The ‘Dance Platform' focussed on finding the true meaning of Contemporary Dance.

‘Contemporary' in the dictionary is described as ‘of today'. Can a fresh way of recasting the classical be called Contemporary, or does this term in dance only specify the non-classical ‘Other', to quote printed forms of the Ministry of Culture? The week-long ‘Dance Platform' initiative jointly designed by Pro Helvetia and Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, bringing together choreographers and dance practitioners from India, Switzerland and Germany for shared practice and deliberations grappling with the eternal question of defining “Contemporary Dance,” certainly provided valuable workshops for Contemporary Dance aspirants on approach and creating new movement. The current theory and practice deliberations chaired by cultural theorist Sadanand Menon began with the deep felt need to initiate a process of dialogue, which after the East/West Dance encounter of 1984, had taken a back seat.

With a quick recap on Indian material travelling to the West with art packages of ‘Orientalism', India was compelled to look at her own dance history. The revival led by persons like late Rukmini Devi had to be labelled as ‘modern' and not just as recasting of tradition. Interestingly while Rukmini Devi worked with traditional gurus like Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai to learn classical dance, Uday Shankar worked with similar haloed, traditional gurus, not to re-work tradition but for a base for discovering new dance. While institutions like Atta Kalari and others have provided training in Contemporary Dance, efforts in this direction have been at best scattered.

Art historian Sunil Kothari spoke briefly on Uday Shankar, screening excerpts of the “Labour and Machinery” dance, still considered a classic, from film Kalpana. Those with allegiance to Shankar's methodology both from family and outside had not produced work of similar quality.

Excerpts of Chandralekha's ‘Sharira' based on Ein Lal's film, were screened to show how this choreographer followed her motto of “modernity but on our own terms”. What are the reference points in this struggle for recovery of the energies of this body, asks Chandralekha, referring to the geometry of the body, its triangles, its erotica, sensuality, and spirituality.

Madhavi Mudgal spoke of her innovations within the grammar of Odissi, her recent work based on Orissan percussion instruments pertaining to different art traditions, inspiring an abstract item with the mnemonics suitably transformed to fit the classical Odissi vocabulary. Malavika Sarukkai spoke of passionate commitment to Bharatanatyam not preventing “putting mind to the body” constantly questioning the how, why and wherefore of what she presented, her choreographic departures from conventional practice, portraying themes of relevance to the contemporary world.

Not reconciled

One could sense that diehard Contemporary Dancers were not entirely reconciled to this contemporary view of working within the comfort zone of an already prescribed body language. They wanted to know the ‘challenges' which the choreographer faced leading to changes within the classical format.

More in line with what was looked for, was the talk with visual screening of her recent work “Tilt” by Anusha Lal. Speaking of experiential references, memory, space, environment, list of narratives and teacher as part of the pre-determined kinetics of body discipline in Bharatanatyam, she spoke of any departure from this combination of physical coordinates and emotion, also signifying a shift of material imagination. “How can I go away from and go back to it? Is there a way of digressing and recovering or recreating that old memory?” In “Tilt” she had discarded the frontality and centrality of Bharatanatyam , thereby changing the aesthetics which had to relate to functionality.

Tishani Doshi's talk was most interesting for here was a non-dancer, Yoga specialist used by Chandralekha in “Sharira” to make “dance happen”.

Ezter Salamon's “Dance for Nothing” at Religare, Arts I, based on John Cage's “Lecture on Nothing” claiming that “Nothing more than nothing can be said” was a political statement discarding conventional communication and all tonality in music, where ‘meanings' were only a chance product of the listener's individual perception. Speaking the words of John Cage throughout, the exceptional dancer was proving the truth of spoken words used as music being a “parallel action – another temporality following the desire for interaction with non-interference.” All very confusing for audiences in the Indian context.

After screening of some video dance work “Cartographies” choreographed by Phillipe Saire where bodies “printed on landscapes create fresh identities for urban spaces” the finale of the work-in-progress presentation at Max Mueller Bhavan, the result of a three-day intensive workshop conducted by Ester Salamon and Phillipe Saire, was most engaging. Verbalising movement done right through, the ensemble work under Ester raised pertinent questions as old as Contemporary Dance. What is Contemporary? Should artiste create art and leave audience to interpret? How did one approach sponsors for help? Surely concerns at least 60 years old or more!