Choreographer Venuri Perera discusses dissent, dance, and community with Asim Siddiqui
Among the works by a younger generation of contemporary dancers from South Asia, Venuri Perera’s have been deeply impactful with their political content and innovative movement. Her unique style emerges from a rigorous engagement with political conflict in Sri Lanka as well as from experimentation with classical and contemporary movement arts in collaboration with various artists. Asim Siddiqui, faculty in the Philosophy department at Azim Premji University, interviews (via email) Venuri to explore various aspects of her embodied inquiry into the relationship between politics and aesthetics.
Asim Siddiqui: I would like to begin by asking about your process of creating artwork in terms of form and content. With Thalattu, Kesel Maduwa and Traitriot, your themes and movements have been explicitly political, for which contemporary dance has provided a subversive medium. Can you tell me about your engagement with political themes through a trained body that results in dissenting movement art?
Venuri Perera: I grew up in an environment where I was surrounded by activists, human rights lawyers, and journalists. To make political work seemed not only natural but necessary for me, especially when I returned to Sri Lanka (after my studies) to the post-conflict Rajapakse regime. I believe that as artists, we have a responsibility to raise a voice, especially in contexts such as ours. In Sri Lanka, visual artists, theatre makers, film makers were doing so in various capacities, but not dance makers. I wanted this to change. It couldn’t be done by working within the frame of Kandyan dance. Kandyan dance represents Sinhalese nationality and patriotism and dancing it was about preserving culture and heritage, achieving technical perfection and, to some level, entertainment. The frame of contemporary dance held the freedom to experiment with the form. And the platform for independent dance, the Colombo Dance Platform, which was created with the support of the Goethe Institut in 2010, was critical in allowing for a safe space where subversive art could be shown. But the essence of the Kandyan training is still very much a part of me. My works question the structures and frameworks that are there within this form, which in turn communicates the larger political themes.
AS: You mentioned your training in the ‘classical’ Kandyan dance in your formative years, from which you gradually moved away. Tell me a bit more about your relationship with Kandyan and the change in perspective that came with an awareness of ‘politics of classicisation’. Do you continually dissent against such a construction of classical tradition through your experimental movements?
VP: I started learning Kandyan dance at the age of 8, at the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya. My teachers, Vajira Chitrasena and, later, Upeka Chitrasena, were very strict, like most classical dance teachers. Although I sometimes hated the rigorous training, these formative years have been crucial for me to build a strong foundation for everything that came after that. The training I received, I could say, is unparalleled to what I would have received if I went anywhere else.
It’s well known that Guru Chitrasena was responsible for bringing the dance to the proscenium stage, making it palatable to a middle class audience. But the politics surrounding this was never spoken about. I first learnt about Kandyan dance and its connection to the Sinhalese nationalisation movement which took place during independence, while I was at Laban (UK). There was a huge influence from the parallel movement in India during this period. I remember everything I thought changing at Laban..., giving me a new force to be able to ‘tamper’ with the Kandyan form. I also started to see similarities with its syllabus and the classical ballet syllabus. This helped me lift the heavy guilt I felt when trying to work with this revered form as I recognised it for what it was—a modern art form.
Kandyan dance was originally derived from a healing ritual and was only danced by men. Unlike Bharatanaytam, it is abstract as it doesn’t have mudras. It’s Nritta—pure dance. There are jumps and kicks and the dynamics are strong and can be very fast. So the natural point of departure for me was to find meaning in movement and move only when completely necessary. After women started dancing in the ‘60s, Vajira was the first professional female dancer—with her, the form became more graceful and the dancers presented beauty, always smiling. So I searched for the grotesque, fragmented, distorted. Less grace. Purposeful manipulation of the face. My first solo, Abhinishkramanaya, is about the struggle I felt at my point of departure.
More recently, when I started researching ritual performance for Kesel Maduwa, I gained a new interest in the form. I realised that the classicalisation had happened through a certain western perspective that ritual is ‘tribal’ and uncivilised and concerned mainly with aesthetics. I saw that very essential elements had been left out in this process, ones that were more relevant and contemporary than the technically evolved form I had learnt. This has somehow led me to become less interested in ‘form’ and more in being and doing.
