Ignite Festival of Contemporary Dance
- Vikram Iyengar, Kolkata
e-mail: rananindia@gmail.com

December 8, 2010

Arriving at IGNITE: 10 November 2010
I landed at Delhi just past 9am and - with Paromita Saha of Sapphire Creations Dance Workshop, who had wisely pre-booked a taxi - navigated through terrible airport traffic to arrive at the Ignite Festival Hub at Max Mueller Bhavan, Kasturba Gandhi Marg. I have a soft spot for MMB's: the Calcutta one has always welcomed me in for as long as I can remember and the atmosphere of openness, at-home-ness and come-and-make-yourself-comfortable-ness has been no different at MMB Bangalore and Delhi the few times I have visited them. And if the atmosphere at the Hub is anything to go by, they have obviously welcomed Ignite and Gati as their own with open arms.

Walking in through a polite and completely non-intrusive security, we came upon the lawn and café space at the back of the white bungalow that is MMB, Delhi, flanked on the far side by the glassed in Library. It was as if I was walking into a college canteen - so many young people chatting at the tables, enjoying the café fare. And on the lawn, preparations for Ignite: a bamboo structure with oversized wind chimes, a reception table set up with laptops, the Ignite team - Anusha, Mandeep, Ewa, Harriet, Abanti - all overseeing things and, simultaneously drawing fresh arrivals effortlessly into the spirit of things. AND takhats with thick gaddas being laid out covered with black spreads and seasoned with plump red cushions. One couldn't imagine a more generous and clear invitation to let your hair down, relax, enjoy, imbibe, eat, drink, chat, exchange, discuss, debate... already I feel the vibe of the festival. It's young at heart, it's accessible, it's approachable, it's varied - and though we've barely stepped into it - it's organised! When was I last at a dance event in this country which brought together all this with the quintessential air of a mela? Probably never!

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company
Watching the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company: 10 November 2010
Kicking off the Ignite Festival at Kamani Auditorium, Anusha Lall - Festival Director - put things in perspective. Ignite, she said, was a festival centred on contemporary 'Indian' dance - both by artists from within India and abroad. All the artists and performances engage with Indian-ness in a variety of ways: either experimenting with traditional forms, or forging connections with other cultures/countries or - as in the case of Shobana Jeyasingh (though this is not the only thread that draws her in) - working with Asian/Indian experience in a different culture, drawing on forms both remembered and found.

Shobana Jeyasingh is a dance icon in the UK. And unfortunately, though I lived there for three years, I was in Wales - far away from the dance circuit that her company moves in. So never had the opportunity to see her work. But hear about it constantly, I did. And this is her first tour to India since she set up her company in 1988. By training she is a Bharatanatyam dancer, who moved from Chennai to London. But her work situates itself squarely in a very different socio-cultural and political experience. The double bill we were witness to - Faultline and Bruise Blood - are both inspired by extremely unusual - even harsh - triggers for dance as we in India would see it.

Triggers: this is the first thing that struck me about her work when Anusha contacted me asking me to lead a conversation with Shobana Jeyasingh after the performance. Her starting points for both pieces are Asian/Otherness experiences in so-called multicultural societies. Faultline is a response to Gautam Malkani's "vivid portrayal of disaffected British youth" in his novel Londonstani. Bruise Blood has as its starting point, a line taken from the testimony of a wrongly arrested Black man during race riots: 'I had to open up the bruise and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them...'. Both very strong impulses for any sort of performance.

Secondly - form. Watching her work, I was struck by the seamlessness of the choreography and the ease with which it was performed - the former a credit to how she constructs work, and the latter a credit to her brilliant ensemble of 8 dancers. The work is remarkably physical and must be exhausting to perform. It's rough, raw, edgy - perhaps the themes demand it - and involves an enormous amount of physical contact and supporting of each other's weight, but not at all in the display sort of way that Ballet would perform it. Here, one gets more of a sense of disturbing and potentially dangerous encounters between physical beings and mental attitudes. Woven in are sudden snatches of Bharatanatyam phrases - but again not performed as 'Hey, look I can do Bharatanatyam too' (which is often the case in a lot of crossover dance) - but as an integral part of a movement pattern that tries to express an extreme of suffocated desperation. There is constant conflict in the breathless pace of both pieces - conflict and challenge, the dancers somehow conveying a feeling of existing on the edge of a precipice. Would violence erupt if they were given another push, or would they set their teeth and give in to their lot? Though speaking to a Delhi-based performance director after the show, he did say he had seen far more violent performance work including dance on these themes: he in fact referred to these performances as comparatively "polite". Not having seen the others, I can't comment.

