French dancer and actor-choreographer Annette Leday’s book is a ready reckoner on the contemporary dance scene in India

French dancer-choreographer and theatre artiste Annette Leday on her book and film on contemporary Indian dance

January 07, 2023 02:00 pm | Updated 02:03 pm IST

Dancer-choreographer Annette Leday 

Dancer-choreographer Annette Leday  | Photo Credit: Saraswathy Nagarajan

Annette Leday’s face becomes animated when she talks about her discovery of India, especially dance and Kathakali. A performer, choreographer and director, Annette kept returning to India, to learn and to hone her skills as a Kathakali dancer and actor.

More than four decades after that first trip to India in 1975, the dancer-chreographer has authored a book, Contemporary Dance in India Today.

“While travelling with my productions, I came across Indian practitioners of contemporary dance who have evolved and developed their own aesthetics, fusing dance techniques with modern methods of narration and performance,” she says during a conversation at Hotel Residency Tower in Thiruvananthapuram.

She found that with pristine classical performing arts, there were several practitioners of contemporary dance on the Indian stage.

However, Annette found that while classical dance and Bollywood were popular in France, contemporary dance in India was quite unknown to many.

In 2010, Annette was researching contemporary theatre in India and she translated plays of young theatre practitioners into French. She also contributed an article on contemporary dance to a special issue of Theater Public, a French magazine in 2016, which was dedicated to the Indian contemporary dance scene. “That encouraged me to do a more extensive study of contemporary dance. With the support of the Centre National de la Danse un Paris, I travelled to India in 2017 and 2019,” she says.

Book by Annette Leday

Book by Annette Leday | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Talking about the book, the end product of two years of extensive travel, research and conversations, she says the work provides a bird’s eye view of contemporary dance in India through the words of its practitioners.

Showing the places she had visited on a map of India in her book, she points out that she visited 10 places in India to meet and document her interviews with leading contemporary dancers such as Anita Ratnam, Malavika Sarukkai, Kumudini Lakhia, Mallika Sarabhai, Navtej Johar, Jayachandran Palazhi and so on.

Explains Annette: “The late Chandralekha was one of the pioneers of contemporary dance. By questioning the dogma, rigidity and religiosity in which Bharatanatyam was often confined to, she challenged the existing styles of performance and broke free to come up with her own choreography that blended the martial art form of Kalaripayattu, her feminist ideas and new themes with the movement grammar of Bharatanatyam.”

Saluting the pioneers

Annette’s bilingual book in English and French pays tribute to those early pioneers such as Uday Shankar, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Astad Deboo and Kumudini Lakhia who innovated and came up with choreography that drew inspiration from the classical form but stepped out of its artistic framework by choosing new themes and creative ways to present it.

Dancer-choreographer Annette Leday 

Dancer-choreographer Annette Leday  | Photo Credit: Saraswathy Nagarajan

Her book is a ready reckoner for anyone trying to understand the platform for contemporary dance that embraces politics, feminism and individualism. It has interviews, themes chosen by the dancers, their creative processes, financing and organisations and venues that support such performances. Of all the interviews, she says the one with veteran Kumudini bridged two eras as she belonged to a senior generation of classical dancers who had given Indian dance a new performative language.

Love for Kathakali
Annette returned to India in 1978 to learn Bharatanatyam and Tamil. However, it was Kathakali that found a permanent place in her heart. She moved to Kerala and went to learn Kathakali under the late maestro Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair at Sadanam.
In 1989, she began creating her own productions that have bridged the grammar and dynamics of Kathakali with new themes and evolved a modern language of movement. She has ten productions that were performed in India and France.

“In India, performers are expected to keep alive the tradition of their gurus and tradition. Even then many performers have evolved and developed their own productions. In doing so, they had to challenge their mind set and those of people around them too. That was one common feature that all the dancers I spoke to touched upon while talking about their creative journey,” she says.

Annette diligently videotaped the interviews to document them and all the interviews have been posted online on Later on, a video was made with Cyrille Larrieu to come up with a visual documentation of her study of contemporary dance. She states, “The film takes us to emblematic places in the huge subcontinent, where movement and dance are questioned. We discover some of the faces engaged in a renewal of the traditions and artistes of the new generation open to the world and its techniques…”

The lockdown delayed the production of the book but not the documentaiton. Published by Goyal, the book was released on January 5 at the Alliance Francaise de Trivandrum (AFT) in the city and the film was also screened.

The film will also be screened at AFT in Chennai and Bengaluru.

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