In judgement of dance

With the conclusion of PECDA 2018, we find out the significant shifts, if any, in the world of contemporary dance in India

September 07, 2018 04:57 pm | Updated 04:57 pm IST

Early this year, Aseng Borang, a contemporary dancer from Arunachal Pradesh, immersed herself in newspaper articles about the Northeast for two whole months. “Across all the reports, there was a common set of words that kept jumping out — restriction, limitation, closed, shut, oppressed... You get the picture,” says the 25-year-old, who lives in Delhi. The recurring motif became the starting point for her work, Erosion of Tangko . “I simply let my body respond to the use of these words, allowing the movements to become a metaphor for a larger idea that concerns how a body that is subjugated to so much bigotry actually reacts,” she explains.

On a minimalist stage — with an installation by Venas Thokchom from Manipur, which drew a connection to the Tangko (a small bird in Arunachali folklore that heralds the seasons) — Borang displayed both strength of statement and grace of movement. Erosion of Tangko was the winning entry, and one among 21 performances that comprised the Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Awards (PECDA) 2018.

A bi-annual forum — initiated by Chennai-based cultural activist Ranvir Shah’s Prakriti Foundation — is a pan-India open-entry competition for dancers and choreographers. As a showcase platform, it is not merely an award, but also a mentorship. “Based on their style of choreography, the winner and runners-up have the opportunity to work with an established choreographer who will guide, comment and help develop the work into a full-length production,” says Shah.

dance center
Bhinna Vinyasa

FESTIVAL FABRICA EUROPA 2017 Attakkalari dance center Bhinna Vinyasa

Engaging with society

It is not the first of its kind. Nine years ago, Anusha Lall and Mandeep Raikhy, founders of the Gati Dance Forum in Delhi, began the Gati Summer Dance Residency. Crafted as a laboratory for young choreographers, the intensive programme culminates in a sharing of “short sketches created by its residents”. What sets PECDA apart, however, is its competitive angle. In its fourth edition, the event has grown both in size and response. “Not only has the quality of the works improved significantly, but there’s also an engagement with more political and gender-based issues,” adds Shah. This is perhaps among the most significant takeaways from it this year. The dancers showcased work that is reflective of the goings-on in our society — caste politics, domestic violence, relationship dynamics, perils of social media, urban infrastructure, and more. “I think contemporary dance is at a stage of evolution,” says Renuka Narayanan, journalist and poet, and one of the jury members. “There are a variety of expressions, including mixing western styles with Indian elements, but it’s fascinating how the concerns for these creations are all local and there is a narrative that is slowly building engagement with concerns that exist around us.”

Take for instance, Neck of the Woods , by Bengaluru-based Parth Bharadwaj, a graduate from Attakalari Centre for Movement Arts, Bengaluru. His dance finds its expression in the struggles of a small neighbourhood of a developing metropolitan. Using the body freely, but sensitively, to express survival and existential angst, the work is layered, urging viewers to look around and within.

Growing an ecology

“I think one of the significant shifts in the world of contemporary dance in India is a nuanced improvement in technique and skills,” says Jayachandran Palazhy, Artistic Director of Attakalari. The institution offers a comprehensive Diploma in Movement Arts & Mixed Media that gives students access to the principles of movement, both from the classical, folk and martial arts traditions of India, and across the world. Palazhy also refers to the “history of viewing” — cultivating an audience for contemporary dance, thanks to initiatives like Attakalari India Biennial (begun 17 years ago).

In Delhi, the Ambedkar University recently introduced a Master’s programme in Performance Practice, a “first-of-its-kind, practice-based programme that offers dancers an opportunity to embark on a critical practice that isn’t necessarily restricted to codified or existing forms of movement”. Borang is pursuing it, while Raikhy (of Gati) and Odissi dancer Ranjana Dave (also the Programmes Director at Gati) are part of the faculty. “I am excited by what such a programme could mean for the dance ecology,” says Dave. “How can we structure a dance education that is rooted in the Indian context while responding to ideas and questions that encompass contemporary practice?” The course covers “technique, choreography, history, and critical analysis... encouraging dancers to think through the roles they seek to play in the dance ecology”.

PECDA also attempted to translate this experience at Dance Townhall, a day-long event, where a panel of speakers shared their insights on dance and the need for an ecosystem. Chennai-based artiste Preethi Athreya presented a paper on how similar initiatives are shaping the field. What are the significant shifts in the space? “It would not be amiss to say that contemporary dance seems to be emerging from a culture of dance labs, camps, workshops and competitions, where, in effect, the context for creation is pre-decided,” says the dancer-choreographer. “The subversive body that (dancer) Chandralekha proposed is under threat of extinction from a generation’s own surge for finding its practice, and an endorsement of it. We need the radicals and we need ecosystems that will enable a longer and more rigorous relationship with the practice.”

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