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Boo Hoo Bruno!
... and the politics of whining

February 19, 2008
A personal response to the recently concluded performance of THE ABSENT LOVER by Thresh Dance Company and the media machinations by one of the collaborators in the production..

Okay, the gloves are off! I seem to be itching for a fight after being pleasant, smiling and allowing nonsense to go on around me in the name of fair play.

Many know that I am an ardent supporter of young artistes and their endeavours in the dialogue of contemporary movement. Decades of work through performance, arts management and internet initiatives have enabled me to see so much and absorb a great deal of art through the actual process of life itself. Many times, my frank views have thrown me on a collision course with the classical dance community which nurtured me in my early years. I have become known as a modernist and a flag bearer for contemporary dance and choreo-theatre in India. This website, started almost 10 years ago has carried so many points of view without any micro-managed mediation. All in the spirit of the arts and specially, dance.

When I opened THE HINDU's Friday Review on February 15, 2008, I was surprised to see a large article titled 'In Defence of the Difficult.' The author of the article is a British internet entrepreneur Bruno Kavanagh, better known in India as dancer Preeti Vasudevan's husband. (Preeti, a Bharatanatyam student of the Dhananjayans is now attempting to carve a bi-continental career as a contemporary dancer-choreographer in the US and India.)

The article was a dirge on the poor response of the Chennai audience to the recently staged world premiere of THE ABSENT LOVER, a choreo-theatre work created by wife Preeti. Peppered between that one single gripe was a history lesson on the purpose of art and references of poets, painters and sculptors. What incensed me was its tone and the fact that so much precious space had been given to what was actually a tedious evening of dance theatre. I was at the performance and so can truly say that whatever the writer had to say in "defence" of the production was not what I saw or experienced. "I could sense a certain lack of enthusiasm," he comments in the article. Damn right. The audience, or what was left of them at the end, were downright confused and disappointed. Many important rasikas were present, including Preeti's dance guru Sri Dhananjayan. The production had received an impressive media build up and included special 'showings' at the Alliance Francaise de Chennai, a cultural collaborator in this Indo-French production. Bruno Kavanagh (hereafter referred to as BK) helped develop the script based loosely on one episode of Kalidasa's play 'Vikramorvashiya' in which the king loses his lady love in the forest.

I attended the 'sharing-showing' process of the costume and music developments at the Alliance auditorium and found the young Baul singer talented and promising. Baul music is the rage of Europe and I could clearly see that the entire work had been created with the western audience in mind. A little smattering of Indian music, a pinch of a jathi here and some mudras there... a smattering of French radio sounds and dialogue mixed with English...a thin thread of an ancient Sanskrit play just to give it the spice of the Orient. In the two hours I spent at the session, the French costume designer was the most original element in the production. True to form, it was her sections in the performance with the pink tulle costume, the white swan hoops and Gautier-Madonna gold breasts that lifted this otherwise tedious show. Pointed breasts on a swan? I loved it but the audience clearly did not. They did respond warmly with a tinkling of applause during the alleged 'fight' between the two female dancers in the wonderful swirl of bright pink petals.

In his article, BK confesses that THE ABSENT LOVER was a 'difficult' show. And then proceeds to speak about abstraction and the Indian mind's ability to assimilate and absorb dichotomies and paradoxes, He mentions Kolams as abstract sacred spaces and of course does not forget to mention the 'lingam.' Where is the abstraction in the lingam, I ask? It is a clear celebration and acknowledgement of the sensual alongside the sacred when Christian values wagged fingers at us brown heathens. BK - we have heard those statements from Occidentals before. Try some new metaphors for a change!

Citing Shelley, Kandinsky, Gombrich and Henry Mooore, the article then tries to hang on these names for some shred of legitimacy. "The artist is now a liberator," BK continues, like trying to find out what the stone wants before sculpting it into a form. That is what our own sculptors, the temple Stapathis believe in. They look at a stone and instantly know what kind of deity will spring from it. BK speaks of "the active participation of the viewer." BK - all your passionate pleadings about "exciting lighting effects, music, costumes and of course some spectacular choreography" got lost in the darkness of the forest. THE ABSENT LOVER was too long, too obscure and too boring. No amount of dance, choreography, lighting and music could lift us out of the deep well of ennui. There was little for the audience to participate in. Did you ever think about that?

Preeti, your wife, is a star in the making. She is lovely, talented and wonderful to watch. She is also savvy, determined and tenacious. However, in her eagerness to become a star, she miscalculated about giving her hometown audience a segue into the work. "Don't spoonfeed" she may have told you while applying her make up, but she then proceeded to befuddle us all on stage. We were left searching for structure, form, substance, variations, choreographic intent? You, BK, just allude to the work as 'difficult.' Did you even think that it may have been 'difficult' for the audience to just sit through the evening?

