Now, all the city’s a stage as celebrity artistes step out of auditoriums and take their art to public spaces

As Chennai turns into a collage of grey with concrete structures taking over its landscape, many of its dancers are bringing down the walls that have bound their art to exclusive auditoria and halls.

They are pushing the boundaries, literally, and stepping out into the open to carry out experiments with form and space. Welcome to the new performance venues — parks, cafés, malls, museums, open terraces, temple courtyards.

Senior dancer Anita Ratnam, who’s much admired for her creative explorations, has always been eager to stage her productions at non-theatrical locations. “The concert hall tradition is so deeply embedded in our minds that such experiences are still regarded as unusual. But the concept is gaining popularity due to the elements of uncertainty and spontaneity,” says Anita, who has just returned after a performance of her choreographic work ‘Circles of Love’ at the NCPA Experimental Theatre in Mumbai.  

“Our art forms after all were conceived for open spaces to be viewed by all,” she adds, “and it is more relevant than ever before to re-establish that crucial people-artiste connect.”

A point that Bharatanatyam dancer Indira Kadambi endorses. She along with her vocalist-husband T.V. Ramprasad conducts real and virtual lessons at their school Ambalam and eAmbalam. Indira feels that it’s a completely different relationship between the performer and audience in these settings. “Also, it’s easier to promote the traditional aura of our classical arts with such accessibility and inclusivity.” Over the years, the couple has been conducting dance and music festivals in alternative spaces. This past year, Nageswara Rao park in Chennai provided the platform during the December Season.

Sadanand Menon, who’s kept alive iconic contemporary dancer-choreographer Chandralekha’s passion for interdisciplinary creativity at Spaces by Elliot’s Beach, Chennai, says wondrous possibilities come from small and intimate venues, something one would have never imagined in a larger theatre. Established by the dancer in 1981, it’s a “happy and vibrant place” to stage new choreographic works. “After performing at Chandra Mandala and Chandra Mandapa artistes gain the confidence to take their productions forward,” adds Sadanand, emphasising the need for Chennai to have more informal sites where there are no commercial fetters on creativity.

Intrigued by how the nava rasa s are linked to everyday life, Odissi exponent Ashwini Raghupathy created a four-and-a-half minute video Odissi Odyssey early this year. It garnered enough hits on YouTube to convince the charming young dancer about breaking conventional barriers to take art to the community at large.

“I danced at markets, outside malls, in a granite quarry, in a moving lorry, in schools and bus stands. It was extremely liberating. And to watch the diverse moods and expressions of the common man up-close when dancing was even more fascinating. Many women came up to me and said, ‘Wish I had learnt this beautiful dance form’. At that point I thought the purpose was achieved — kindling love for the art,” says Ashwini.

Constantly scouting for such locations is photographer Sam Kumar, who has captured the pristine beauty of classical dances and their inexplicable bond with Nature and the architectural dynamics of churches and temples. “Wherever I have travelled across the country and abroad, I have realised dancers are most comfortable and relaxed in such surroundings. They seem to engage in a soul talk with the trees, the sea or the ornate pillars of ancient structures. Believe me, it’s delightful to experience this energy through the lens,” he says.

But mounting a production at these unconventional venues comes with its own set of challenges. As lighting, sound and stage positions are not fixed; the aesthetic possibilities are often accompanied by technical problems. Anita, who has danced at many such places around the world, explains, “You necessarily have to rethink your choreographic work to suit the large open area and proximity with the audience. Unlike the one-dimensional stage in auditoriums, the angles and positions here have to be restructured as people can focus even on subtle articulations.”

Streets, parks or temples, Indira points out, are democratic spaces open to everyone. 

The challenge for the artiste is to compete with their dominating public and recreational usage. “This means you need to craft the recital as a reactionary piece to the surroundings making it as much a social experiment as an artistic one,” she says.

“Challenges apart, it’s worth all the jumps, leaps, moves and twirls,” laughs Anita. “While in Mumbai I watched Sanjukta Wagh perform amidst the old-world columns and corridors of an abandoned building-turned-gallery. It was amazing.”

So open the doors. It’s show time.

Our art forms were conceived for open spaces and it is more relevant than ever before to re-establish that

crucial people-

artiste connect