Natya Darshan V: Seminar on choreography
December 22, 2005
Text & photos: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

December 28, 2005

The 3 day seminar convened by Radhika Shurajit for Kartik Fine Arts, had women choreographers as the theme. Dance guru Shanta Dhananjayan inaugurated the function on Dec 22, 2005. Gurus Indira Rajan and C V Chandrasekhar were honored for their contribution to Bharatanatyam. In those days, recitation of fast jathis added to the attraction of a performance, so when Indira Rajan reeled out complicated jathis at super speed, the audience gasped for breath! Talking after her, guru Chandrasekhar joked that his voice would sound weak in comparison. He expressed his appreciation that dance costumer D S Aiyellu and Bharatanatyam guru Rhadha are to be honored with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award.

"Dance is the greatest of arts because it is life itself. Choreography is not mere dance design, but the external manifestation of an inner urge and a unique, individual experience," said Radhika Shurajit in her introduction.

Rukmini Devi is considered as one of the earliest and greatest choreographers. So the first presenter of the seminar was aptly Leela Samson, Director of Kalakshetra, who presented some excerpts from Rukmini Devi's dance dramas. She has been trained under the direct supervision of Rukmini Devi.

"Rukmini Devi was guided by philosophical content, so her choreography was marked by this understanding of life. She was meditative, spontaneous, innovative and destructive, yet instinctive. She was generous in parts, allowing trusted associates to innovate. But group work was meticulously crafted, pushing the dancer to her every immaculate move. She was also humourous, deliberately provocative in parts on one hand and amazing on the other. The dance should make you think, be a joy a watch and joy to execute." A group work featuring Andal and her sakis to music composed by Papanasam Sivan was presented to accompaniment by the Kalakshetra musicians (who performed an invocatory number even though it was a lec-dem and not a performance). In this piece, how Rukmini Devi brought the main character in and took the group out of the stage is seen.

Another type of work is the Krishna Leela composed in 1959 from the Geeta Govindam with music by Papanasam Sivan. 1 male and 8 female dancers, demonstrated how Rukmini Devi used the classical medium to bring out the feeling of raas. "Athai had a hard time during the choreography of war scenes in Mahapattabhishekam," said Samson. She disliked war and bloodshed and did not want to show anything gory. In fact war itself is not shown but the confusion indicated by 4 apsaras. The fast movements were choreographed to music by S Rajaram, grandson of Mysore Vasudevachariar.

Later choreography became more complex with lots of space covered by dancers. The spontaneous gypsy dance happens suddenly in Kanappar Kuravanji and lasts all of 3 minutes in a 2 ½ hour dance drama, but it expresses the joy of the common people. The last excerpt was the building of the bridge in Mahapattabhishekam, choreographed by Athai in 1970. The use of rare sollukattus and appropriate music by Rajaram, gave the suggestion of movement. This item was appreciated with deafening applause!

Why is it that with such a wealth of information available, all the Kalakshetra lec-dems seen over the last few years have nothing new to offer? The audience could have been treated to what influenced Athai's thought process when choreographing a dance item, how she developed her choreography, her usage of Kathakali elements and other inspirations in her dance dramas and so on.

The next presenter was Anita Ratnam, who opened her presentation with the pithy phrase of being "both brave and foolish to follow such a dynamic group presentation like Kalakshetra's." Asking for the auditorium lights to be switched on for a more informal atmosphere, Anita began by talking along with her dance ensemble running onto the stage and performing the breathing exercises of Tai-Chi. Having evolved her own personal movement vocabulary called Neo-Bharatam, Anita stressed that, "What is unsaid, and the sub text, is what interests me. As a performer, I have always followed what my heart says, not the head." Returning from the US in 1990, Anita who had worked as a solo artist till then, realized that being on stage as a soloist did not interest her at that time. Her group work took off from there starting with 'Panchajanyam' in 1993. Theatre, she explained, is a vital source of inspiration for all classical dancers. "It has taught me great discipline, a spirit of democracy and constant focus, something the youngsters of today really need."

