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‘Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell’

Fat woman, lithe boy

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As marriages go, this seemed, on the face of it, a mismatch. A Bharatanatyam dancer, 52: a continent, a culture, a whole generation removed from a German, 33, overtly provocative, subversive, in-your-face sexual.

But beneath the surface there were commonalities. Navtej Johar was the thoughtful maverick of Bharatanatyam who'd been straining at the leash, pushing the boundaries of the tradition, using the language and form of the dance to fashion radical, even subversive narratives that astounded critics and elated audiences, and in the last decade earned him a cult following both within the country and abroad. Audiences, critics, peers: they came to scorn, they stayed to pray. Some stormed out of auditoriums but then that was part of the deal.

It wasn't very different for Ben Riepe in Dusseldorf. Love/Death/Devil: the five-part piece he crafted in 2008 shocked audiences and outraged critics. Unsurprising, that. In the course of one excerpt, audiences were walked through an alley of dead animals. Other times into a fogfilled room where they strained to see each other and the performers. Brazenly sexual, even explicit;often using disturbingly turbulent Wagnerian strains, alternately haunting/beautiful and ugly, this was work that got both brickbats and standing ovations worldwide.

Watching Love/Death/Devil on the NSD stage in New Delhi in 2011, Johar, the man who'd dared to bathe onstage and dance in a red lehenga to the iconic Krisna ni begune, knew he was in the presence of a kindred spirit. The two men met, talked, bonded, post performance. Riepe left. Came back to India and the two artistes/choreographers/dancers entered into an intense creative dialogue. They saw performances, critiqued and questioned dance premise, debated concepts of beauty and aesthetics, argued about the very raison d'etre of dance, travelled to Varanasi together. . . all the while engaged in a passionate and exhilarating dialogue.

What emerged was a strong relationship of mutual respect and trust. Which translated into an agreement to collaborate and forge a new work together. Don't Ask/Don't Tell which premieres (a world premiere) in Delhi is the outcome of that covenant of artistic faith. It's a unique work. In turns intense, riveting, theatrical, haunting, funny, philosophical, multilayered. No emblems are worn, no flags waved, no manifestoes read. And yet the work is deeply political, radical in terms of the questions it raises: about the nature and purpose of performance and performer, the definition of beauty, size-ism, sex-ism, the business of showcasing, the nature and process of catharsis.

Two German dancers, a Portuguese musician 'non-dancer' performer, an overweight Indian 'non-dancer' Sufi singer/performer, a Faridabad NGO worker-turned-performer and one Malayali Bharatnatyam dancer/yoga teacher constitute the unlikely cast. No clichês here, Johar and Riepe are at pains to emphasise: "The entire Indian cast came for six weeks to work with us in Germany. Now the Germans are here for six weeks to do the same. BUT this is not a work about tired cross-culturalism, about 'Indian' and 'German' themes. "

A raw, restless animal energy that defies easy categorisation informs this work. Sudeep, the Bharatanatyam dancer goes into yogic contortion /mock serious classical dance performance. Question: is dance acrobatics? Or classical mimetics? Overweight woman cavorts on stage humming the age-old Baby Elephant Walk ditty and chances upon supine figure of lithe, toned male. She pauses. Humour/farce suddenly transitions to raw longing as she hungrily reaches out to/for the man. Comment on the beauty, the futility, the insistence of longing? Slight boy with idiot grin/half-smirk rolls up, shorts exposing one naked thigh/leg even as the other remains encased in rugged sportswear shorts/sports shoes. One leg/toe arcs into a perfectly pouff-ish balletic stance as he intones, "This is me. And this. . . is how you see me. " Nature of duality/ways of seeing/the deceptions of perception? Dancers form graceful, ever unfolding perfect tableaux even as one of them constantly yawns through it all. Comment on the 'finished-ness' of showcased 'performance' ? For Riepe personally, this work is about achieving a quietus, a certain resolve. "It's a more mature work and I credit Navtej for this. Our constant exchange through this process helped shape my process. " Johar returns the compliment : "I trusted Ben. I felt he would never misrepresent, distort my meaning, my intent. " Those moments of epiphany in which this work abounds could only emerge from this kind of faith.

The world premier of 'Don't Ask/Don't Tell' will be held at the Sriram Centre, Delhi on November 2. It will be staged in Mumbai on November 6 and in Chennai on November 8

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