CHOREOGRAPHY WORKSHOPS FOR SPECIAL NEEDS
presented on December 20, 2001 at the Natya Kala Conference, Chennai
by Astad Deboo
My work with the deaf now owes much to my involvement with the Gallaudet University in Washington DC which is the largest university for the liberal arts in the performing arts for the deaf. My involvement with the deaf started off by an invitation from a friend Zareen Chowdry who is the artistic director of the deaf theatre company in Calcutta called The Action Players. I was initially asked to give a workshop. I just took it as a one off invitation to come and be with young, talented actors and introduce them to my work. When one does these one day or two day workshops, really it's just going in there for some sort of glimpse, of a starting off on a store of movement which has evolved through the years.
That one offer became another invitation and added a little longer workshop. So a series of workshops began sporadically, starting from 1986 and then one summer, I had some time and I gave them a 15-day workshop. And there, something inside me told me, "Well, here's an opportunity of really starting something with this group of people" and that went on later to become a production called 'The Dancing Dolphins'.
What really came through to me was their eagerness to learn, to work hard. I have found in other cities, in my own city Mumbai where I am based, people often come and say, 'We want to learn, why don't you teach"? Unfortunately, I found the people I moved with were not willing to work hard. Everybody has a formula of 'teach me today, put me on stage tomorrow, day after I would like to be a star'. It's exactly the idea and philosophy with which people came to me earlier. But this group of young actors - they were actors, they were not dancers- for me to change them took a while. They were not able to hear, so how does one get to teach them? It's just by trial and error that I've become experienced in working with the deaf and the first group has been blossoming and growing. This subsequently has led me to working in other parts of the world and my being very much involved in the Gallaudet University in Washington DC.
I started off with just a count of 8, everybody has to be able to count to the beat of 8. You have to be aware that these people are deaf and the counting poses a serious challenge, as they have to count at an even pace together. This allowed me to introduce also visual cues for them. Those were another set of learning patterns for me as well as them especially when we did performances. Batches of 2 and 4 will come and then the group genre later, then the final group arrives. Change of light would also indicate to them that we have to go on to the next change of movement.
It's necessary to work on a wooden floor, so vibrations are picked out and even stamping of the floor by the performers themselves gave the cue that they have to go on to the next move. When I was teaching, probably I was concentrating on seeing that everybody performed in unison. But I also wanted to give them the inside experience of working on different stages with my own work, which I not only perform on the proscenium, but I also do site specific work. You try to bring alive the space you are given to perform in. So during the workshop, another aspect was of becoming aware of the space one performed in. Later on, we will see part of my work, which I have done, when they were performing on cue, as if for them to become aware of the space they have to stand on cue or work within a confined area. That was another area I concentrated on while working with them.
Touch - in India we have a lot of problem with that. I've done workshops with actors including those of the theater category and when I asked a man to touch a woman, it became quite traumatic. I said, "You are an actor. It's nothing". It's just our culture of touch. Here I found no problem with them.
The participants who were working with me could easily get comfortable with each other's bodies and touch. So that's one less hurdle I have to go across when I'm creating a work.
More than sustain my work with this particular group, The Action Players, the artistic director Zareen Chowdry has been consistent with the group in doing workshop productions though my work with them of late has been haphazard. The last time I worked with them was in 1999. I will be doing a new work with them starting in January 2002. But during the 3 years I have not been with them, they've continued their work in their own way, whatever they have learnt over the years. We've some newcomers, some veterans who have left the company and are getting on with their lives. That has been something very reassuring for me because I'm a free soul, I come and go. The fact that the group is there helps me to go back and see that through the years, they have also developed themselves and have picked up other inputs.
Working with The Action Players led me to get an invitation from Gallaudet University where again, I've been working for the past 8 to 9 years through different summers, going there as a choreographer, as a curator. Often, people ask if I notice any difference in work with the deaf in India. I work only with this particular group; so, I'm no expert on that. Basically I have done one or two workshops with the deaf in different parts of India, but my main body of work, both for me and as a choreographer has grown only because of The Action Players.
At the same time, working at Gallaudet University, I've had the opportunity to work with deaf students who are trained in dance. So, basically the approach was different. Here, they already have a vocabulary of movement. For them to learn my vocabulary, I had to sort of work on it in a different sort of way. In a way, it was easier to create the movement since they already had a vocabulary of movement. The University also has a school called the Model Technical School where I've been involved and in summer programs. The participants in these workshops and productions are basically from the age group of 14 and 18. When I started with The Action Players, at that particular time, they were young teenagers and now they have become adults, but continue to be with the group.