You comment about the audiences getting up and walking out during the performance, "rather rudely allowing the doors to bang behind them as they went." That is for the builders of the auditorium to take note of, not the audience who must have been tired by what they saw. Any other audience from another Indian city would have booed the actors and walked out in the first 30 minutes. I have seen it happen in Kolkata and New Delhi.

For your information, Chennai audiences are not just polite but also knowledgeable and caring. They come to performances to watch and perhaps learn and be moved. They are not distracted society birds flitting from one engagement to another.

While THE ABSENT LOVER continued to get entangled within the dense forest, the general comment from friends and well wishers at the end was that this was Preeti's first large scale production and perhaps she needs more time to develop a mature vision. I too wanted to focus on the few rare and interesting moments but your smug arrogance in the article could not be accepted in silence.

Any work of art can fail or succeed on a particular day. What has prompted this response is not the work itself, but the condescending attempt at trying to tell readers of THE HINDU that actually, we the Chennai audience, did not quite 'get' your wife's hard work. The bloody nerve! Banging doors is the most polite of responses I can think of. Did you not hear the slapping sound of the seats that flip back up when people stood up to leave?

No amount of trying to explain the work through an article in a national newspaper can make up for the fact that THE ABSENT LOVER was almost completely absent of any energy and sparkle on its world premiere.

I am disappointed with THE HINDU for falling prey to such manipulations just because it came from someone as articulate or convincing as BK. By publishing what should have been a letter to the editor as a major article, the newspaper has damaged its credibility while inviting more ill will to an already fractured dance community where contemporary dialogue is struggling for acceptance. The danger of this kind of collusion will result in three newspaper clippings circulating around the world to 'prove' that the show was really a tremendous success and how Chennai audiences are really not ready for anything post modern or new. A classic case of lies that, when told often enough, become myth=legend=truth.

I cannot imagine THE NEW YORK TIMES or THE VILLAGE VOICE ever allowing BK's voice to be heard in that tone if New York audiences responded in a similar fashion. Of course not! But here in India, anything goes. 60 years of independence and we still seem to behave in a servile manner!

During a recent house full performance of one of my "difficult" solos in Bangkok, the large audience was very appreciative but the European reviewer was dismissive. I did not even consider writing to the BANGKOK NATION in my "defence of the difficult." The festival organizers were so upset with the review that they suggested that I respond but I refused. Any work soars or crashes on a particular day. Art too is viewed through a personal and subjective prism. In this instance, it was a bad review to what was, I thought, a successful show. In the case of THE ABSENT LOVER, the kind review did not reflect the mood of the audience or the quality of the work on that day.

What works in Europe or the US does not necessarily need to work in India. And why should it? Preeti and you may have different views and your gaze may be fixed on audiences in the West. Then, please don't torment us with such stuff and don't complain.

I continue to hope that Preeti will work on the show, refine and tighten this production before its national and international tour next year. The world premiere could have been one of those OFF DAYS for the cast when that special alchemy does not occur. The production received unprecedented publicity and was presented by a very reputable arts organization, Prakriti Foundation. The small audience that evening was the cream of Chennai society and poor manners is NOT what they are known for. If the work forced them to leave early, it is a reflection of what they saw on stage.

As an artiste, Preeti has the freedom to make her choices and live by them. She does NOT need you to plead her case. She also needs to know what it is to fail, which is what happened on that particular day. So what? That is what live performance is all about! Have you not heard that failure is the stepping stone to success? Through this one article you have antagonized more artistes and potential well wishers than you can ever imagine.

BK - if you want to really help THE ABSENT LOVER, stop whining and convince Preeti to hire a dramaturg/director immediately! Come back and give us a show that we can cheer, laugh, cry and be amazed at! If not, doors will bang once again!

Anita R Ratnam

The above article represents my views alone and it is a personal response to the series of events leading up to the above mentioned article. So readers can get the complete thread of the run up to this article, we have created links to all the information that appeared in THE HINDU regarding THE ABSENT LOVER - the preview, the review and Bruno Kavanagh's recent 'response.' All comments can be sent to:

In defence of the difficult by Bruno Kavanagh
A response to the behaviour of the audience at 'The Absent Lover' show and much more
A journey in search of love by Rupa Srikanth
"The Absent Lover", a contemporary dance theatre production presented by Thresh, proved to be a visual feast
Preview - Steps ahead

Replies from Bruno, Ranvir and Anita
Responses from the audience and Narthaki readers

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