Natya Darshan V: Seminar on choreography
December 23, 2005
Text & photos: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

December 28, 2005

Bharatanatyam/Kuchipudi dancer Ratna Kumar started the second day of the Natya Darshan seminar with her experiences as an Indian classical dancer in Houston, where development in the field has been much slower than in California, hence her development as a dancer also is different.

In America, one has to choreograph according to the ages of the performers (mostly youngsters), occasion for which one is performing and the audience for which one is performing. Often one is given a time limit, say 15 minutes, and told about what type of audience to expect, instructed not to do anything religious in short, told what to do, so the choice gets limited. Thus, they have to work within restrictions. "When we present our own programs, there are no such stipulations, so we have a field day," said Ratna. "After initial cultural shock, I have been able to understand the society I live in. To live in the mainstream of American art, I've to think differently too."

People are not willing to sit through solo recitals (except perhaps visiting artistes). They want only group performances. When Ratna learnt dance in India, everything was predictable symmetry. "Having learnt other dance forms and watched a lot of modern dancing, using asymmetrical and sometimes unusual numbers, had a wonderful effect and gave variation to the general choreography of the dance. Now I find this trend where it is accepted for a dancer to face the backdrop when executing certain movements."

Ratna rues that she does not have the luxury of an available orchestra in Houston. There's only a great vocalist. So Ratna reads extensively, makes notes, makes jathi patterns, sings herself as well as does the choreography. "It's like a one woman show... quite a tortuous path!" Apart from her dance work, she also has to contend with household chores like cooking and cleaning. In the summer, she enjoys the luxury of having Chennai based flautist Muthu Kumar and percussionist N K Kesavan working with her in Houston.

Ratna choreographs in Kuchipudi as well as Bharatanatyam, depending on the music. "Sometimes, a piece of music inspires you, you feel a response, you externalize the response in the way you want to present to others and this collective movement becomes the dance." Ratna showed video clips of works performed mostly by teenagers and one would never have guessed that these dancers attend classes maybe once or twice a week. One excerpt had music composed by O S Arun and sung by Srivastava of Bangalore. Another was a choreography on 9 dancers presented as part of the World Dance Festival in Houston.

Ratna choreographed a full length dance drama Nauka Charitram in the Kuchipudi style for the International Kuchipudi Conference that she curated in 2003. The excerpt from that, showed a little girl who played the role of Krishna, a child prodigy, not even 8 years old at that time. Since everyone thinks Kuchipudi means tarangam, dancing on a plate and pot on the head, Ratna decided to make it interesting by having the whole group dancing on plates. Another excerpt was from the popular Kalinganartana Thillana sung by Aruna Sairam, choreographed on two sisters in the Kuchipudi style.

When choreographing in the US, it is important to keep in mind that the children are born there. They learn ballet at school, so they do movements beautifully, but they are inhibited when it comes to showing expression, so it's a challenge to teach them abhinaya.

Ratna has collaborated with other dancers, poets and artists. She demonstrated beautifully, her story telling of the Legend of the Blue Bonnet, one of the text books that fourth graders read in Texas, and hence topical for them. When working with physically challenged children, Ratna has to be careful in her teaching, because after all, the choreography becomes meaningful only when it suits the subject and the audience.

Do they have schools of choreography in the US? "Yes, for non-Indian dance, but not for Indian dance as far as I know. Even 40 years back, we were all given the impulse to choreograph when guru K J Sarasa used to sing and asked us to create, when there was no class. So, we realized that we had to become thinking dancers and not just mechanical dancers. I follow that in my teaching too. I learn a great deal from the way my students think and create."

"Freedom to create has been there for a long time," remarked guru C V Chandrasekhar.
For Ratna, "A dancer works from the heart, not the mind. So it needs a lot of courage and passion. A dancer evolves by going through all the phases and the process has to go on. Everything that a dancer feels is from a personal viewpoint." Critic Leela Venkataraman thinks dance has to go forward but it has not been taken very kindly.

The next presenter guru Bhanumathy from Bangalore was presenting a lec-dem for the first time in Chennai, with her talented group of dancers. Originally a solo performer, sometime around 1993, she realized that, "We don't learn dance to perform alone, but also to share with others. So I decided why not choreograph on other dancers and give them an opportunity to show their talent. Whatever is done by a solo performer has been choreographed for a group. I started with jathis first, then with lyrics and so on."

