No gains in translation

Swan Lake popularised as a Russian Ballet performance was translated into Odissi by danseuse Sharmila Mukherjee. The performance runs the risk of remaining a spectacle

Stories of love and loss have always had a universal appeal and hence have often evoked cross cultural empathy. These stories thrive in the artistic and literary worlds in the form of written stories, plays, dance performances and movies. Swan Lake is one such narrative of love, loss and deception that has been popularised as a Russian Ballet performance. Drawing on the universal and cross cultural appeal of these narratives, Bangalore based dancer Sharmila Mukherjee has taken this Russian Ballet narrative and has attempted to translate it into the language of Odissi in her latest production Hansika (meaning a female swan in many Indian languages). The production was opened in Chowdiah Memorial Hall last weekend on a drizzly Bangalore evening.

No gains in translation

The aesthetics of the production echoes equally of Ballet as well as Odissi. While the choreography remained largely within the language of Odissi, the overall aesthetics of the performance was driven completely by its visual scale and quality which is reminiscent of the ballet traditions. A large group of dancers dressed in white, almost mirroring each other constituted an interesting visual on a large proscenium stage and resonated with the ballet aesthetics. The fluid backdrop of the performance (the forest and the water body) and the occasional shadow cast at the back generated a dream like mood. In terms of its form, it was engaging to observe how a vertical form such as ballet (which tries to replicate the effect of flamingos about to take off) can fuse with a grounded form such as Odissi which strictly involves no vertical movement. While the dancers danced in Odissi, there were many moments of departure from the idiom, like the sideways sliding entry onto the stage which worked in the context of the overall fused aesthetic of the performance. Focussing a lot more on the over all formations of dancers on stage rather than on specific movements, the choreography too was evocative of the ballet.

No gains in translation

Keeping it consistent with the visual, the music also brought together the Ballet music with Odissi music. The performance began with the classical sound track of the Swan Lake which set up the mood for the rest of the story. Played at intervals, this track also acted as a musical refrain for the performance.

While the performance was audio-visually engaging, as an audience one is not able to grasp the perspective behind the visual. Without a re-imagination of the narrative or of the characters, the performance runs the risk of remaining a spectacle. In an age where scholars and artists are re-visiting epics and challenging their dominant narratives, “Hansika” could have used the powerful medium of performance to bring about a shift in the public imagination of the story of Swan Lake. By pitting one sister against another over a handsome prince, the performance reinforces the stereotypes of virtuous good woman as well as of the jealous evil woman that it should have been vary of doing. If not a twist in plot, at least a portrayal of these characters with a psychological depth and complexity would have salvaged the performance from being reductive. What could be the life history of Odette and her sister that made one a virtuous woman and another a jealous evil one? Framing of some questions, if not answering them would have put the performance in conversation with larger discourse around epics and their retellings.

No gains in translation

In an archival article titled “ ‘Probe deeper into your art’: Chandralekha on the duty of the Indian Classical Dancer”, the dancer Chandralekha is quoted for having said “I see dance as a visual, tactile and sensual language, with an infinite capacity to recharge human beings. The internal relation between the dance and the dancer and the external relation between the dance and society cannot be taken lightly.” One could interpret this quote as a comment on the privilege of being a dancer which is being able to use a powerful medium of expression. With a possibility of such a privilege in the context of this performance, one could say that the dancers actively interact with the form but do not acknowledge the relationship they have with the society.

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Printable version | May 25, 2020 11:12:00 AM |

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