Natya Darshan V: Seminar on choreography
December 24, 2005
Text & photos: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

December 30, 2005

The last day of the seminar commenced with a lec-dem by dancer/actress Shobana. “A lot of us have lot of ideas when we talk of choreography, but to get it to the final production is the most difficult and most importantly, it has to work.” After the idea and its execution comes the space where the performance is to take place. It could be without a roof, without wings, large or small. So, the choreography is changed according to the performance space. That’s why rehearsals are very important. The third is the rasa aspect. Giving time for the audience to settle, Shobana tries to create the mood in the starting items and saves the best for the last.
Dr. Sridhara, Dr. Venkat Ganesh, Dr. Ernest Vijay, Radhika Shurajit, Anisa

To Shobana, choreography does not really pertain to a solo. She tries to keep in mind, the personality of the dancer and choreographs what is suitable for that performer. She demonstrated how she choreographed movements on the sprightly dancer, the musical dancer and the master of rhythm dancer. The dancer needs to know exactly what the choreographer intends. It’s also about control, like during a film shooting, an actor is controlled to a certain extent.

When a dancer/dance troupe tours a number of cities, it’s a challenge to the choreographer, dancers and lights director as each venue, stage and amenities available is different. An organizer in US who gave Shobana only a couple of hours to get used to the venue, told her Indian artists are so hardy, they will anyway deliver!

As one grows older, one cannot cover space as much as in younger days. Also, just because there’s enough space, there’s no necessity to run around. Two dancers gave a jathi demo. As everyone knows, Shobana is the niece of dancer/actress Padmini. “My aunts used to rehearse with 100 dancers. So, it’s important for all dancers to be visible and no one should touch the other. If the choreography is designed for a duet, the same for a solo will not be effective. But the two can be as one entity.” An excerpt from Dancing Drums was demonstrated.

“When I dance with performers half my age, the kind of energy they give me is wonderful!” With demo, Shobana spoke about balancing the stage, placement of artists on stage, like the taller one at the back, placement of musicians, and putting spotlights on special movements so the audience notices that in a group work. Shobana also presented excerpts from her recent work choreographed to Caribbean music. “I can’t call it experimental, because that word reminds me of science! Contemporary for me is Martha Graham.” She lets the music decide the patterns. Sometimes, she could sit for hours on end without anything striking her, whereas a good piece of music, especially percussion, could inspire her to choreograph in a jiffy. Giving a demo from her Rhythmscape, Shobana says, “Music is the driving force behind the pulse and rhythm of a piece. We have our own particular boundaries, but within that, we have to make an impact. We have to embellish certain elements. It’s all about attitude. Stillness is when flow pauses. It’s not inaction, but a movement at pause, a hint of what’s to come.”

Having worked with so many choreographers in films, she has done a lot of different movements. In olden days, choreographers learnt classical dance. In films, choreographers are very sensitive to sound, so feet don’t work too much. For her, group choreography could be “even and syncopated, balanced and chaotic or organized chaos. But there’s a difference between dance being chaotic and clearly chaotic.” Shobana concluded by saying the whole seminar has been a learning experience for her. Having worked in so many films in so many languages (“All our films are musicals!”), Shobana could have enlightened the audience about how she balances her filmi and classical style of dance, if one style affects the other, especially her choreography process and so on.

It was a pity that as soon as Shobana left, half the hall left with her. So, it was a sparse audience that benefited from the open house discussion on Fitness for Dance. Dr. Ernest Vijay (Sports Physiotherapist and Fitness specialist), Dr. Sridhara (Community Health Doctor / dancer, Bangalore), Anisa (Food & Nutrition), Dr. Venkat Ganesh (yoga expert) were there to answer questions. To be a good performer, yoga helps in better coordination, strength, endurance, clarity of footwork, arm movements, jumps and turns, improved stamina for dancing. Yoga breathing exercises help you relax during movements. Yoga improves concentration and gives better flexibility.

Dr. Sridara said skeleton is more important than limbs. So it is important for the teacher to give correct instructions to a child on how to execute the movements. Important thing is not to overstrain a child. During periods, some girls cannot function, but there’s no need to attach extra importance. Leave it to the girl to decide. There are asanas to relieve the pain.

Dr. Ernest Vijay sees dancers as sports persons; both have high level of injuries and demands. In dance, you go beyond natural limits -expressivity, extreme range of emotions, cardio vascular and muscular demands on dance. So, dancers need a mix of aerobic and anaerobic exercises, adequate rest between seasons and should continue to stay fit during off season. 90% of women start gym to reduce hips. As long as your energy input and output is same, your weight remains the same. Abdominal crunches or hip exercises are not really necessary to lose tummy fat. Dance is a mix of high intense movement. However hard you train, you need to follow a proper diet, do aerobic exercise and overall exercises for the body to stay trim and healthy. But one must be aware of one’s physical limits.

Anisa advocated more of carbohydrate intake, more of fluids like glucose. One can take 6 small meals on the day of a performance. You can eat 2 ½ hours before a show. Half an hour before the performance, you can have anything that’s high in sugar for energy. Drinking water in-between classes is alright. Body gets dehydrated, you lose electrolyte, so have some liquid/water before you start a practice session, in-between or after dance. Don’t wait for thirst. Iron is important for every dancer and needed to avoid cramps and anemia.

Common injuries occur in lower back, knee and foot. Prevention is important, recognize the injury, see to it that there’s proper warm up and cool down. Muscles have to be stretched and strengthened. Any asana stretches, so do simple asanas to stretch the muscles and spine. Warm up an hour before your show, do your makeup, then more simple stretches before the program. Cooling down is similar to warming up. Add a bit of yoga or tai-chi and relax. Cold shower is better than hot shower, but after stretching.

Environment and dietary factors have to be taken into account. Taking dance to lose weight without proper diet does not work. A diabetic should not exercise or do a program when the tablet is acting. Why can’t many dancers sleep after a performance? “It just means they are more alert and energetic, so let them relax and enjoy,” said Dr. Sridhara!

The last presenter was Lakshmi Viswanathan. “We’ve now reached a stage of total confusion on what is choreography and who should be a choreographer. Everything is accepted nowadays and showcased on the same platform. What is amateur work and serious work should be considered by organizers. Choreography is arranging dance to communicate the ideas, helped by music, enhanced by lights and sets, embellished by the make-up and costumes.”

Bharatanatyam has still not seen its peak. Her work Banyan Tree is a research focused theme, linked to research in Bharatanatyam. “We seem to go back only to mythology for our choreographic work. To depart from it is very challenging. It requires a lot of thinking.” Whenever she gets an idea, she works for months on the script. In Chaturanga, she incorporated Subramania Bharati’s songs and wanted to incorporate some Gandhian thought. As a choreographer, it was a challenge to get a set of dancers to make a visual impact on stage. “Too many on stage, does not work for me. A less number on stage makes better impact. I try to keep the stage free to play around with the design of movement, to create the atmosphere of what the song is trying to communicate.”

Video excerpt from Chaturanga was shown. Lakshmi Viswanathan finds it difficult to select a Hindi song and do Bharatanatyam for it. It is easier to perform to Tamil lyrics and her favorite is Bharatiyar. She was happy that she performed to Vande Mataram before A R Rehman’s version popularized the song among the youth.

“Only for the last 15 years, I have taken to the larger canvas of group choreography. I believe in minimalism. Clothes should not hamper movement, and jewellery should not hide the face or expressions. Emotions should not be lost, yet at the same time should not be exaggerated. Suggestiveness is the very essence of Bharatanatyam.”

And the Natya Darshan V seminar on women choreographers came to an end.