Since Bharatanatyam has beautiful lines, Bhanumathy thought of making geometrical lines in aesthetic combinations, very much possible in the dance style. Whenever she was asked to do anything other than Bharatanatyam, she not only felt hurt, she was all the more determined to do only Bharatanatyam and show people how beautiful it is.

Like Ratna Kumar, Bhanumathy also finds it a challenge to get expressions out of the students. Many a time, a student who gets trained, marries and leaves and she has to start all over again. That's one reason why she does not do dance dramas. She chooses only those items where anyone can be replaced at any time. Bhanumathy feels strongly that one should never cheat the audience. "They are spending their time and money to come and see you. I am willing to take any criticism to better myself."

The dancers performed different types of entries, different formations for various sets of jathis, different geometric patterns like circle and triangle, also sequences where 8 dancers formed an X or 6 dancers formed a Y. Every sequence was greeted with thunderous applause. For Bhanumathy, Bharatanatyam is a beautiful dance design, beautiful like our traditional kolams, but every movement should have a purpose and not be mere running around the stage. And with her art, she has attracted many non-connoisseurs to Bharatanatyam.

"Simple ornaments and simple costumes make the dance stand out," complimented guru Kalanidhi Narayan. For a westerner in the audience, it was well thought out spatial orientation, and very clear, but how about expanding Bharatanatyam to add a little bit of chaos too? Why not add a little asymmetry? "I don't believe in chaos. I am not a 100% choreographer. I just do what I think." Critic Leela Venkataraman summed up that it's a matter of artistic choice. Somehow, no one raised the question about how long can people watch only different types of formations in a Bharatanatyam presentation...

The third presenter of the morning was Geeta Chandran from Delhi. Her teachers never used the word choreography, though they choreographed all the time. "It's a term borrowed from the west. I personally feel we are all choreographers doing our work.
How we make our journey is up to our choice. We have to define the parameters for ourselves. We can expand the margam, old can become new. We can choreograph specially for children. Keeping the strong tradition within you, there's a quest to push the frontiers of the style. You experiment. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail."

Geeta was a solo performer till she decided 6 years back to work beyond the solo format. That time, she was beset with questions like, "Why do we need to choreograph? What's the motive behind the choreography? Do we have something special to say? Are we doing it because of pressure from organizers? Are we pressured to do something new because we have moved from small to large spaces?"

Other styles like Kathak lends itself to group work, but in Bharatanatyam the araimandi is limiting when one has to move across the stage, says Geeta. In experimenting, the sky is the limit. The grammar of the style can be kept in tact, but in a commissioned work, the theme is given. So, it's easier. "When we do a work without defined boundaries, the work gets more exciting. Some impulse will push the creativity like a painting by artist Arpana Kaur. In a video excerpt from Explorations, Geeta explained that it is exciting to make light a part of the choreography.

Having learnt dance in Delhi, Geeta had the opportunity to interact with artists of other styles, like puppetry. Dancing, moving and emoting with the puppets for a work commissioned by an NGO, was an enriching experience. To avante garde music, she enjoyed choreographing for Anart, where she had to deconstruct movements to portray the ugly on stage. Having heard lot of western music, she found the flow of Tchaikovsky very inspiring to depict the seasons and the group worked on the movements together. Showing a small clip from that, Geeta maintains that the choreography for such works is a group effort.

During the interactive session, guru C V Chandrasekhar went on stage to demonstrate that he did not agree that the araimandi was restricting, but that if properly executed, every adavu of Bharatanatyam has the scope to cover the space without diluting the form.
(Any comment about anything to do with Bharatanatyam has the purists defending the dance form so vehemently nowadays that Chandran feels one should stick to only performing in Chennai as there seems to be no room for any other dialogue.)

Convener Radhika Shurajit opined that a work should stand out even without the lights and backdrop/props, even though these extra inputs add to a production. "Bad lighting can sometimes spoil a good choreography," said Ratna Kumar. "Dance is now considered entertainment. Everyone knows the beauty and majesty of the dance forms, but using technical enhancements like multi-media, light design and props actually challenge the dancer," said Anita Ratnam, while for critic Leela Venkataraman, it's the artist's choice to be minimalistic.

A trained classical musician, Geeta sang in her beautiful voice and concluded by saying that the dance community needs harmony and peace and artistes should all support each other.