Having seen a lot of contemporary dance where the content and its relation to the resulting form are both too abstract or obscure for me to grasp, the obvious relationship between the impulses and performance here were fascinating. The three male performers who led Faultline were impeccable - and the punctuations of poses and posing of young men in dead-end situations spoke volumes even about disaffected youth we see in our own cities let alone the UK. Personally, I felt more connected to this piece than Faultline - both due to the content, perhaps, and the fact that the form - I felt - worked better (or expressed the essential content better?) than in Bruise Blood. The latter, to me, took some time to get off the ground, so to speak.

Lastly, the music. The soundscape for both pieces is absolutely astonishing. Shobana Jeyasingh's choice of music - a soaring live and recorded soprano for Faultline and a percussive, Black street music feel Beatboxing for Bruise Blood (again performed live) - would fill pages of analysis in itself. Both the choices are so specifically made and feed the dance so much (and vice versa). This too is so different from my limited experience of contemporary dance where often I have felt the music incidental to the movement and performance - something that Indian classical dancers have a very hard time conceiving or appreciating. In fact, another comment I heard was that the music was stronger than the dance. But I'll leave that in the air as a provocation! The experience throws up so many questions about Shobana Jeyasingh's creative and thought process - both intellectually and in the studio with the dancers.

Second day at Ignite - Ho-Hum and Padmini Chettur: 11 November 2010
Hmm! An uninspiring day at best and a 'what-were-the-organisers-thinking!' day at worst. But rounded off by an extraordinarily powerful performance by the Padmini Chettur Dance Company from Chennai - I forgave everything after that experience!

Began the morning by sitting in on a ridiculously short masterclass by Shobana Jeyasingh and her company - a mere 90 minutes while ideally it should have been at least double that. Not surprising then that the session was a bit tepid and structured more as a 'have a taste' kind of teaching workshop than a masterclass. Didn't really get to enter or engage with any questions of creative process or impulse that the company work with. In fact, an observer observed (!) to me that, considering this was her first visit to India, she would have expected the session - short as it was - to be structured keeping in mind the culturally different but also deeply connected histories.

We did try to address some of these in the conversation with Shobana later at Max Mueller Bhavan. The conversation was moderated by Jyoti Argade (scholar, lecturer, and producer from London) and myself. But this too was painfully short - 45 minutes, though we dragged it to about an hour. That was just enough to touch on some of the issues surrounding Shobana's work process, impulses, and contribution to dance in the UK but not enough to probe or provoke a deeper, more thoughtful and enlightening discussion. I spoke to some people after the conversation, and there were several unresolved issues on the one hand and also unsettling questions for the choreographer on the other. Several people echoed my own hesitancies about the company - wowed as I was by the sheer physicality and technique of their work - and such conversations should provide space to respectfully bring up some of these. It's not just an opportunity to hear the choreographer out and applaud, but also to give her honest and constructive audience feedback - something I gained tremendously from at the 'Meet the Director' session at the NSD festival in January this year. Something for Gati to keep in mind for next time.

The screening session later in the afternoon showcased some little seen work - but also some downright self-indulgent stuff - in my book, at least. Thankfully, these ones were short! An unexpected treat arrived in the form of two cheeky and dour films by Britain based dancer-performer Hitain Patel.

The 4.30pm session at the LTG auditorium - smelling awfully of kerosene for some odd reason - featured the first set of Emerging Choreographers. Here Gati is to be questioned. Out of the three choreographers presented - Lokesh Bharadwaj, Veena Basavarajaiah and Post Natyam Collective - the first two presented self-performed solos created at the Gati Summer Dance Residency earlier this year. Participating in the Gati Residency should not be a recommendation to get into a Gati-organised festival of this nature and stature (at least stature that it should aspire to) - especially when the two pieces were pedestrian at best. Apart from the installation of bulbs in the first piece and the intelligent light design in the second, I don't think I came away with anything. In fact, Cynthia Ling Lee's (of Post Natyam Collective) delightfully mischievous and sprightly solo - Rude, huh? - was the one bright and enjoyable spot in otherwise dull (and even self-indulgent) fare. If these are among the best Emerging Choreographers India has to offer, that's very sad indeed!

Another surprising disappointment was Navtej Singh Johar's solo, Grey is Also a Colour. I usually love Navtej's work. As a dancer he is magnificent, and his understanding of the abhinaya of Bharatanatyam inspires and urges him to create wonderfully evocative and emotional work. Combining yoga, Bharatanatyam and touches of contemporary dance, his productions - for me - have been truly path breaking AND soul-stirring. But Navtej presented a more dance and theatre piece, where he was speaking on stage, which just did not work either for me or for others in the audience who share my passion for his dance work. In fact, the most potent sections for me were those when he sat quietly totally inhabiting a subtle movement or expression.