AS: In your works, gender seems to provide the grounding for art to emerge, be it stories of Tamizh women in Thalattu or gendered resistance in Traitriot. Can you tell me more about how the lived experience of gender shapes your ideas and works, while also balancing the privilege of Sinhalese identity?
VP: Each time I walk on the road alone, I am made aware that I am a woman. I start to hate men when I’m on a bus, in a tuk tuk (auto rickhsaw), or on the beach. Experiences I have had are countless, and I imagine they are not very different to what other women from our region face. These have directly or indirectly seeped into my work. The last section in Kesel Maduwa addresses the catcalls and looks that women receive on the streets. I did a performance last year, where I wore a white (the colour of purity, what we wear to a temple or a funeral) sleeveless top and skirt which was just above the knees (the magic area) and went on to the streets. I carried a bag of clothes which could be used to cover me up if necessary. I very obviously clicked photos, or pointed the phone camera at cars that slowed down or honked, or of people who made passing comments. One man was on the phone, talking about his mother who was dying of cancer, and still had time to tell me to ‘cover up my chest’ as he walked past me. I stopped him and politely waited for him to finish his conversation, during which he got very uncomfortable and later apologised. He couldn’t even look me straight in the face. He claimed he was only doing so because he felt I was like his sister. A couple of times I took a tuk tuk from the street and the drivers flashed me. I immediately asked them to kindly pack it in and started my ‘performance’, took out my phone and started to take photos, and chased them when they ran or sped off. These I think were moments when my performance experience helped my lived experience!
I am a Sinhalese Buddhist middle class woman from Colombo. So I am a privileged minority and I am acutely aware of this. It comes for me with a sense of responsibility. My voice is allowed to be heard, so how can I attempt to give a voice to the voiceless? When I was working on Thalattu, I had many questions. What right did I have to talk about the ‘other’, how can I imagine to empathise with their struggle, how can I use movement derived from Kandyan dance, a very Sinhalese form, to represent the Tamizh Community. In a sense, it was the overwhelming guilt of being the privileged that fuelled the making of this work. Being a Sinhalese woman also comes with an unwritten code of conduct, including how one should dress, especially if you are a Kandyan dancer, as you are then the ultimate representative the of the culture and race. So in Traitriot, I went about subverting these codes quite directly as a method of defiance. Kesel Maduwa was a reaction to the Buddhist monk-led violence against the Muslim minority community—two women, Kumari and I, conducted the so-called ritual. Women are still not allowed to conduct ritual or enter the sacred space.
AS: As a trained psychologist, you have worked on issues of post-war trauma and depression and have employed movement arts for therapy. These are also your themes in creating art. Tell me about of this internal dialectic of being both a psychologist and an artist, and how these two flow into each other’s domains.
VP: It has been six years since I worked professionally in this field so I no longer identify strongly as a psychologist. I do believe that the mind and body are interconnected, so how we work with our bodies affects the mind and, through our bodies, we can access or change patterns in the mind. I think this connection is the reason for the transformative power of performance, for the audience and, sometimes, even for the performer. (In my current series of works, where I speak very intimately with one audience member at a time in complete darkness, sometimes in question-answer form, I do sometimes feel like I am playing the role of a therapist, and each interaction changes me a little.)
I continue to work with creative and therapeutic movement, with groups and individuals, separate from my solo practice. Last year, I worked in Batticaloa with a group of young women to devise a memorial piece for the ten-year anniversary of the Asian Tsunami. This was performed in the frame of a ‘happening’, in resettled villages where people’s lives are still defined by what happened during the ten minutes of that Tsunami in 2004. Despite some initial worries with the organisers about the piece being non-narrative, it was well received by the villagers, who came and shared with us their experiences after the performance. Most recently, I was commissioned by the Chitrasena Dance Company to work with a large group of young dancers and actors from Batticaloa and Colombo on the theme of ‘Reconciliation’. We devised the work with their creative input and content, and the piece was performed in Colombo. In works like this, especially, process is more important than the final product. That’s where the reconciliation takes place, while sharing thoughts and experiences and working closely with our bodies. It was tough to learn to find an artistic compromise without compromising on quality as content and what is being communicated is crucial. These are always humbling experiences for me, where I believe more and more in the power of the medium of movement and performance.
