Date: , September 8 and 10, 2005
The Esplanade Theatre Studio
Review : 3 Solos
Padmini Chettur isn’t feeling the love in her native India. Getting almost no support in her homeland, the classically trained dancer has to seek funding for her severe, stripped-down choreography from cultural institutions in Europe, where experimental dance-making has a better chance of thriving. But if you’re more used to the mythic tales of Indian classical dance, you too might find her work a little hard to swallow.
“One of the first and biggest problems,” writes Chettur about India’s traditional arts in her programme notes, “is the fact that the ‘traditional’ role of women is to be beautiful, soft, curvaceous, seductive and not too intelligent.” I think this means she isn’t keen on replicating the exotic femininity cultivated in the heroines of Bharata Natyam, the south Indian dance form that she had learnt from an early age.
This might explain why her 2003 Solo, and Paper Doll – her 2005 creation reworked for its Singapore debut – avoid depicting mythological figures in the throes of spiritual union. Nor do they have the ornamentation, facial gestures, and lavish mime associated with Indian classicism. Instead, everything’s lean and rigorous. Even the cryptic music by Dutch composer Maarten Visser hardly provides a discernible melody, only isolated sounds and vocalisations.
Only the slightest hint of Bharata Natyam’s codified geometry surfaces in Solo, a three-part tribute to the body in states of quiet conflict and harmony. A tree-sturdy Chettur begins by unfolding from a bent-forward stance in careful strokes, unwinding from and returning to a twisted pose until she has advanced upstage. In the second part, she squeezes and extends herself in yogic shapes. The third section sees her marching on the spot, pausing only to angle an arm or a hip sideways.
During this slow and deliberate process, the patterns and pacing vary mildly; she can start a phrase with a different limb or speed up for short bursts of time. Sitting through this sort of cumulative repetition can force you to notice these tiny details. When you’ve been watching the same thing for a while, you long for something different to happen, and when it does, you feel a little better for waiting it out.
Long passages of repeated movement also appear in Paper Doll, which premiered as a quintet but was presented on this occasion as a quartet. Here, images of tension and accord arise from the drawn-out encounters between four women. Their measured drill, already in progress when you enter the theatre, segues into a chain of arm-linked bodies, subtly pushing and pulling one another while redistributing their weight over the legs.
Even after venturing into space individually, they occasionally string themselves together again. Two or three join up. In a gradually shifting line dance, each performer cups the tilted head of another in front of her. The various ways in which these four dancers are physically connected become a source of comfort and imperceptible strain; the bonds break before things can come to a head.
Of course, this sort of open-ended, mostly uninflected dancing is an acquired taste. Chettur’s dances don’t read like stories or musical statements, and they throw up more questions than answers. But their ascetic reverie grows on you after a while, showing the body toiling patiently at its unadorned best.