Poorna Swami, Ligament’s Editor, writes on encountering contemporary dance in two cities.
In 1996, at the age of three, I moved with my mother from Delhi to Bangalore. Between the trauma of navigating a new school, new friends, and a new language, I discovered what would eventually become an integral part of my life and career—dance, really, contemporary dance.
In this new, unfamiliar city, spectacles of women in silk costumes leaping and spinning in precise rhythms were almost weekly rituals. My grandfather would take me with him to Ravindra Kalakshetra, Chowdiah, and ADA Rangamandira, to performances by classical dance greats like Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarukkai, and Leela Samson. There was Yakshagana, scary and enchanting, in the parking lots of various theatres. There was the annual trip to Vasanta Habba at Nrityagram—falling asleep between Shiva and Parvathi and waking up in the middle of the night to see the dance continue into dawn. To the child that I was, this was a strange and exciting world that I desperately wanted to enter.
I was to begin my dance training in Bharatanatyam with Hamsa Moily, who happened to be a friend of the family’s. She wanted me to wait until I was six years old. The wait seemed eternal. So in the meanwhile, I had to invent my own dance. I called it “Bharatanatyam”. I pranced around the living room, waving contorted hand gestures as I stomped every surface, from floor to divan—I was the performances I had seen and nobody could tell me otherwise. My Bharatanatyam could be danced to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and John Coltrane, to any kind of bad swing music at the adult parties I was dragged to. At one such dreary wine-and-cheese affair, my mother warned, “Just don’t do your Bharatanatyam here”.
My far-reaching imitations—rather, interpretations—of the traditional performances I had seen hinted at the iconising kind of contemporary dance that I might now call contrived. But the attempt to find movement and choreography that did something, meant something, was entirely honest. As I would learn years later, it was filled with the inquisitive spirit that forms the spine of contemporary dance.
It wasn’t long before my Bharatanatyam expanded its lexicon. My grandfather’s office was next to the Natya Institute in Malleswaram, so I spent many afternoons looking through the studio’s window at Maya Rao teaching Kathak. Half-uttered thaats and lopsided chakkars also became my Bharatanatyam. When the Russian Ballet came to Bangalore, I stood on my toes and angled my head with a sense of grandeur. My movements mimicked divergent classical traditions because I wanted to have to it all. Today, I see that as the very possibility of contemporary dance—the possibility of holding multiple histories and yet being subservient to none.
After I finally began my formal dance training and my definitions of Bharatanatyam had given way to ones that were handed to me, the kinds of performances I got to see around Bangalore changed. It wasn’t just the performances. It was the city—the shops, roads, and restaurants, the lone Corner House growing into too many to locate. I grew up with the city. It was a shifting city. And my dance could not encapsulate that shift.
One of my earliest memories of choreography that was decidedly “contemporary” is of Navtej Singh Johar performing at J.N. Tata Auditorium. He balanced on his bare belly upon the edge of a bed frame. I could tell there was something about the way he moved that was similar to the many silk-costumed women I had seen. Oblivious to his roots in Bharatanatyam, I could not explain what exactly that was. I asked my mother, “Where can I do that?”. I wanted his dance, too, perhaps more than all the others, but it was only many years later that I understood that.
Every year, at ISKON temple, I watched Kalakshetra dance Hindu epics exactly as Rukmini Devi Arundale had choreographed them. It was beautiful to see dance as an archive of aesthetics and historical moments. But in a city that was visibly growing, I could not see the archives of dance expand. It held the same gods. The same songs. The same rituals.
When Ranga Shankara opened in 2004, my view of performance widened. The flirtation and loss in Ratan Thiyam’s three-hour epic Ritu Sambharam, Teejan Bai’s traditional and blatantly feminist telling of the Mahabharata, and the disjuncture of sound and body in Veenapani Chawla’s Ganapati were moments of revelation. Here were individuals inside codified languages, invention inside inheritance. Watching what I was told was “theatre”, with its quirks and digressions and brashness, actually distanced me from dance, from the classical Bharatanatyam I knew. I felt I had no voice in dance because the dance I knew would never allow it. What began as a desire to tell different stories soon became the longing for a different tongue.
The growing discontentment with Bharatanatyam in my angst-filled teenage years led to a constant search for everything that supposedly offended it. Attakkalari’s India Biennial was a prominent presence in the city by then and the access to contemporary dance as a genre, in iterations from multiple cultures, was another important shift in how Bangaloreans like me related to dance. I found excitement in the mechanics of Dance Theatre CcadoO from South Korea, in the pedestrian allegiance of virtuosic bodies in the work of Samir Akika from Germany.
