to creatively impart knowledge, dancer-teachers are a tired bunch with sore throats; however, the thrill of discovering how their work in dance feeds into their personal practice keeps them going. Nayak, who now teaches dance and works on developing a dance-in-education module while continuing to perform, finds that her present job is perhaps more tiring, yet very exciting. “As a dance teacher, just passing on what I have learnt doesn’t require time and effort. But you need to give it thought if you aspire to do it in a creative and exciting manner. If I was doing my earlier job and taking classes, I would not be working past 10 pm. This takes up more time but it is immensely satisfying because it influences how I approach my own work,” she remarks. 

Though Walter Benjamin may damningly say, “He who cannot take sides should keep silent,” it is clear that ankle bells have a mind of their own.

Ranjana Dave