What is choreography?

For an artist who wants to do something different, the path is far from easy. And sometimes, despite analysis and reflection, she doubts if she is on the desired track. What better time than the Madras season for three such dance artistes to get together and exchange thoughts and hopes?

Singapore-raised Nirmala Seshadri, tutored by Shanti Bhaskar, C.V.Chandrasekhar, Kalanidhi Narayanan and Jayanthi Subramaniam, has made a name for herself for offbeat work such as, ‘Outcaste Eternal,’ ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Then and Now.’ They explore multi-cultural, multi-arts elements, trailing socio-political and gender issues.

With father C.V.Chandrasekhar and mother Jayalakshmi as gurus, Manjari has journeyed across the lyrics of Vidyapati, Amaru, Sufi Kalam, Divya Prabandham and Kshetrayya in ‘Rathi,’ with artist Nilima Sheikh’s installations. In her Sangam age ‘Pari,’ Nature cries out at human deceit. Her ‘Ahalya’ turns to stone again when Rama puts Sita through the fire ordeal.

Groomed by the Dhananjayans, Preethi Athreya was enriched by working with C.V.Chandrasekhar and Leela Samson. Modern dance with Padmini Chettur has brought a major shift in perspective. Her ‘Porcelain,’ premiered at the New Festival, develops a solo language “transforming images into light, stone into sound,” for music made with porcelain art objects.

The trio starts with an overused term: choreography. What does it mean?

Nirmala: I think choreography is a more inclusive term than ‘composing.’ It’s about the relationship of the body (or bodies) with space, time, light and sound. Imagination translates idea into form. New perspective is new interpretation.

Preethi: It has to do with intention. In addition to aesthetic concerns you must have a larger picture, where the individual meets the community.

Manjari: Your work is a response to something. It crystallizes and you share it. It acquires a life of its own. The viewer must feel it’s her experience. For that to happen, life experience and art experience must fuse.

Preethi: Like the wind and the bamboo reed. The music they make together has its own entity. I see myself as my audience. I do what I’d like to see done. I value criticism. It extracts more out of me. Failure is when your work evokes no response.

Nirmala: I want to make the intangible tangible, concretise the abstract. Sometimes I feel I’m working alone in a lab. Some pieces I’ve done once, for just 30 people. Didn’t feel the need to repeat it. My work evolves as I evolve. ‘Crossroads’ has become so different now that I feel I must give it another name.

Preethi: Sometimes by the time you perform your mind has moved to another space. I push myself to perform because it refines the work.

Manjari: You can also recreate the work in performance. Every time I do the traditional Kuravanji I feel I’m doing it for the first time. It’s fantastic if we can bring that quality to the work. To me that’s contemporary.

Nirmala: Bharatanatyam is very open to change and re-interpretations from the time of the Thanjavur Quartet! No stasis. Fitting into a mould is regressive. To be contemporary is to find answers to ‘Why am I doing this? What part of my mind and personality am I bringing to this work? How am I affirming my commitment to my art? To me, the god in a sabdam or varnam represents dance itself, and I express my desire to be one with the spirit of the dance.

Preethi: Rukmini Devi’s radicalism was in response to her milieu. Chandralekha’s move towards modernity was a reaction to the commodification around her. I have to train my body — eye, finger and toe — to express what I think, from where I stand. I shed the cosmetic frills, the plastic smile. Somebody asked, ‘Why don’t you smile?’ But I’m smiling with my whole body!

Manjari: I must internalise the feeling, ask myself, ‘What form do I want to give the Other in ‘Rupamu Juchi?’ Commitment means individualising your expression. You can’t produce assembly line dancers! Connect to yourself first, then to the viewer.

Nirmala: Ah, but you have to be yourself to do it! A plastic smile becomes a mask.

Preethi: I’ve made a conscious choice to deal with my body, allow myself to know what it is my body is trying to tell me, and carve a space for myself, minus the bilateral symmetry of classical dance. I try to learn the function of every line, evoke the same energy with my left hand as the right, not mimic…

Manjari: I’ve learnt to challenge what I’ve learnt without breaking away. I’ve known Bharatanatyam is much more than a margam. I try to understand where every movement starts and ends — its curve of energy.

Nirmala: At first I found a huge disparity between my world in Singapore and the world of Bharatanatyam. Slowly I learnt to integrate the two. I think, hybridity teaches you to deconstruct what you do and arrive at multiple interpretations. I ask, ‘Why this arudi? What does this hasta mean?’ Then it takes on another significance.

Preethi: I’m getting on. It’s a slow process. Little encouragement. No support. But I’m on the right track.

Manjari: So much happens at the unconscious level. I’m working on a poem about a clay pot, created from, and returning to the earth, dangling in a well on a noose. Life! Nirmala: My dance is very close to me now. The disparate segments are coming together through my dance. The schism is vanishing.

Source: Hindu Friday Features, Dec 01,2007

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