Bonanza of contemporary dance performances
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

December 6, 2011

The past month has seen many contemporary dance performances being staged in Chennai. The Indo-French festival of contemporary dance, DanSe Dialogues, was presented at Kalakshetra from November 5 to 12 and was a big hit with the Chennai audience. I managed to see only one performance thanks to some American friends who were visiting Kalakshetra and called me up, chirping excitedly on the phone that they had just watched a rehearsal of a French dancer dancing with a huge machine and I should not miss it. So, off I went to watch ‘Transports Exceptionnels’ choreographed by Dominique Boivin that evening.

Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez

The open space as soon as one enters Kalakshetra wore a festive look as hundreds were gathered outside a chalk circle, some sitting on the ground, some just standing and enjoying the freedom of the open space. In the centre was a humongous CAT Excavator 320D, a machine with a long arm and a deadly shovel at the end of it. To the accompaniment of opera music, the slender dancer (Phillipe Priasso) clad formally in black trousers and white shirt commenced his breathtaking duet with the machine, whose arm and its rotation were used inventively by the choreographer as a second dancer.  We watched in wonder as Priasso hung from the shovel’s claws from below;  he sat over the shovel, deep in contemplation; he draped himself over it gazing at the sky; he stood atop it hands stretched out like Kate Winslet in ‘The Titanic’ as the mechanical arm swung around from low on the ground to high up in the air.  He ran along with the arm on the ground as they chased each other, the shovel swinging over his head by mere inches as we held our breath in suspense; he tumbled on the ground with the arm swooping over him and missing him by inches. He stood inside the shovel, even hung upside down from it. At one point, the dancer slid off the back of the shovel and on to the ground in a hand stand, his feet up and body erect. The audience was thrilled to see such acrobatics combined with dance movements. When I tried to take a couple of pics with my cell phone, a helpful neighbor told me “it’s all available on YouTube!” (

The movements were lyrical at times, scary at times and everything was split second precision. Through it all, one could not see any person inside the Excavator as the glass was stuck with black film and it seemed as if the machine was unmanned. At the end, the man in the machine (Eric Lamy) revealed himself to thunderous applause. It was a spell binding half hour spectacle where ‘Transports Exceptionnels’ transported us to a different world. “The digging device, whose function is to scrape, drill, transport and tip out, offers a poetic extension: a hand which carries, elevates, and protects.  If I sometimes imagine the machine like a rough and imperfect human being – in the image of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein – I equally attempt to touch on the marvellous, the giddy dream of Beauty and the Beast,” describes Boivin of this extraordinary piece.  

Playing their drums with gusto, a group of South Korean children in their traditional clothes, then led the crowd to the gazebo opposite to the Rukmini Arangam for the next part of the evening’s program. It was nice to sit around the small water tank and watch the children sing their native songs, accompanied by claps and their drum recitals were cheered lustily by the audience. They were on a 10 month world tour and happened to be in Chennai on that day. If only the performance space had been a bit bigger!  After their cheerful performance, there was a half hour recital by the music students of Kalakshetra who sang bhajans in different languages. At intervals, baskets of smoking neem leaves were taken around the audience so mosquitoes would not eat us alive! 

The evening was not yet over. After a 10 minute coffee break, the program continued at the Rukmini Arangam where a 70 minute film ‘Cine Geste’ made by Boivin was screened tracing his journey in dance and the various influences he came under during the different phases of his career. From the giddy dance of yesteryears with impossibly fast routines to Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, a superb Samsung commercial, the Temptations, Merce Cunningham, precision marching by Japanese students, who merged into amazing group formations, YouTube sequences et al were strung together, taking many of us down memory lane. The rather long evening ended with a Q & A with the choreographer.

‘Black Milk’

‘By Singing Light’
Photos: Roy Campbell - Moore

Media Mix in association with British Council and Arangham Trust presented an evening of contemporary dance by The National Dance Company Wales under the artistic direction of Ann Sholem, at the Music Academy on Nov 28. Though the tickets were rather steeply priced, there was a good turnout. The first half of the evening featured two beautiful dances choreographed by Ohad Naharin.  The first was a duet by two female dancers clad in elegant black costumes performing to Ravel’s haunting score of ‘Bolero.’ This was followed by five male dancers (Josef Perou, Karol Cysewski, Eran Gisin, Ygal Tsur and Gareth Mole) in ‘Black Milk,’ their raw energy in contrast to the earlier lyrical piece.  The piece started with each dancer smearing his face and chest with a dark color as the pail is passed on from one to the next dancer and finally all of them performing “a ceremonial dance that encapsulates the tribal physicality” in an energized and athletic routine that was dynamic and fascinating. 

Post intermission, ‘By Singing Light’ choreographed by Stephen Petronio featured the whole cast of dancers performing to an original score by Son Lux that had the poems of Dylan Thomas interspersed with mixed choir arrangements of Welsh folksongs. Performed as solos, duets or group, the dance alternated from formal rhythmic choreography to more “pedestrian, task-like movements where people are just being people, specifically, physically assisting others.”  All three pieces were each charming in their own way and everyone went home with the satisfaction of having watched a wonderful evening of contemporary dance.  The brilliant lighting added to the overall effect and we could only guess at what a bomb it must have cost to put up that many lights!