AS: The Indian government’s role in the Sri Lankan Civil War was quite dubious in the 1980s, as you know. So is performing a work like Traitriot in India an act of dissent against the jingoistic nationalism of both countries? The work is of special relevance in India now as the country is nurturing hatred towards other nations while labelling any disobedient voice as ‘traitor’.
VP: When I started to make the work, it was very much driven by what was happening in Sri Lanka at the time. When I performed the first version at Gati (Delhi), I had the lights switched off and on to create the intermittent blackouts. But there was a sense that the action on stage was removed from the audience. I wanted this to change as it soon became clear for me that this was not just about home. Inviting the audience to open and close their eyes, instead of switching on and off the lights, was to implicate them and to show that this is not an issue of the ‘other’. When I performed the work in India, only the Chennai audiences connected it to what was going on with the Modi government. For me it’s also interesting how different audiences react to the instructions—how obedient are you as a nation.
Unfortunately, now the work seems relevant not only in India, but alarmingly in a large part of the world, where the far-right seems to be gaining power and nationalism is on the rise.
AS: Tell me something about your current engagements, are you developing your next work?
VP: I just returned from Japan after performing in Sankar Venkateswaran’s Water Station. The process in his new space in Attappady was such a fantastic experience—I hope the collaboration continues somehow.
Recently, I have been lucky enough to travel a bit with my work, which has made me encounter the various gruelling visa processes to enter different countries. My current pieces revolve around the theme of passports and their socio-political hierarchies, the ‘rituals’ we have to perform, the insane questions we have to answer, and the amount of information we have to provide in order to obtain a visa, even for a few days. A satirical ritual titled Passport Blessing ceremony and a one-on-one performance in the dark, Entry No-Entry, were both created when I was not in Sri Lanka and have never been performed there. Both these works are moving into the realm of performance, rather than dance. I am becoming more interested in the space between dance, theatre, and performance art. I am to perform Entry No-Entry at the Colombo Art Biennale next month.
I am really enjoying the one-on-one, complete darkness format and have another piece Hold you, which has more to do with shared memory and intimacy with strangers in a public space. It’s one of the only pieces where I know the audience goes away with a great feeling!
Surprisingly, with the change of government, I have found myself in two ways connected to it rather than on the opposing side! I am now on the Dance Panel of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka! It’s still a bit ambiguous what this means exactly, but I am really looking forward to seeing how we can actually use government support to nourish a young contemporary/experimental dance scene. I am also a visiting lecturer at the University of Visual and Performing Arts (Colombo) and there is a possibility we can make some much needed reformations in the syllabus and teaching methods that exist. Having my foot in the door may allow me not just to raise a voice or be critical, but actually work towards changing structures. I am trying to remain hopeful!
I also had the privilege to curate this year’s edition of the Colombo Dance Platform, which was titled ‘Shakti: A Space for the Single Body’. We invited solo women artists from the region, as well as those working around the layered concept of gender. We also invited a group of performing arts students from Jaffna and Batticaloa to watch and participate in workshops led by the artists. Hopefully, some thoughts have been provoked, some seeds planted, some connections made. It was my first time working in this capacity and I think I lost quite a bit of hair during this process, had many existential crises, and came out of it older but more determined to work.
I have a couple of collaborations coming up next year that I am excited about. One with Lea Moro, a young choreographer from Germany, and another, a three way-collaboration with Natsuko Tezuka from Japan and Yeongrung Su from South Korea. It will be my first time collaborating with choreographers and I am really looking forward to seeing how that goes!
Venuri Perera holds Master's in Clinical Psychology, as well as a Post Graduate Certificate in Dance in the Community from Laban, London. Venuri has collaborated in dance/theatre/live-art/multimedia/film/therapeutic movement/mixed-abled dance projects in Europe, and South and East Asia. Her works include Abhinishkramanaya, Thalattu, Kesel Maduwa and Traitriot, among others.
