While Astad Deboo was dazzling, the rest fell short of expectations at the recent Modern Dance festival at Kozhikode.

It was a bold step by the Kerala Department of Information and Publicity to hold a Modern Dance festival at Kozhikode, for unlike the comfort zone of familiarity with classical dance, this unknown field in this part of India is one where even angels would fear to tread. For some unknown reason which even the organisers in the many inaugural speeches confessed to being ignorant of, the festival was called “Saundarya Lahiri”!

The group from Samudra based in Thiruvananthapuram led by Madhu Gopinath and Vakkom Sajeev, the main catalysts behind this festival, provided the curtain raiser with their “Cosmic Dance of Siva”. Built round the rhythms of the universe symbolised in the dancing Shiva, Anandatandava manifesting in cyclical energies of creation, destruction, preservation, salvation and illusion, was captured through many scenes.

The start with a powerful formation, the Ardhanariswara representing the complementing contrasts of Yin and Yang integrated in one identity, the alingan sequences, and some of the raw power of what was conceived as a tribal force of the universe, were all rendered by strong dancers — particularly the male half of the troupe.

Where the effect paled was in overstretching the production, the extreme physicality of the dance in the latter stages becoming more a padding for spectacle than purposeful. If editing is the need of the hour, so is the music in need of a more sensitive, soothing, melodic touch.

Brilliance and balance

The dancer of the festival was Astad Deboo, his brilliance and balance in movement, so slow, like a flower opening without one seeing conscious movement — the dancer moving through virtual non-movement — astonishing. One was never aware of the feet moving. Like a statue on ball bearings rotating slowly, Astad moved. Body and hands opened out slowly in an offering to space.

In “Stepping out”, on a barren stage denied the elaborate set with strips of cloth and panels creating several lanes through which the dancer traverses, concealing and partially revealing parts of the body, Astad still managed to create intriguing designs, with only half the body or feet or an elbow visible, Milind Srivastava's exquisite lighting doing the rest. Amazingly on a large stage, one dancer created no feel of emptiness, with the shadow and light created by lighting.

Based on Rabindra Sangeet, “Every fragment of dust is breathtaking”, with music by a Japanese composer, Astad again created magic, slowly pirouetting endlessly like a dervish, the abrupt stop of dancer and music dramatic.

Dancers' Guild from Kolkata was disappointing, its presentation of two- and three-minute scenes finishing even before anything registered on the audience. The male dancers were not the best.

Unclear announcements and inability to adequately explain the why of certain scenes when questioned by the audience in the end, made one miss more than ever the strong and assertive direction of late Manjusri Chaki Sircar and Ranjabati Sircar, the late founders of this institution. Perhaps it was just a bad day for Dancers' Guild!

Bhoomika performed “Jatakamala” on the last day with group discipline and well trained dancers. Bharat Sharma's choreography captured scenes of the “Monkey and the Crocodile”, the “Tortoise and the Birds”, rather well, hand gestures in particular with body movements very communicative.

The creeping, crawling, jumping, gliding world of animals was most convincingly captured. Using a cloth prop held in the hand to create several designs, while by no means a new idea, (late Narendra Sharma's forte in many productions), the clarity of group formations deserved praise. Instead of a stark narrative treatment, passing scenes of Gautam leaving the palace stirred by old age, death and disease, and the temptations thrown his way while he meditated were all visualised in deft snatches like brush strokes of painting.

Artist/audience interactions prompting questions of highly conditioned minds showed that an open mind for viewing Contemporary Dance is still a distant objective. The announcement that this event was to be an annual festival was a step in the right direction.