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In June, this year, four young curators of the Clark House Initiative, a visual arts collective based in Mumbai, invited the Chennai-based, internationally acclaimed contemporary dancer, Padmini Chettur, to present a discourse around her latest work, Beautiful Thing 2. They spent time researching her work and finally presented it as an arts exhibition. Well, almost. An empty cotton mill in the Laxmi Mills compound became the venue for the showing and sharing;a makeshift floor with random tiles and boards was put together, speakers were placed in two corners of the warehouse, six fans and tube lights were brought in, and the ceiling hung with a set of small metal sculptures. The stage, so to speak, was set.
Every two hours, for thirty minutes, Chettur performed excerpts from her work-of-the-moment. After every excerpt, an eclectic mix of artistes, technicians, dancers and students engaged in a dialogue of sorts. "It was an interesting platform and also worked because this piece is close to the visual arts, " she says. "It remains a proposition that remains unresolved. "
Beautiful Thing 2 (its prequel, Beautiful Thing 1 was a group performance), is a solo exploration and expression of an idea that straddles the border between two spaces - performative and non-performative. Here, Chettur is both the creator and presenter. "My task in this production, " she says, "was of marking certain spatial forms within the body that also demand from me a certain re-learning of how to be in these positions. "
Despite the structure of Beautiful Thing 2 - "it's like a poem of nine lines that remain somewhat unfinished and suspended" - this creation is a significant arrival in Chettur's personal, patient and very pertinent journey in the isolated world of contemporary dance in India. Twenty years ago, as a 21-yearold fresh from engineering college at BITS Pilani and with a formal training in Bharatanatyam, Chettur began working with the legendary dancer Chandralekha. Ten years ago, her first production, Fragility, established her as a dancer attempting to "break the myth of the strong, beautiful dancer, an impenetrable creature that we idolise".
Since then, Chettur has broken many myths and notions, classical and conventional, about dance and dancers through her abstractions that manifest in taut and convincing movements of the body. Not surprisingly, her productions have raised more than one eyebrow. "I remember, one time in Brussels, after we showed Pushed (in 2006, where six dancers journey across anger, pain, pleasure, happiness, love and lust), someone from the audience said to me that my work is built on the suffering of other dancers, " Chettur remembers. "That comment has, for some reason, stayed with me. "
Resistance is at the core of her creations. "People think I'm funny, " she says. "In my scheme of things, resistance extends to many things. I have, for years now, resisted the change to a technology-driven way of life;in dance, I have resisted the idea that performance has to entertain. I think my work resists what we see now as popular, developmental changes. "
It is also at the root of how she perceives and interprets speed. "We never, for instance, " she says, "reference our own breathing. When I work with other dancers, I'm almost always seeing it as still. Look at a sleeping body, it's so relaxed. From that state of rest, how do we move again? In many ways, that's a big part of how I train dancers. " That glacial pace of movement, that can really test your patience, also perhaps explains Chettur's own journey in dance. "I've never been a workaholic, " she says. "I like to take my own time, follow the rhythm, so to say. "
"Beautiful Thing 2 (lighting by Jan Maertenes, sound by Maarten Visser) has evoked different responses all across, " Chettur says. Commissioned for the Singapore Arts Festival, it was also among the exclusive dance performances at the bo:m festival in Korea. "Uniformly, people have either liked or disliked it. " Pretty much like Chettur and her work.
('Beautiful Thing 2' will be performed at the Sir Mutha Venkatasubbarao Auditorium, Chennai, on Nov 5)
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