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But precisely what are they dancing, Madam?" asks the young man sitting next to me, rather abashed that he can't fathom what is going on the stage. The cause of his anguish is Wall Dancing, an abstract piece by the very individualistic and avant garde dancer Padmini Chettur.
Four dancers are up on stage, faces turned to a screen, moving so slowly and with such geometric precision that if it weren't for the significant absence of music which forces all attention on the bodies and the tightly controlled movement of small muscles, you wouldn't know they had budged. This is very global, very European. There isn't a smidgen of the familiar here.
To attempt this in Chennai needed a lot of nerve. A good number of viewers in the audience were in danger of slipping into torpor. These were no stories from the epics, no familiar figures, no known music. No comfort factor, as writer, cartoonist and jury member Manjula Padmanabhan pointed out.
So what exactly is Indian contemporary dance? Is it purely abstract? Or is it only for the dance literate? Should it connect with the society around? Or can it exist for itself? Should it have no references to Indian dance forms? Or should it be defined negatively - as everything that is "not classical" - a pretty wide field?
These were the questions that dancers, scholars and viewers tried to crack at the first Prakriti Foundation award for contemporary dance held in Chennai. The winner from among the 11 competitors is to be mentored by contemporary whizkid Akram Khan.
As it happened, the troupe that won the award, Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, was the least abstract of the lot, perhaps the most dramatic, and also the one to garner the most applause. NH7, named after a national highway, was a work on the faceless men who work on the gigantic projects that run through our cities. The jury award went to Preethi Athreya's brilliant Light doesn't have arms to carry us, described as a visual transcription of a piece of piano music.
"Both these pieces were very personal and very courageous. They didn't tread any familiar paths and they carried a lot of conviction, " says jurist Emma Gladstone, artistic programmer and producer at Sadler's Well, the London dance house.
As the festival progressed, one was struck by the jaw-dropping levels of fitness being demonstrated, with quite a few dancers frequently carrying, throwing, or dragging each other across the stage. Without exception, every dancer had rippling thews and sinews that allowed them to gracefully carry off their sheaths and lycra hot pants. There was widespread use of kalaripayattu moves and yoga as well (a large number of dancers are from Attakalari, a Bangalore dance collective which boasts its own movement language).
"All the dancers were in great form - this is not something you would have seen 10 or 15 years ago, " says entrepreneur and culture activist Ranvir Shah who put the show together. "And it's fantastic that they have dipped into and trained in multiple forms from jazz, ballet and hip-hop to Bharatanatyam. "
The dancers were clearly at different levels of evolution. Chettur, who had trained under the iconoclastic Chandralekha, has already made her mark in India and the West. Others like Athreya and the Kurki team have confidently developed their language. A few are still struggling, albeit very sincerely, to get there.
"They were all good dancers - they had their strengths and weaknesses, " says Shah. "But at this point, we have to belabour the point that there is this pool of talent that has to be noticed and mentored. The question is what shape this mentoring should take. "
The whole issue of finding an audience for contemporary dance is still a problematic one. Shah points out that there is a growing pool of young, well-travelled dance lovers who are hungry to see new forms of dance. But Athreya believes that any good dance should be able to connect with audiences. "It should affect me beyond the point of understanding. It should hit me in the underbelly, arrest me. It shouldn't matter if it is good, bad, earnest, jazz, dappanguthu (Tamil folk) or Bharatanatyam. The quality of its effect should concern us the most. Both the audience and the dancer have to meet halfway for this, " says Athreya whose work was completely free of cliches and self-consciousness.
Gladstone, whose credentials as an observer of the audience-dancer connect are strong, says good art never elicits the response: "What does it mean?" "If it does raise the question it is simply bad dance or a wrong style, " she says.
Contemporary dance, as it exists in India, has a fair number of critics. Classical dancers point out that it is excruciatingly physical, driven entirely by the intellect and fails to touch the heart. "It is all very well to be minimalistic but your minimalism needs content too, " says a Bharatanatyam dancer, who asked not to be named. "The contemporary dance scene in India is sadly driven entirely by West where there is this endless hunger for novelty. "
As the Old vs New face-off continues, it might help to remember that what we now know as classical in India dates back only to the early decades of the twentieth century, consciously formatted and adapted to the sensibilities of the time. Contemporary dancers say that they would rather use this as the benchmark in their discussions.
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