Padmini Chettur - Pushed
And now let me be clichéd and quote Shakespeare - "All's Well That Ends Well" - to describe an anything but clichéd, mind-blowing and powerful performance by the Padmini Chettur Dance Company - Pushed. As I entered the hall, someone behind me said, 'her work is slow, wonderfully slow'. I didn't know whether he was being sarcastic or actually complimentary. I admit, I walked in with trepidation having heard so many good and bad responses to Padmini's work. I've only seen some bits she has shown on DVD, and enjoyed working with her in a short workshop situation in Calcutta last year. But I could see even from these short interactions that it was not my kind of work at all - and it still isn't. And yet what depth of beauty it had! Yes, it was slow, but it pulled me in. It drew me with a force that I cannot articulate into a measured, meditative, moody world of gradually forming and dissolving images. Her choreography has a precision that the Swiss would be envious of - and I'm not talking just timing here, which is difficult enough considering the music had no recognisable markers of rhythm or time. Precision; brave, astonishing and deceptive simplicity; gentle fluidity; forceful power; and immense focus and poise. All contributing to a strange rollercoaster ride - one that was slow often to the point of being stationery, and yet ruthlessly and poetically dynamic. Every movement, every choreographic decision was so deliberate and detailed down to the swish of the feet on the floor and the intricate, yet almost invisible changes in timing - it was masterful! I felt as if I was at a Noh performance: where the slowness and control of each little gesture, each created sound weaves its own web of attraction for the audience. But it is a performance that demands as much of the audience as it does of the performers: intense concentration, the end result being that you emerge from the experience both exhausted and exhilarated.

I happily forgive everything else today and thank Gati wholeheartedly for gifting me an experience so precious, so pure, so pleasurable.

Third day at Ignite - Two Thumbs Up, One Down: 12 November 2010
A short day for me today at Ignite. I went in only in the afternoon missing the morning paper presentations. Post-lunch, moderated a conversation with Padmini Chettur, Veena Basavarajaiah and Sudesh Adhana. Since the last has not shown his work yet, it was really difficult for the audience to engage with him, and most of the questions at the end of the session went - understandably and most deservedly - to Padmini, touching on questions of tautness and tension, audience behaviour, whether a choreographer's note is necessary or not... all to do with her work, but also many questions surrounding the performance, perception and development of an Indian contemporary dance.

Fabian Barba - A Mary Wigman Dance Evening
We were then in for an unexpected and utterly absorbing presentation by the Ecuadorian choreographer-performer Fabian Barba. Fabian has been fascinated by the works of Mary Wigman, one of the pioneers of German Expressionist and Abstract Dance in the 1920s. Fabian has reconstructed nine of her solo pieces through references to very limited video material, photographs, Wigman's own writing and writings by others, and training with three living choreographers who have worked with Mary Wigman - one of them being Susanne Linke. The ambiance of the period was aptly created by three dim chandeliers in the intimate British Council auditorium. Each piece was performed in a single light state and, along with the recreated costumes and somehow scratchy music (the original pieces Wigman used), really managed to set a tone of the time. I was transported to the era of silent film. Little touches like the graceful and grave bows at the end of each piece were lovely. A brief post show conversation threw up some interesting connections from the audience - specifically from Sunil Kothari and Sadanand Menon. Zohra Segal had met Mary Wigman in Germany and began working with her. She later joined Uday Shankar - also a friend of Wigman. Madame Menaka of India was working at the same time and they had both met in Germany as well. And of course, the 'new' dances being created in Europe and America at that time by the likes of Wigman, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis - a rejection of the stately classical ballet and an embracing of a more earthy, meditative movement - were all inspired by a highly exoticised idea of India, and collectively called 'Hindu Dances'.

