Theatre

Under the radar: the dance of Ali Salmi

Mover and shaker: Ali Salmi during a dance exhibition.

Mover and shaker: Ali Salmi during a dance exhibition.  

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Managing to be disarmingly ubiquitous even while flying surreptitiously under the radar, French dance-maker Ali Salmi has lived up to his self-styled descriptor — “a choreographic surveyor of the public space” — in untold ways across urban centres in India. Fighting shy of conventional arts centres, that are more closed than accessible, Salmi’s sightings have taken place in streets and alleys, markets and squares. Local architecture and urban motifs have provided perfect backdrops for choreographic experiments that have marked an almost year-long engagement with the subcontinent in 2019, a liaison that shows no signs of ebbing. It’s a slow marination that’s proved particularly piquant. “I need to take time to feel a city, to explore and understand its configuration, its vibe, the way it breathes. For this, I need to move in and around a space. It’s like discovering the anthropology of a city and its spaces,” he explains.

Community project

Under the aegis of the Alliance Française de Bombay, Salmi’s most recent exploit in a series of dance exhibitions titled Revisiting Indian Spaces took place in late December at Priyadarshini Park in Malabar Hill, an open space in an otherwise upper-crust residential area that nonetheless sees an influx of the people of the street who influence and feed his works.

After days of openly conducted rehearsals, the performance unfolded as if in a makeshift dhobi ghaat, with a row of white sheets hung out on washing lines. Salmi put up a light and shadow show, dancing with characteristic joie de vivre in silhouette behind the fluttering sheets that doubled as a cyclorama for urban projections, while intrepid beatboxers Faizan Khan and Raghu Goswami of the Dharavi Dream Project thumped up a rough and ready soundscape, with Malabar Hill’s otherwise invisibilised ‘sea of humanity’ in tacit attendance alongside regular art consumers. “We are sharing with audiences the same floor, whether it is concrete or grass, and the same sky with its stars shining.

The familiar sounds of the city we evoke are very important to bring the audiences to the very centre of life in the city itself,” elaborates Salmi.

Dance, or any other performing art, in public spaces becomes a communal experience that unwitting audiences might discover themselves in the midst of and leave perhaps bemused or even profoundly touched by the performance. In a country with complex social variegations like India, contemporary public art raises the question of imposed aesthetics with its almost always privileged gaze. It smacks of attempts to enlighten common folk to the value of artistic pursuit that might be far removed from their social realities and indeed, their own rooted cultural practices.

Urban practitioners in India find it hard to bridge the impasse between their individual expression and the vast populace who seemingly exist outside its perimeters. International makers find it hard to shrug off the bugbear of the colonialist vision. Salmi’s attempts to take his art to the people is certainly well-intentioned, and guided by empathy for a city’s innate rhythms. “I want to desacralise the place of the artist in the city. Art is a powerful part of our lives as humans. The men and women of the street have been surprisingly very curious and fascinated by the sheer freedom and power demonstrated by our dance,” says the French dance-maker, with some wonder.

Prolific performer

Those who’ve followed his journey would likely experience a welcome bout of déjà vu each time Salmi pops up in their neighbourhood. There have been many touchdowns in Mumbai, and trysts in Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Delhi and Trivandrum. On Dussehra, kitted out in his trademark white shirt and trousers and a yellow mask over his face, Salmi intercepted passers-by in Colaba, and engaged them in bursts of impromptu dance. In September, he performed a duet with Indian contemporary dance doyen, the redoubtable Astad Deboo, at Delhi’s Lodhi Arts District, which has been dubbed India’s very first open public art district. At Ahmedabad’s Le Corbusier’s City Museum, he got a group of enthusiasts to negotiate architectural surfaces, in a toned-down version of more daredevil international engagements carried out with harnesses and other safety measures involving, for instance, Salmi walking perpendicular on walls. Elsewhere, a drone captured him running and dancing on an Indian beach, while taking time off from staging his danceworks (like Waterfloor) with his group Osmosis Cie to appreciative Indian audiences.

In 2020, he will take forward a collaboration with the National School of Drama, while returning to the Lodhi Art District for an upcoming art fair.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 1:16:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/under-the-radar-the-dance-of-ali-salmi/article30536811.ece

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