Photos: Anoop Kumar


Photos: Anoop Kumar

The very next evening was a Young Choreographers showcase presented by Bangalore based Attakkalari at Chandralekha’s Spaces, that has become very popular for events in a small intimate setting.  Attakkalari’s Nagarika is an integrated information system on Indian physical expressions through technology. After a DVD on Bharatanatyam, Attakkalari’s 3 year research project on ‘Rediscovering the Kalaripayattu Spectrum’ has culminated in an easily accessible interactive format and its salient points, along with ease of navigation of various options were demonstrated in a short, impressive trailer. It features students and masters of Hindustan Kalari (Puthiyara, Kozhikode), Choorakkody Kalari (Chelavoor, Kozhikode), CVN Kalari (East Fort, Thiruvananthapuram) and EPV Kalari (Kadathuruthi, Kottayam). Said to contain about 7 ½ hours of viewing material, it will surely be very educative to those interested in knowing all about this Kerala martial art form and also help young professionals in the field make use of this information to develop new movement ideas.

The showcase featured 6 choreographers. The evening started off well with an interesting performance of ‘Uyire’ by Denny Paul of Attakkalari, dealing with past, present and future. An important part of his presentation was the square made up of tube lights strung together. Starting from outside the square representing the present, Denny moved into the square representing the past and according to the moods of his memories, the alternate lights flashed, or flashed one after another or flashed speedily along the square. He then stepped out and walked into the future into the audience.

‘Yathra – River of life’ by Chitra Arvind of Rhythmotion Dance Company, was about two friends Samatha and Laukika as they journey down the river. Trained in contemporary as well as Bharatanatyam and Kathak, one could see flashes of her classical dance training now and then. As she said later in the Q & A, she was not consciously going away from one towards the other and her smooth movements alternating with forceful depicted the mental stability of one friend in contrast to the other.

Attakkalari dancer Hemabharathy Palani was saucy in parts and battered in parts in ‘Uruvam’ as the audience saw her subtly portrayed ‘raunchy’ movements and come hither looks broken at times by a darker side to the narration. In the Q & A, she explained that she was inspired by a chance remark by her mother chiding her as behaving ‘like a eunuch’ because she was tomboyish. Though hurt at first, it got her interested in knowing more about the transgenders and having met and spoken to many of them, she wove their experiences into her presentation. 

‘Unstill Images’ was presented by Chennai based Akila and Palani in 4 parts. The first by Akila was reminiscent of Padmini Chettur’s ‘Paper Dolls’ opined a member of the audience.  Working with a choreographer for some time, one tends to absorb their influences, responded Akila. The second piece where light focused on only Palani’s feet saw this street theater artist do varied steps for typical thappam beats.  This did not fit into the theme of the evening. The next piece saw Akila do a slow sequence of Bharatanatyam adavus and….need more be said? The final piece where Palani and Akila performed a duet was their best.

Attakkalari dancer Deepak K Shivaswamy presented ‘Lvoe’ (misspelt for love) that had been put together during the Gati residency and involved use of multiple headgears like helmet, a turban, earphones to convey the mannerisms of the characters. He even came into the audience and lay down for a few seconds. Though choreographer VS Santhosh was not present, 3 Attakkalari dancers presented his choreography of ‘Padheyam’ which in its energy and execution reminded me of ‘Black Milk’ by National Dance Company Wales and was a pleasure to watch.
‘Mei Dwani’
Photos: Sudeep Bhattacharya

The evening of Nov 30 saw all the above mentioned dancers of the Attakkalari Repertory Company perform along with artistic director and choreographer Jayachandran Palazhy in ‘Mei Dwani’ at Music Academy, the favored venue for big, contemporary productions. The music is composed by Patrik Sebag and Yotam Agam, with evocative light design by Thomas Dotzler. Three side lights were innovatively placed at the back of the stage, facing the audience. 

Through the one hour performance, we saw the superbly trained dancers go through their movements flawlessly.  The sequences with the shiny pots were innovatively choreographed as were the movements with the cylinders that were then placed in an upright position on one side of the stage to hold deepams that flickered through the performance.  At one point, the dancers even stood inside the pots. There were strong sections using kalari movements that showed how physically fit the dancers are. After the show, Guru CV Chandrasekar commented that it was one of the most refreshing performances he had seen. “One could see lasya, the hint of the elements of earth, water and fire but one did not need any story; it was the pure joy of the movements that were enthralling. It was truly the superb training of the Mei or body in synchronization with the dwani or sound. A very satisfying evening.”  

The evening was memorable for more than just the performance. Prior to the show, critic Vidya Saranyan from The Hindu and I were asked by the pleasant gentleman at the reception to wait till the concerned person came to show us to our seats. She appeared a few minutes later and when told that we were ‘press,’ she gave us both a CD and said she would be back by 7.15pm. Knowing how the press is always allocated corner seats in most auditoriums here, we enquired if that was so and she answered in the affirmative.  Vidya then requested that we be given seating in the centre to have a better view of the performance. “You will be walking up and down so I cannot do that,” said the ‘seater of the press’ firmly. “Why on earth would we walk up and down?” wondered Vidya in a mild tone. That invited a reprimand. “Do you know we have actually stopped performances because people walk up and down, disturbing the performers? If you promise not to do that, I will consider.” And off she went, leaving us both staring in astonishment!  What is the world coming to?  Forget about me, The Hindu was supposed to be their media partner! 

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of