The difference in America is the sign language. I've learnt the sign language but I'm not at all proficient. I've always had an interpreter with me who signs when I'm working with them in order to start the ball rolling. In Calcutta and in many parts of India where I do work, they lip read, though my Calcutta group is familiar with the American sign language, because they all come from a school called the Old School for the Deaf where one of the things besides the regular curriculum is learning of the sign language.
Working in the U S also poses a big problem of discipline. The American way of teaching is, "Do not force the child. If the child does not want to, leave it". That does not work in my case and I really encountered a series of problems even with the principal of the school for a while, who requested me not to push the kids. I said, "Where I come from, there is certain discipline which I expect here too". Then again, I am there 4 to 6 weeks and they simply assumed that since I would not be there for long, they really didn't want to exert themselves to learn something new. At the same time, they were trying to test if they really had the upper hand. I made it clear from the beginning, when they were to be in class with me, they had to go along with whatever I would like them to experience, to learn. Those were the breaking the wall encounters, one had to be aware of them when working.
In Mexico, I've done most of the pieces in a workshop and somebody asked me, how does it work there? Even if it's a workshop in Mexico or in Hong Kong, there's a certain amount of discipline and I did not really have any problems with the students or actors I was interacting with. Through the years, this has been my experience.
People say, "Why don't you work with the blind"? As I said earlier, I'm no expert. This coming year in 2002, I will be spending 6 months working on projects relating to the deaf because there is a very big international festival for the deaf in Washington D C called Deaf Way II. I will be taking my group from Calcutta and you will be happy to know that from Chennai, there's a young girl called Jayanthi who has applied to the university. The director of the university has asked me to go and see her work. She's a very talented Bharatanatyam dancer and it is very important that she be seen in this festival.
I will run the tape where you will see the production called The Dancing Dolphins, which I did with The Action Players. There are 4 pieces, which have been inter-linked in this production. (Excerpts from the production)
There are people with slight hearing, so they become leaders. Then the other people from time to time looked at them making sure that they were in sync. The time when I came on to the stage, the exercise is called mirroring. They did not know what I was going to do. So they were instantly taking constructions. Another aspect when I am working with them or when I am doing a workshop is the aspect of mirroring, to be on guard, to be ready to change at the drop of a second to go into another movement.
These are sort of points, which were explored and continue to be explored when working with them. In 1999, I had brought to Chennai, a group of students and teachers from Gallaudet University to perform at the Narada Gana Sabha. I've done 2 workshops with 2 choreographers, one of whom is profoundly deaf and the other has slight hearing. So, the approach to working with both of them was totally different. One was able to push and even add a few more interesting or intricate movements because of the fact that they did have a language of dance within them.
What's also amazing, when you take this group of kids to the disco and you just let them go, they pick up the vibrations. Even when teaching them, one needs a wooden floor so they can pick up the vibrations. I've really been concentrating in the area of the deaf. What I've noticed in my country makes me sad. I've offered my services to many institutions and said I would be very happy to come and spend time with them on a periodic basis. Here again, everybody have their own agenda. If you go to this school, you cannot go to that school. That exists also within the deaf community, they are no different.
I have been asked what is my agenda, what is the purpose of working with them, why am I working with them? I love working with them, I've been drawn to them, I see that they respond. It has now become a sort of ongoing communication with that particular disability. And the fact that if I can help, why not? We are taking, I am taking, I have taken and continue to take from the community. So why can't I give back in my own little way to the community?
Besides having been trained in Kathakali, Astad Deboo has also trained in the Kathak style. Astad's dance education in the West is from having studied the Martha Graham technique. He apprenticed in the Wuppertal Dance Company and with Alison Chase of the Pilobolus Dance Company. Along with these and other experiences with dance companies in Japan and Indonesia, he has created a dance theatre style of his own. Recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Creative Dance, Astad Deboo pioneered modern dance in India. He has performed at the Great Wall of China, with Pink Floyd in London and at the 50th anniversary of the American Dance Festival. Deboo was commissioned by Pierre Cardin to choreograph a dance for Maia Plissetskaia-prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet and has given command performance for the royal families of Japan and Thailand. He was the first contemporary dancer to perform at the Elephanta and Khajuraho festivals. His work is truly varied and eclectic from working with the deaf theatre companies in Calcutta, Mexico, Hong Kong and the Gallaudet University in Washington D.C, with the martial art practitioners of Manipur, with Indian classical and world musicians. His collaborations with master puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee, theatre director Sunil Shanbag and presently with music composer Francis Silkstone, make his work is truly global..