Post this, however, I was appalled by the next presentation. British Council has a large walled in courtyard - with a sculpture at one end and two wide and high passageways leading through the surrounding building on two sides. The fourth side is the main building from where we emerge into the courtyard. Rajyashree Ramamurthi had created what she called a 'site-specific' performance in this space, hanging tiny bells in one passageway and what looked like fairy lights in the other, and making a trail of white footprints from the sculpture to the bells to the lights.... Over and above anything else, my question is - what makes a work site specific? Having done some amount of such work with a couple of the most experimental directors in Europe, my understanding is that it must in some way come out of what the space gives you, demands - your response to the physicality and the 'ghosts' of the space. Therefore a site-specific piece demands and assumes a conversation with a space that affects the everyday perception of it. Hanging bells does no such thing and choosing to dance - no, let me rephrase that to choosing to move convulsively - now in front of the sculpture, now in one passageway... without so much as a second glance at the space itself is absolute nonsense. How is it essentially any different then, than Parsee theatre companies performing before drop scenes? It is actually - at least the scenes acted out in front of specific drop scenes take place in the locations depicted: they wouldn't use a drop scene of a palace when a deer hunt in a deep forest was in progress. It was by far the most self-indulgent and shallow work I've seen so far at Gati - not that I could bring myself to see all of it. Never mind content or form - there was no energy for me to respond to as an audience as she staggered and fell along her path to God Knows Where and What and Why! A contemporary dancer friend and myself escaped to the canteen. 'Dull', I said - trying to be polite. 'Dullness I can stand', she retorted. 'It's the complete randomness of it that gets me'. True, too true!

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company - Timeless
The evening ended on an upward curve with Aditi Mangaldas' Timeless - exploring time. Time is a brow-beaten theme and point of departure for every Kathak dancer doing traditional or experimental work, and I can't say there was anything really new or exciting about her interpretation and exploration of Time. It became - as is the norm in Kathak - all about rhythmic complexities and interplay and a show of virtuosity. Be that as it may, it was performed with élan, style and energy - though a little more thought to the graph of the pace would have been nice. Other than an evocative beginning shrouded in mystery and minimal movement, the piece rarely dropped from a frenetic pace. Spins, footwork, bol parhant, live pakhawaj playing, sharpness, staccato moves, flamboyance - all the usual suspects of Kathak were out in scintillating force coupled with a superbly timed and specific light design. My favourite moments though were Aditi's solo. Performed to two repeated lines of a thumri sung in alaap by the inimitable Shubha Mudgal, it reminded me yet again why she is such a brilliant performer. Alone on stage - and she is as petite as you can get - she filled the space with even the most subtle movements of the fingers. It was sheer poetry, and I for one would have loved to have seen more of it rather than the display Kathak has become so known and feted for.
So two thumbs up, and one thumb way down. Not a bad day at all!

Ignite - fourth and final and Hip Hip Hurrah: 13 November 2010
A large part of the last day of Ignite was dedicated to a Network seminar exploring the needs and possibilities of the dance community in India to create a network amongst themselves. A network that would not look only at the issues we face while creating work on a daily basis - infrastructure, finances, subsidies, sustainability and more - but also at points that facilitate the activity of dance and dancers - policy, representation, support, post-career situations, sharing of information and resources - all of which happen on an occasional basis, but there is no concerted collective voice of the dance community that can speak, stand up and be counted.

Chaired by Sadanand Menon, the morning session presented varied approaches and views on the idea of a network from five different voices and backgrounds: policy researcher Anita Cherian, India Foundation for the Arts Director Anmol Vellani, Asia-Europe Foundation representative Anupama Shekhar, myself as practitioner and director of a performance group, and Sanjana Kapoor as one of the initiators of the India Theatre Forum. In addition, there were inputs from several others including Anita Ratnam whose pioneering narthaki.com is a boon for the Indian dance community the world over, and Pooja Sood of the Khoj Artists Collective who shared her experience of a network based in the world of visual arts. In the afternoon session, we broke up into five groups and talked about various divisions of a network - assuming one was conceivable, possible, necessary and deserving - such as funding, possible activities, structure interventions in policy, etc. Mr. Jawhar Sarkar - Secretary, Department of Culture - joined us for this session, and his inputs about government policies and plans really underlined for us that this is a potentially very powerful moment for all arts practitioners: where we have a proactive Secretary who is actually personally interested in the furtherance of arts and artists support on the basis of what the community expresses as needs, rather than what often disconnected government committees may decide. And while the two sessions obviously did not result in the miraculous formation of a utopian dance network, several questions have been tabled, discussed and provoked. And that's a start that we - as a community - need to take forward. The ball really is in our court - we can't carry on blaming the rest of the world for not looking after us without asking the very basic questions of what we have done to look after ourselves or deserve support in the first place!

Being very much a part of this seminar meant I missed out on the two masterclasses by Chris Lechner and also the second Emerging Artists Showcase. Once again, though, a dancer friend told me that she was severely disappointed having seen the latter, and that - again - it was very Gati Residency led. Gati needs to understand that decisions like this will only undermine its own reputation and the reputation of the festival as serious, non-partisan concerns committed to the development and furtherance of a contemporary dance culture in India. I refuse to believe that there are no interesting and dynamic young choreographers in the rest of the country - choreographers who have never had anything to do with Gati and maybe never even heard of them, but who are working in their own spheres and forging fresh ideas and pathways. This is something that absolutely must be addressed if the credibility of Ignite is to grow from strength to strength.