Asim Siddiqui is faculty in the Philosophy department at the School of Liberal Studies at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. In his doctoral research, he inquired into the philosophy of aesthetic pedagogy for ethical action. He is now focusing on dialoging Ambedkarite and feminist theories, as well as designing art-humanities curricula and pedagogy for socio-economically disadvantaged students. He previously worked in the social sector and in technology start-ups.
In October of this year, during its annual IGNITE! dance festival, Gati Dance Forum launched the much-awaited Tilt. Pause. Shift: Dance Ecologies in India. The book’s various essays consider how we in India might generate a localised, yet internationally-aware, vocabulary to discuss, describe, and push back against the various modes of contemporary dance practice in this country. The first of its kind, the book took three years to complete and anchored IGNITE!’s three-day conference themed Form. Identity. Dissent. The conference, with panels that ranged from “Activism and Sexuality in Performance” to “Pedagogical Modes of Transmission Emerging from Classical Dance”, raised many questions that run through the book: What is contemporary dance? How does it, or should it, speak to a classical or colonial past? How can it negotiate its present? What aesthetic form must that present take?
These questions, along with various performance works (such as Sujata Goel’s Dancing Girl, Daniel Kok’s Cheerleader of Europe, and Preethi Athreya’s Conditions of Carriage - The Jumping Project) that formed IGNITE! 2016’s lineup have helped shape Ligament’s November 2016 issue.
Through interview, essay, poetry, and photography collected from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, this issue attempts to unravel the aesthetics and politics that surround South Asian contemporary dance and its makers.
Choreographer Mandeep Raikhy speaks with Ranjana Dave about his latest work, Queen-size.
Surjit Nongmeikapam talks about his current projects, as a part of "From somewhere in the middle"
Sadanand Menon, art critic and photographer, speaks with Ligament’s Editor, Poorna Swami, on the history of dance in India and the history of India itself.
A Poem By Karthika Nair
Meghna Bhardwaj, dancer and PhD scholar at JNU, reflects on ‘spirals’ and Euphoria in the JNU protest.
Zoha Husain responds to Joshinder Chaggar’s recent Karachi performance
Choreographer Venuri Perera discusses dissent, dance, and community with Asim Siddiqui, as a part of "From somewhere in the middle"
03-12 February, 2017 : 10 AM to 4 PM
(this does not include evening performances)
To pick up and run with a magazine that has had another life is never easy. There are those conflicting desires to find close continuity and to just scrap it all and start anew. Ligament 2016-17 reemerges from a half-way point. We want to build on the investigations and insights of the magazine’s past contributors and also find ways to say what they perhaps had wanted to say but could not, or forgot to, in that moment.
Ligament was founded to facilitate the articulation of an evolving language that encompasses the impulses of contemporary dance. The idea of “contemporary” is inherently bound to time, to a sense of history, rather multiple histories unfolding. In its 2016-17 iteration, we hope that Ligament can grapple with the idea of how dance might hold a place in-step with the patterns of active and forming histories, rather than remaining a canonised and pondered response to a bygone world. We’d like to embrace the immediacy of “contemporary”, and invite contributions from dancers, choreographers, arts practitioners, scholars, audience members, readers. In this way, we hope to reach for the intimacies, resistances, and fragilities that permeate the developing field of South Asian contemporary dance.
Articulating a medium as visceral, visual, and ephemeral as dance requires making connections to methods of thought and critique that lie outside evaluative language. So for Ligament 2016-17 we welcome, of course, the critical essay, but also audio, photographs, ekphrastic poems, interviews, and hybrid media of various kinds that might speak to us about dance, carefully and proximately. Like the anatomical connective tissue for which it is named, Ligament, we hope, can help us locate dance in tandem with the many bodies that produce and encapsulate it.
To those who find themselves here for the first time, welcome. And those whom we have met before, we are glad you are back.
—Poorna Swami, Editor
Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org