The city as a whole showed me glimpses of the world now, from London-based Shobana Jeyasingh’s Kalakshetra departure to the hysterics and composed tableaus of German Ben J. Riepe. Pina Bausch’s Bamboo Blues was only a train ride away. Contemporary dance artists closer home were increasingly easier to spot in the smog of puritan resistance—Nritarutya, STEM, Rukmini Vijayakumar, Veena Basavarajaiah. At a post-show discussion during Attakkalari’s 2009 Biennial, Artistic Director of Nrityagram, Surupa Sen, was asked why the company did not make “contemporary” work. Sen did not buy the accusation. “Contemporary”, she said, “is not just a way of dancing, it is a way of thinking”.
I thought about her claim carefully. It was true: my dancing was at odds with my thinking. I could not reconcile them. If you put me in a room and asked me to dance I would not break into a symmetrical jati; I did not know how I would move at all. Fortunately, I came of age in the “YouTube moment”. The glimpses of the world’s dance that Bangalore had offered me led to history lessons on a laptop screen. I spent hours watching videos of everything from Kelucharan Mohapatra dancing as Radha, to Martha Graham’s Lamentation, to Merce Cunningham’s Second Hand, to I Can See Myself in Your Pupil by Gallim Dance, who then had yet to establish themselves in New York.
These video lessons, particularly the ones from the United States, turned into tactile encounter (both as dancer and audience) when I went to America, eventually to get my degree in Dance-Theatre and English from Mount Holyoke College. Here, I learned new techniques and dance histories, and even bits of repertory works that I had first found on YouTube! I also actively resisted drawing on the dance knowledge that I already had, and tried very hard to renounce Bharatanatyam completely. What I had thought up as “contemporary”, or even relevant to me, denounced a history that lived in my bones.
My myopia became apparent after I found New York City. There, I spent my summer and winter breaks interning in the arts, watching the city’s dance artists up-close. Eventually, I moved to New York and began presenting my own work. Work that was a conflation of acquired geographies and histories. At the 2016 La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival, in a contemporary piece called Cartography, I danced and simultaneously recited an original poem. It was a work of lust, of lament, of the stuff of Bharatanatyam’s ashtapadi reconfigured. But this renewed understanding of what could be my contemporary dance and my Bharatanatyam came only when I reflected upon the dance works I saw in New York City with those I had seen growing up in Bangalore.
When contact improvisation legends Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson touched not once in Night Stand, I found myself in tears. This was the beautiful in the subversive. And to think I had decided, because of Bharatanatyam’s gentrification, that resistance from touch could only be prudish! Pavel Zustiak’s The Painted Bird Trilogy held the political fervour and spectacle of Ratan Thiyam’s work, but more austere and distorted. Tere O’Connor, time and again, stumped me with structure, a mathematics that was naked and still lush. His work reminded that it was the mathematics of rhythm and emotion that had always fascinated me about Bharatanatyam. And Trisha Brown was testament that precise movement did not have to be rigid. That dance, even as it collided with visual art and architecture, was always about the body. Bill T. Jones’s works, sometimes criticised by others around me for having “too many words”, seemed content in their choices to use text—in Bangalore speech in dance had been ordinary, uncontested.
Points of consonance and points of disclosure between dances in New York and Bangalore enabled me with the freedom of association, the possibility of finding vocabularies that can respond to my growing archive of multiple movement histories. Through my work, I learned about creating poems, fragmented lines of intimacy, politics, invented mythologies that did not want to fight a reductive battle of classical and contemporary, relevant and “trying-too-hard”. In New York I sought idioms that might somehow capture my sense of place, of places—I navigated that new place through dance, and dance through the new place.
A few months before I returned to Bangalore, I saw Nrityagram perform at New York’s City Center. They performed Ode to Shiva, obviously a piece on the same god I had once tried to flee. But I now saw this work grounded in classical vocabulary with a new and giving awareness of manifold perspectives. I remembered that it was someone from this very group that had got me thinking all those years ago about what is “contemporary”. Watching this work, I noticed how travel had made me neither jaded nor distanced. Rather, I was excited by my movement, within my body and across continents. Here, on this stage, in this dance, was my New York and my Bangalore.
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
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