Preethi Athreya - Sweet Sorrow
The first performance I did see was Preethi Athreya's Sweet Sorrow, which I had missed when she brought it to Calcutta in September. It was an absolutely quirky delight! With kinds and levels of sorrow as her starting point, Preethi crafted a tapestry of movement and sound which played with juxtaposing tempos in various ways. Several sections were performed in silence or to the beat of a metronome. Playing with projections intelligently, we were often brought up short with subtle choices: what we assumed was her shadow carried on moving or started moving out of time with her all of a sudden, and then returned to being 'part of her body'. I confess that I did find the short section early on with a chair as suddenly lacking in energy and purpose, but that was the only moment when I felt disconnected. She made brilliant use of the Bharatanatyam technique as well, and the deliciously dead-pan manner in which she managed to make self-deprecating fun of how Bharatanatyam is often 'explained' today through enacting gesture with words existed side by side with the heartache of loss that the form can truly touch and evoke in the most authentic manner. Distilling the form down to interpret a well known 'item' of Bharatnatyam to just beats of the feet in aramandi and the simplest of hand movements brought me face to face with those moments when one is struck dumb with an utter despair and shock, and yet internally railing, raving and tearing one's hair in agonised rage. I have rarely seen such an internal, personal emotion expressed so powerfully without using the external indicators of emotion that Indian classical dance does so well. It was moving and amusing, and did not take itself self-importantly seriously - which is so often my problem with 'experimental' or 'contemporary' dance (several examples of which were thrust upon us in the name of Emerging Choreography at this very festival).

The last performance of the festival, though, disappointed me: Incident Compromised by Sudesh Adhana along with a Norwegian acrobat. The premise of the idea of prisons and imprisonment was an interesting point of departure, and Sudesh first conceived and created this work when he was a student of Contemporary Dance in Oslo. The piece, unfortunately, has remained a good student piece showing no signs of coming of age. There was a lot of bumping around, butting each other and violent acrobatics and a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek humour performed engagingly enough, no doubt. But there was also a huge amount of aimless walking about and lack of specificity and focus apart from the gratuitous rope work that I'm quite tired of now. And not even rope work that would wow anyone - rather tired stuff. A friend of mine from a theatre background asked me, quite rightly, after the show suddenly decided to end (it was as if they said, okay enough of dribbling football now. I've got to get home): "So when does movement become dance?" Or choreography, for that matter. I've seen spectacular and beautifully moving work with circus acrobats crafted and choreographed by performance directors, work that had clarity of thought and direction which is what makes it theatre (or dance) rather than just circus virtuosity. Everyone knows of Cirque du Soleil, for example. And this work is just two guys playing around and dabbling in stuff they know. Not that I expect them to be like Cirque du Soleil - Sudesh is just starting out - but I saw no acknowledgment or attempt to actually progress from a cool and forgivably superficial student project into something more with more depth of intent and exploration in content, form and performance. Speaking to Sudesh before I had seen his work, he said he was always interested in finding new movement languages for every project depending on impulse and response. That's all very fine, but WHO are you then? What is your identity? There must be something - if not a choreographic stamp, then a philosophy, politics, intellectual approach... something that develops and evolves and that defines how and why you work from piece to piece. Otherwise it becomes the dance version of carpetbaggers.

The climax and great highlight of the post-festival part at Max Mueller Bhavan was a comic turn by the inimitable Maya Rao. Forty-five minutes of stand up comedy where she took off on Shobana Jeyasingh and her company in particular, with generous references to Navtej, Preethi, Sudesh and others - who were all there and rolling about with laughter. I'm not going to try and describe it - comedy is never funny unless you were actually there to experience it. But it was a wonderful choice to end the festival. There is such a danger in getting caught up in the idea of importance and taking one's work seriously - I've already said this is a malaise I see in much of new work in dance. And ending on this note of hilarity helped us both let our hair down at the end of a packed four days, and keep our work as artists in perspective. A little poking fun and caricaturing never hurt anyone!

All in all, though, Ignite has been a wonderful and incredibly important moment in the recent history of dance in India, and we cannot let that go. It has to grow, morph, travel year to year, and place to place with regularity and openness. It can truly be a vital catalyst in opening up more avenues in how we think, create, perform and view dance in India today.
Congratulations, Gati! You deserve all the kudos you are getting.

Vikram Iyengar is the Artistic Director of Ranan, Kolkata