Show Choreographer and dancer Astad Deboo's ‘Breaking Boundaries,' blends Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, ballet, acrobatics and yogic bends. RANA SIDDIQUI ZAMAN

A stad Deboo brings ‘Breaking Boundaries' to Chennai again. Initially, one fails to understand what these boys and girls are doing. Their bodies swing in slow motion and change from Kathakali to Bharatanatyam, ballet, acrobatic movements to yogic bends. But before one realises one is engrossed in their poetry… of footwork, delicacy, synchronisation and perfection, hence, the beauty. And their teacher, the renowned dancer and choreographer, Astad Debeoo watches them critically from a distance.

Off and on, he catches one of them on the wrong foot and shouts his/her name. Without getting unnerved, the person skilfully corrects his/her steps.

Dressed in black, this group of 14, aged between 16 and 25, is rehearsing for ‘Breaking Boundaries,' a 70-minute performance. It will be staged at Rukmini Arangham Auditorium at Kalakshetra, Chennai, on February 16 at 7 p.m.

These children belong to Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT), a Delhi-based NGO dedicated to the welfare of underprivileged youth.

Between rehearsals at SBT, a 65-year-old Deboo poses for photos and takes time out to speak about the show.

“ ‘Breaking Boundaries' has two key meanings. One, these children are breaking away from the limits of their disadvantaged background and stepping into a new world of dance and two, they are going beyond the Bollywood vocabulary. This dance makes them aware of their bodies and what they are capable of.

“The choreographic piece concentrates on space, -- big and contained, and how they defy gravity, fly in the air and control with different energies in picking up each other. The second part is Bhakti and the last part will be fast-paced,” explains Deboo who had choreographed M.F Hussain's film ‘Meenaaxi: A Tale of Two Cities,' in 2004.

Graceful steps

Deboo's contemporary dance as he prefers to name it, was unconvincing to the SBT children initially. Admits Mohammad Shamsul, a trained Chau student, “His movements were too slow and the music incomprehensible. He would make us sit on our toes with our neck between (our) knees and hands crossed. Passers-by would mock at us asking, ‘Were you punished today?' But slowly we fell in love with his steps. They are far more graceful than Bollywood.”

Avinash Kumar chips in, “When we go out to perform, people come backstage to show their appreciation. They say they find it soothing and different. That makes us realise that anyone can do Bollywood, but this dance is the privilege of a few.”

A tough road

While Deboo smiles at his group's loyalty, but his eyes look sad. The recipient of prestigious awards such as Sangeet Natak Akademi and Padma Shri still struggles to find presenters for his shows.

“The awards”, he points out, “haven't translated into work. Even to do this show, I had to please so many people. Presenters, even those associated with culture, ridicule me.

“Once when I went to apply for funds at the Ministry of Culture in Mumbai, one of its members said to me, ‘You will not get recognition even after your death'. And one of the corporate directors asked me the other day, ‘Are you still jumping around'. It was really demeaning.”

And yet, Deboo continues to work, also with Manipur drummers and the speech-and-hearing impaired. He has never felt inclined to do “Bollywoodish stuff” for quick returns. He watches the dance reality shows though. “I watch them out of curiosity. I am appalled at the indecent movements they do and the judges' appreciation of them. The quality of these shows is so low. There is not even one show of classical dance on television these days. Aren't they belittling their own tradition? I feel very sad that I can offer quality but there are no takers. I often ask myself, ‘Mera number kab aayega?” he laughs.

Deboo, hasn't yet found a successor either. “I will keep on working as long as I live. . The show must go on,” he signs off, smiling.