Members of the Arangham Dance Theatre continued to move slowly to soft music in a well coordinated flow of Tai Chi breathing while Anita asked the audience to watch the way the feet were placed as compared to the strident and staccato style of classical dance. Also the eyes were focused more softly, something classical dancers find very difficult to adjust to. "In the early morning, one sees old people doing tai-chi in the parks at Singapore and Malaysia. I was inspired by the movement energy of tai-chi. This became the presiding motif of 'Utpala' - the sthayibhava, the rasa of the lotus... " Bharatanatyam dancers in the group come from different schools and styles and it took 2 months for them to get used to the soft style and find the hidden energy. There's also a Therukoothu artiste and a Kalari exponent in the troupe. It's easier for them to do the gentler movements and to find a hidden focus to the work. (To off stage sniggers about acrobatics and gymnastics on stage in the choreography, Anita retorted that classical dancers are so content to look at ensemble work like Kalakshetra and deceiving themselves that there is only one motif for excellence. "Dance is not just music and rhythm. It is movement in all its aspects. Even silence has a power that is not tapped by Bharatanatyam dancers so far.")

"I'm a student of Adyar Lakshman, so there's a certain geometry in my movements, but to try and soften the movements of Bharatanatyam trained dancers was hard. A few exercises had to be done to get them used to this kind of quietness. To walk... look... stop... look... keep the knees softened... and walk lightly." The dancers demonstrated how they had to just walk around, till something still caught their eye... and to breathe fully. "It is easy to teach the work, but more difficult to teach the spirit of the work. Most Bharatanatyam dancers have excellent memories and can process info quickly, but to go beyond the movement is what interests me when we work together," said Anita. She uses a lot of original music mixed with some strains that lend to the mood of a work.

Anita next demonstrated how she uses the unstitched cloth as a motif a tirashila to introduce the character of Andal from her production called 'Naachiyar.' Here the golden screen became the entry curtain, a garland when draped round the neck, a flute, a mirror, the inner sanctum, a river and so on. After 'Utpala' in 2004, Anita felt more comfortable to return to solo work. Internal psychosis and dissonance began to interest her. Blending world myth with personal mythology, something started in 1998 with 'Daughters of the Ocean' is the direction she wished to pursue. That's how the collaborative work with dancer Hari Krishnan (from Canada) on the Buddhist goddess Tara came about. Anita has been on the quest "to find new stories, with stress on how to tackle the personal myth, how to dovetail it, and make it more meaningful for me."

How to take an idea and put it together on stage is a challenge. Her guru Adyar Lakshman told her not to forget Bharatanatyam, but Anita uses it as a springboard for her choreography. The challenge is to keep the fire going without compromising, with the awareness of the responsibility when using certain traditional elements. Having watched many shows abroad, she was also inspired to use space - the larger space, universal space and personal space.

"Why does one need to do this? For me, as a choreographer, because I have questions, I create; because I have questions, I choreograph. That's why I continue to stay in dance! Most people associate me with group work. But I'm slowly drawing away and letting the group exist on its own. The idea is not to duplicate a solo into a group work. The question is, as a solo artist, can I create and exist on my own? I feel that this is the time to do it."

Anita closed by demonstrating some excerpts from her new work 'Seven Graces.' The section of using two hasta mudras the 'pataka' and the 'alapadma' and moving them in ways that expressed the universal space around us, then to personalize it into the micro space of emotion and relationships. Although the demonstration was well attended in the initial parts, several young dancers and teachers left half way through. One question was almost acrimonious about the use of the female recorded voice singing in Sri Ragam and not using the entire Tyagaraja song 'Entaro Mahanubhavo.' After the demonstration, Anita shared her frustration privately with friends, at teachers and gurus in Chennai unwilling to open their minds and hearts to difference in dance. With academic courses offered in the city, it is surprising that students do not venture to ask questions and that people get stuck on what is right and wrong. Rising waves of fundamentalism and a smug attitude that nothing exists beyond Bharatanatyam is affecting the quality and the viewership of dance in this city. She felt the idea of what is sacred and divine is confused and misinterpreted to the detriment of dance.