STEM Dance Kampni at Crossings Festival 
- Mark Hamilton, New Zealand
August 9, 2007 

Crossings Festival - STEM Dance Kampni: The Opera House, Wellington, 28 Jul 2007
Madhu Nataraj is STEM's artistic director and principal dancer.  Her mother, Guru Maya Rao, is a revered Kathak artist, who enriched this Mogul-Hindu dance with choreographic innovations triggered by her studies with Soviet ballet teachers.  The fruits of this rare marriage are evident in her daughter's ingenuity.  Like the elaborate filigree of the courts where it first blossomed, classical Kathak is a solo dance form densely packed with complex patterns.  Nataraj has inflated the form, while holding true to its formal composure and timing wizardry, to create company compositions that welcome inexpert audiences whilst avoiding Bollywood schmaltz.  Having seen STEM perform al fresco in balmy Bangalore, I was curious to see them dance on the sloping stage of Wellington’s old-school Opera House. 

Nataraj introduced STEM's program to the buzzing audience of Indian diaspora and other inquisitive Kiwis.  She described their work as a contribution to contemporary India's quest to knit tradition and modernity.  Indeed, when in semi-classical mode STEM's dance was full of invention: the gesture-rich opening invocation to the elephant-headed god Ganesha was enlivened with complex group-formations, and the abstraction of 'Tirana' – the show's flamboyantly rhythmic finale – had a catchy Flamenco-inspired melody.  Conversely, STEM's 'new' work is steeped in ancient figures and forms, as was highly evident in the Tantric imagery of 'Mandala' – one of two items that shone in the evening's program.  I wonder though how many of the audience could penetrate the comparatively exotic movements and subtle innovations of STEM’s work to appreciate just what kind of new Indian-ness they seek.  This cultural barrier may explain why some reviewers see Indian contemporary dance as a poor imitation of the better understood Western art.  

Of the many items presented, two shone. In 'Mandala,' before projections of elemental symbols, the dancers interlaced their angular limbs with one another, creating intricate tableaux that made flesh the complex geometry of yantra art: deep squatting legs framed perfect diamonds of space, and arms folded to shape triangles on each shoulder.  In 'Sufi,' the other work of note, all severity melted.  The dancers' loose white robes were speckled with subtle hues cast by the projector and lights.  'Mantra' seemed a formal rite conducted by ciphers moving with controlled spines, contained gestures and ordered interactions.  Captions told us that 'Sufi' extolled the miracle of love's multifarious forms, and this item was full of 3D people, whose fluid relationships were visible in reaching arms, searching eyes, joyous spins and meandering pathways.  As the lights faded on this dance, two men spun like Dervishes with wide curved arms and open chests embracing the sky – an action of prayer rather than theatre. 

STEM's poised verticality and measured gestures – Kathak traits – are a welcome counter to the flopping spines and flung limbs that still dominate Western ideas of expressive dance.  STEM's best work uses their classical acumen inventively, and often with humour: when portraying the questionable fall of a cricket wicket, they use their detailed knowledge of timing to repeatedly rewind and replay a precise slice of action. 

STEM would benefit from leaving behind programs of explained items and moving towards evenings of continuous dance, for Nataraj has a keen nose for the commanding attraction of archetypal themes and elemental movement.  Her work needs no explanation – it speaks boldly in its own language of India's deep history and present day dilemmas.  Step by step STEM, and their compatriots are forming a new dance that will offer the world a much-needed alternative to the West’s monopolisation of all that is modern.

In 1992, Mark Hamilton completed his MPhil in Drama and Theatre Arts, at the University of Birmingham in England. He then moved to Scotland, where he studied and performed Bharatanatyam and taught at the National Centre for Dance. In 1999, he moved to New Zealand to help found Torotoro, a M?ori dance company creating new work. In 2005, he met Samudra Performing Arts, from Kerala, whilst studying dance in India, and recognized a number of striking parallels between their work and that of Torotoro. After ten of years sweating in studios and jetting to festivals, he now endeavours to write lucidly about what these experiences have revealed to him about ‘world’ dance in the form of a PhD for the University of Canterbury about martial dance theatre. Marital arts practice now fills his evenings – capoeira, judo and taijiquan.