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Steps in virtual reality

With technology making forays even into classical dance, no longer do strict principles of abhinaya, mudra, or rhythm prevail, nor do notions of narrative cogency.

Chitra is free to execute dance phrases without musical constraints.

HOW DOES the Greenwich of our geography textbooks connect with redefinitions of contemporary dance in Bangalore? Can technology become an intrinsic element of movement arts? Will the traditional world attuned to classical norms of dance accept an interface that treats music as a mere accessory?

Answers to all three questions were up the air during a preview of "(h)Interland," an experiment at transcending space and time by London-based dancer-choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh.

Its crux was an input by Chitra Srisailam, a long-standing member of Shobana's company, who beat geographical constraints through a real time webcast via live video link to merge with the actual performance at the Greenwich Dance Agency in London from October 24 to 26, though her stage was the local landscaped terrace at The Park hotel.

What were the basic tenets of the dance installation? Shobana explains: "The starting point is the undoing of location. The hybrid nature of my dance language has always needed dancers with complicated cultural hinterlands and to assemble the traditional infrastructure for choreography (physically present dancers in a geographically specific rehearsal studio) has always meant flying people over from different parts of the world and setting them up temporarily in London."

In defiance of this convention, the installation evokes the tantalising heaves and sighs of Bangalore's chaotic traffic through a colour-hazed, zippy film by Peter Gomes, projected onstage in London, eliciting Chitra's piece that is faintly inspired by a ride through the IT hub city. Unlike most fuzzy webcam projections, Chitra emerges vital, even larger than life on screen, thanks to the internet wizardry of Bangalore-based Foresee Multimedia Pvt. Ltd. Like her illustrious predecessors in contemporary dance, such as the American enfant terrible Merce Cunningham, Shobana — whose work is little known to Indian dance-watchers — choreographs to a time frame, not to music. Perhaps, like him, she would define dance as "movement in time." That leaves Chitra pretty free to execute her dance phrases without musical constraints.

But beyond the perfect location at the Greenwich meridian, what's the buzz all about? As evidenced at the second Attakkalari dance festival in Bangalore in February and the Facets international workshop that preceded it, technology curves into the cutting edge of dance today. No longer do strict principles of abhinaya, mudra or rhythm prevail, nor do notions of narrative cogency. Remember the Munich-premiered "Scanned V," in which German multimedia whiz Christian Ziegler teamed up with Indian dancer Jayachandran Palazhy, who founded the local Attakalari Centre for the Movement Arts and leads the London-based Imlata Dance Company? Together, they summoned up an imaginative space where the ultimate "choreography is created in the observer's mind."

At a live teleconference, Shobana — whose family is Bangalore-based — shared observations on her current foray. Beyond the Greenwich borough hall, where the choreographer has opted to invert spaces by seating her audience on the old-fashioned stage, while executing her 35-minute vision on a special balcony, she asks: "Can there ever be too much of technological intervention? Why are we looking for the emotion of classical dance when the same information may be coming at us through a different convention, such as live and recorded dance captured by the camera, edited and then manipulated? Why should we assume that the organic is superior to the manipulated?" Valid questions all.

In a tech-savvy world where webcam interventions into western artistic spaces are no longer novel, Bangalore savours a first — the perfect synchronisation and cueing of the double-venue installation, commissioned by Dance Umbrella, London's prestigious annual festival. How does Chitra assess the interface? "I worked with Shobana in Bangalore for a week, recreating how I ride my scooter, doing movements. Since I can only hear the music in my mind, it remains my prerogative how I execute phrases to overcome the time lag completely. I only listen to the real music for the last five minutes, when I am static to concentrate," she explains.

"I don't really know exactly what is happening at Greenwich while I am dancing here," Chitra adds, "because the internet interventions are from another room."

Shobana's work, for which she was honoured with an MBE in January 1995, attracted her third Digital Dance Award in 1992 and two Time Out Dance Awards. Her decade-old company won the prestigious Prudential Award for the Arts in 1993. When will local audiences get to respond to her work in real time?

With "(h)Interland," Bangalore continues to proclaim itself as a new frontier of Indian dance. Especially after it premiered Astad Deboo's stunning choreography with the Thang-ta dancers from Manipur at the Windsor Manor to an exclusive gathering in September. Which followed in the footsteps of Bharat Sharma's "Chaali" essay in taking contemporary dance to uninitiated audiences in the Indian south last year, evoking a heartening response, with a follow-up covering Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, and Tamil Nadu planned from November.

What does the future hold for contemporary dance? Dancer Tripura Kashyap shares a leap into the future, "It is very exciting to imagine dance as spatially expansive through this inter-continental expression. Though this was an experiment within a single company, I would like to imagine a multi-cultural context, with textures emerging from interactions. Perhaps even juxtaposing work by different companies. Such as the Butoh form that emerged in Japan after Hiroshima, involving contortions in very slow motion, juxtaposed or counterpointed against our Chhau movements."

Does she envisage problems with the engagement? "Only if the form itself is overwhelmed by technology," Tripura stresses.

As our collective imagination vaults over real time into a virtual world, where technology partners dance in an unexplored future, what impossible destinations will emerge? Do the answers lie in the inventiveness of choreographers in our global village or in sci-fi? Only future steps can tell.


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