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Dancers break the rules at Attakkalari India Biennial 2013

Artistes from all over the world have been showcasing ideas that would have seemed far-fetched to audiences just a few years ago

Image Credit:
Argument, Choe Contemporary Dance Company
Gulf News

“Dance, Dance or we are lost,” said the grand matron of contemporary dance, the late Pina Bausch. Heeding her call are dancers from across the globe who have congregated in Bengaluru, India, for the biggest celebration of contemporary movement art in Southeast Asia, the Attakkalari India Biennial (AIB) 2013.

The culmination of his dance residency might result in Surjit Nongmeikapam, or Bonbon as he is known, a young artiste from Manipur, in northeastern India, burying part of his body in the garden at the Alliance Francaise, Bengaluru. The audience will travel from the auditorium, having watched the previous show, to the garden, where Bonbon will “perform”. Titled “U Define” his performance might end up as stillness or movement, in many things or nothing. The only fixed idea is that nothing is definite, or defined.

“My name and my work are not only for me, but also for you. You will create your own story about my performance and define who I am. From nothing comes nothingness. From nothingness comes something. Everything is right. Everything is wrong. So you define,” says Bonbon, whose creative journey is an existential question that could see him “becoming” a tree in a garden.

A few years ago (at least in India), not too many people would have referred to this as dance, but our definitions and ideas of dance have constantly been challenged and tested by artistes such as Bonbon whose work defies description. He is one among 16 dancers and choreographers from across the world who have gathered in Bengaluru for the six-week residency, “Facets”, with internationally acclaimed mentors to help turn their ideas into reality as part of the AIB 2013. While Bonbon hails from remote Manipur, Aguibou Bougabali is a native of Burkina Faso in Africa, a country that most Bangaloreans might not even be able to locate on the map. But his dance piece “Kounfetage”, which in Bambara, Dioula and Madinka (languages that are also in the realm of the unfamiliar for people in this part of the world) meaning “wandering” is sure to move audiences anywhere. Based on the death of his 4-year-old son, who lost his life because the hospital staff were on a strike for an increase in pay (something that Bangaloreans will easily identify with) and a man who was awarded a death penalty(again something that is a raging topic of debate in India), “Kounfetage” is a story of conflicting emotions. “It evokes in me two antagonistic beings. That of a person who fights against the death penalty and that of a person who wants to kill a doctor who left a child to die,” Bougabali says. Even as Bougabali and Bonbon evoke human emotions with their existential reveries another dancer and speculative designer from Singapore Choy ka Fai uses his genius with gadgets — physically moving human limbs through a mind-gadget connection. Two people are connected to a series of wires and one of them uses mental focus to lift the arm of the other without physically touching him or her. That is more dance for you!

As recently as a decade ago, these performances might have been dismissed as “visual arts” with dance audiences being left flabbergasted, annoyed or downright amused with anything even remotely abstract being performed under the banner of “dance”. They were fed with a steady stream of Indian classical dance that relies to a large extent on storytelling using Indian mythology and devotional tales. Modern and contemporary dance, on the other hand, having shed its baggage of ornamentation and excesses, continued grappling as much with itself as with the audience. One of the pioneers who helped create a positive transition for artistes from the classical to the contemporary was the remarkable Chandralekha who went on to lay a foundation for the beginning of a movement that has grown and grown.

Today’s audience — younger, more accepting, and largely experimental — can’t seem to get enough of what we call “contemporary dance” or movement art, for lack of a better developed vocabulary to define a new emerging form of art that is continuously breaking the shackles of definition that aim to give it conventional labels. Practitioners such as Daksha Seth and Astad Deboo belong to the first generation of dancers that made a conscious move from classical Kathak to contemporary movement. The second generation of dancers that has kept the movement alive and flourishing include dancers and choreographers such as Jayachandran Palazhy and Padmini Chettur who have gone on to create acclaimed performances that have travelled the world.

Being caught between trappings of the values of “ancient India” and the search for a new form of expression has perhaps helped contemporary dance find new practitioners as well as audiences. “Today’s challenges are very different, youngsters are constantly looking for a real and more authentic way to express themselves. Dance, I would say, is one of the purest form of this search. In a world that is falling apart, your body and movement could be your only reality,” says Palazhy, who is the artistic director of Attakkalari and the brain behind the biennial.

Palazhy cites the outrage against the recent gang rape in New Delhi to illustrate a cultural need for expression. “There has been an artistic explosion, and in spite of the limited infrastructure and facilities, contemporary dance in India has grown beyond our imagination. The biennial has expanded and grown as part of that movement,” he says of the dance festival billed as Southeast Asia’s biggest. The performances at the biennial have not been restricted to just young choreographers and dancers, for the festival has a line-up of some of the biggest names in international dance, including possibly the biggest draw this year, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, or the Bendy Belgian, as he has been nicknamed, occupying pride of place with his first performance in India. Born of Moroccan and Flemish parents Larbi has shaken the dance world in the recent past with his innovative works in mixed media — works that have led to the further blurring of lines between theatre, dance and visual arts.

Larbi, though best known for his moves on stage, has been in the news most recently for his much-lauded choreography in Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina”, based on Tolstoy’s immortal epic with Keira Knightley in the lead. The film has four Oscar nominations and is yet to be released in this part of the world — something that is bound to send even non-dance audiences flocking to the theatre to catch a glimpse of the man in action. “I became familiar with Kathak when I collaborated with Akram Khan [‘Zero Degrees’, 2005]. I have also been in a dance residency with Kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa, with whom I later created a duet called ‘Play’ in 2010. I collaborate regularly with writer and poet Karthika Nair,” he says. Larbi, who started off as a visual artist, uses theatre, technology and literature to create his mesmerising works. “For me dancing is mostly three-dimensional drawing. The body or the pencil has an inner world, giving it depth, life force and energy if channelled well,” he adds.

The other big names at the festival include Cindy van Acker, Felix Mathias, Helene Weinzierl, Chunky Move and Padmini Chettur. And it is not limited to dance performances. There are seminars and conversations on 14 critically acclaimed dance-related films, from Win Wender’s “Pina” to the National Award-winning film “Lasya Kavya” based on the life and works of acclaimed Bharatnatyam Dancer Alarmel Valli. Setting the right note at the seminars are culture critic Sadanand Menon and philosopher Sundar Sarukkai, besides artists, dancers and musicians who interact and engage with the audience on a variety of dance related-topics after the performances. Also part of the festival is a writing workshop on dance led by Arnd Wesemann, dance critic and editor of “Tanz”, Europe’s leading dance magazine, and Daisuke Muto, dance critic from Japan. The workshop, one of the mainstays at the festival, is aimed at young writers looking for ways to articulate stories of the body and will result in newsletters created by the team of writers at the festival.

Over the past six years the AIB has emerged as the largest platform for contemporary movement art in India. Most of the programming is inclusive and top-notch catering to almost anyone with a peripheral interest in dance. With dance installations by schoolchildren, writing assignments for young journalists, a special platform for emerging talent in Southeast Asia and master classes for the dance community in Bengaluru, there is something for everyone. For about a week, the multi-venue, multi-disciplinary festival has been offering Bengaluru something that lovers of dance rarely get to witness — performances from across the world. Dazzling spectacles have been competing with austere and minimal measures in a bid to grapple with a variety of ideas, experimentations and concepts. And the audience have been the richer for it. 

Nirmala Ravindran is a writer based in Bengaluru, India.