Dance Reflections: When art holds a mirror

Dancers talk about how their mind and body respond when they step out of the conventional repertoire

Published - September 03, 2020 06:33 pm IST

Mythili Prakash

Mythili Prakash

“Choreographing is like problem-solving,” said Rasika Kumar, a Bharatanatyam dancer from San Jose. “When you have to make something out of nothing, where do you start? I have a very practical approach — I break it down into smaller goals.”

Dance Reflections, a three-part series, took place over three successive Sundays, with conversations among three artistes each weekend. Presented by Shreya Nagarajan Singh Arts Development Consultancy and Bharatanatyam dancer Christopher Gurusamy, ‘Dance Reflections: Conversations about Critiquing Oneself’ comprised a Nritha edition with dancers Sudharma Vaithiyanathan, Meenakshi Srinivasan and Bijayini Satpathy; an Abhinaya edition with Parshwanath Upadhye, Uma Sathyanarayanan and Ramya Harishankar; and a ‘Beyond the Margam’ Edition with Rasika Kumar, Mythili Prakash and G. Narendra.

Every session was followed by a round of Q&A. While dance preserved and practised by traditional performers in temples and courts lives on in a new milieu in India and outside, the practitioners of Indian classical dance find new ways to relate to and adapt them. The past and the present inform Christopher’s artistic journey as he hosted intimate ‘living room conversations’ with the dancers, both senior and junior.

For Christopher, it was all about developing a dance ideology, an aggregation of training, geography, creativity and life experiences that shape your aesthetic. Dancers were questioned about practice, the idea of practice for performance, the process of creating and critiquing through a trusted ‘dance family’, along with mirrors and recordings.

On artistic impulses

On questions relating to practice, ideas and artistic impulses, one thing came through —– there was no tampering with the centuries-old adavu system of training and the margam in Bharatanatyam. As with the bhangis and chauka in Odissi, the base is sacrosanct. It is the body conditioning and the packaging to suit audience taste that seem to be evolving. As Parshwanath mentioned, “A five-minute Instagram video is what dancers are practising now.”

Rasika Kumar

Rasika Kumar

Rasika, on paying attention to feedback, said that besides her mother, Mythili Kumar, who is a dancer-teacher and her husband, whose lack of exposure is valuable, she has a few others she listens to. “I watch my videos and hear feedback but I like to detach from it. Ultimately, I try to develop my own sense. I leverage the margam and do new pieces. In ‘Shakti Unveiled’ I emulated a goddess reacting to catcalling, an extension of a relationship of a man or god to a woman. We look critically at mythology, trying to justify; I thought why don’t I look at myself like that and do something based on my life. I didn’t want to use an existing composition, I had to create one. I wrote it in English, got it translated into Kannada, and set it to music. I try some stuff and see it, then edit. I work better on tight timelines.”

Mind-body technique

For Mythili Prakash, choreography is more philosophical, “Choreography is the sum of everything you are in the moment. I first choreographed ‘Surya’ in 2007, after a visit to the planetarium. The sun is pre-historic, a universal symbol but now I feel I have changed; its time to reassess. Same for ‘Jwala’, which I choreographed in 2017; I had experienced death and birth as a cyclical process. Now I feel I cannot do it with the same honesty. With my mentors Malavika (Sarukkai) and Akram (Khan), I learnt about the honesty of intention. Malavika taught me to be immersed in that moment, feel the gravitas. It is a mind and then body technique. In Akram’s work, I saw how it hit the gut first and then moved up. He would say there is no need to explain — what they feel is more important than what they make of it. I become over-critical sometimes; then I surrender as to what’s working and what’s not. I come back and try to be kinder to myself,” explained Mythili.

“When I work outside the margam, the choreography is so central, from where you started to where you want to end. I love choreography... but I am also fascinated by manodharma, like peeling layers or unfolding lyrics in an abhinaya class. I don’t want to be consumed with creating a good product. I am reading about Balasaraswathi, and I feel I would like to relate to dance that way. I want to be able to find a new connection every time I repeat the piece. I’m filled with responsibility as I was born to dance; my mother Viji Prakash being a dancer and a teacher.”

 G. Narendra

G. Narendra

G. Narendra spoke about his experience as a young, talented choreographer in 1999 when he choreographed ‘Abhyaasa’, a take on the gurukulam system for the Cleveland Cultural Alliance’s tour of the U.S. His choice of theme and ideas were out of the box — he wanted four margams to be learnt, so dancers on stage would genuinely be stressed about what they were expected to perform on any given day, just like in dance class, as also a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi, both of which were denied to him. Mistakes and jokes were made on purpose on stage. Adyar Lakshman as Guru added dignity to the role; Narendra’s choice of dancers and musicians — Bragha, Mahalakshmi, Sreelatha, Joy, O.S. Arun, Ramesh, the set-up and the other details, brought back the experience afresh.

Narendra has come back into the classical fold after 20 years and carries the same vision of timeless artistry, something that he is not able to fit into a one-hour performance capsule. As Christopher said, “He is so organic and so honest; I see him as the final point in the journey.”

The Chennai-based author writes on classical dance.

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