South Asian Dance Summit

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South Asian Dance Summit, Pavilion Dance, May 17-18

Seeta Patel and Kamala Deva

The Art of Defining Me   photo: Peter Schiazza

The purpose of the 24-hour South Asian Dance Summit presented by Pavilion Dance South West and Asian Arts Agency was to demystify South Asian dance for presenters and producers by allowing them to get up close and personal with the traditional form and contemporary developments. What the summit achieved was to take South Asian dance out of its cultural, indigenous box and to put it on display as a communicative art. Paradoxically, it was seeing Seeta Patel interpreting Marvin Khoo’s Bharatanatyam solo, Dancing My Siva — with all its cultural associations — that put the entire summit in perspective. Here was a classical dance form with its unmistakable sophistication in gesture and rhythm that has been developing for hundreds of years; the way Patel danced it communicated effortlessly a beauty and an excitement that was timeless. At the same time the performance contextualised the efforts by other summit choreographers to derive a contemporary form.

Of the full-length works, Subathra Subramaniam’s Under My Skin takes gesture from another kind of theatre (that of the operating room) as its inspiration in her challenge to ‘the traditional boundaries between clinical practice and dance’. Where Subramanian dips in to the Bharatnatyam form becomes a point of self-identification, a vestige of a glorious past that has nevertheless embraced the present. In his latest work, Power Games, Shane Shambhu adopts the gestures of the trading floor in his comic-strip style story of the rise and fall of a market trader and in Erhebung, Mayuri Boonham marries the sculptural form of the body with a rigid sculptural framework by Jeff Lowe, resulting in a meditative play of movement against stillness, of ripe fruit on a tree.

The summit also presented ChoreoLAB2, a series of shorter works that are still in development. Subramaniam takes her inspiration for a solo from observations of mental illness; in Breathe, Ash Mukherjee crashes deliriously into the traditional form to see what remains; Anusha Subramanyam retains the humanity of the narrative form to depict the humanity of Aung San Suu Kyi and finally Seeta Patel and Kamala Devam play devil’s advocate in a short film called The Art of Defining Me. It raises impertinent yet pertinent questions for audiences and presenters alike, for while it thumbs its nose at cultural claustrophobia and narrow mindedness (as does Seeta Patel’s series of vignettes, What is Indian Enough?), its light-hearted approach effectively transforms our perceptions.

The summit organisers were keen to provide ample opportunities for dialogue between artists and presenters and to cross-reference the dance with other practices. In the lobby of Subramaniam’s Under My Skin were a bespoke tailor, Joshua Byrne, and the surgeon Professor Roger Kneebone (Subramaniam’s collaborator on the project), both of whom demonstrated their respective forms of hand gesture. What the summit showed is thus a broad, interrelated universe of creative expression showing not only the origins but also the new directions of the traditional form. We should not be impatient; we do not have the time to see the development of these forms over the next hundred years, but both past and future exist in the present moment, and that is where the summit unequivocally placed us.


Arunima Kumar and Shane Shambhu: a rich mix

Posted: May 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Arunima Kumar and Shane Shambhu: a rich mix

Akademi presents Arunima Kumar and Shane Shambhu at RichMix, April 28.

The evening offered a rich and thought-provoking comparison of the ways these two artists, both trained in classical dance (Kumar in kuchipudi, Shambhu in bharatanatyam), have chosen to interpret their respective dance form for today’s audiences.

Kumar uses her remarkable qualities and her understanding of the dance to reveal the essence of classical form in a contemporary creation. From the moment the lights pick out the crimson presence of Kumar in her latest work, AUM kara, a sense of mystery prevails. She seems to dance from a point of stillness around which her arms and hands are fluid expressions. Connected powerfully to the floor, her body is nevertheless lightness itself and her eyes remain calm and reverent in the face of divinity.

In DHeeM – Dance of the sculpture, the subject is well chosen, for the sculptural qualities of grace, beauty, rhythm and ecstasy are those that Kumar inherently possesses. Her torso is again held in total control, like a block of stone out of which the emotional body emerges. There is a feel of love and compassion, and a deep contentment – even ecstasy – while her physical and rhythmical mastery remains supreme. There is something more of Kumar herself here, which may be a subtle evolution in her creative approach.

In her final offering, Maheshwara – Celebrating Shiva, Kumar chooses a piece of traditional choreography by Padmashri Guru Jaya Rama Rao in which she gives full expression to her virtuoso technique. It is a revelation how such a small gesture as the opening of a hand can be magnified into an event of breathtaking power. Throughout her dances, Kumar’s beautiful shapes and mastery of every fine detail are a joy to watch.

Classical dance, whatever its roots, carries with it a cultural identity. In Pogunilla, Shane Shambhu explores how deeply ingrained such identity is. Symbolically, he divests himself of his outer robes to reveal a shirt and jeans. It is the beginning of a journey in which he re-choreographs a section from a well-known classical bharatanatyam work in a contemporary idiom. The contrast with Kumar’s classical form is revealing. Shambhu’s body is more relaxed, his centre more fluid, and his gestural conversation is more informal. Kumar’s dance is essentially upright, whereas Shambhu’s is in all directions, engaging the floor in ways that would be unthinkable in classical form. Shambhu relishes this freedom of movement, but if the outer form has changed, his cultural and religious attitude has not. This is what he cannot escape.

In his second work of the evening, Dr Jagad & Mr Haridas, Shambhu is in full theatrical mode, with a table of phials, a chart of scribbled formulae and a plastic rat that suffers a squelchy death. In this retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story with a DNA twist, the point at which Dr Jagad creates his alter ego, Mr Haridas, in the laboratory is where the dance begins. Finding new forms to portray psychological drama is the fertile ground of contemporary dance and Shambhu experiments with the DNA of bharatanatyam to this end with great conviction.

Since the evening’s works inevitably invite a comparison of the approaches of these two artists, it is this: Kumar keeps her subject matter – and her music –close to the roots of her cultural and spiritual heritage, and even when she creates a work, her form is never far from an expression of classical dance. Shambhu, by contrast, thrusts himself into a contemporary situation and challenges himself to devise a grammar that is pertinent to his narrative. Both approaches are valid, and each brings to the stage a living response to the cultural and spiritual heritage they share.