The Body Laboratory

Padmini Chettur

Published in ‘Tilt, Pause, Shift’ : Gati Dance Forum


The body is the only archive of the physical memories of dance. As choreographers, our work on the physical body will eventually be lost. This, in my mind, is good but at the same time problematic. All that will remain is ‘documentation’, which we can all agree in the case of dance is very often dead and devoid of the actual breath and life that makes dance so immediate and vital. Other than this there will be writings. Interviews—some technical—others not. Then there are the physical experiences of dancers, whose bodies have lived the choreographic language. What is good for me about this process of loss is, the more the essence of an artist’s work is buried in time, the less chances are there of that work being objectified or idolized.  However, in the context of India, due to the lack of access to good archival material and well-developed grammars and vocabularies for the body, each generation of dancers is not only left to re-invent the wheel, but is also prone to a peculiar disinterest and disconnect to its own dance past, which is in some ways counter-productive.

In the meantime, the dominant discourse of our Western counterparts has been strong and extremely well-articulated. The physical histories and ideologies have been thoroughly deconstructed and re-packaged into pedagogic methodologies that far outlived the creators. The ‘techniques’ are accessible to generations of dancers worldwide. Today, even in India one can access and learn Graham, Limón, Flying Low… the list is endless. But there exists no ‘Chandralekha technique’. At present, a Bharatanatyam dancer looking to contemporize her form, to find new content within that form, or even to engage with other possibilities for her body within a larger framework of performance would not find good references or systematic ways to go about it. A good reference does not mean one that gives readymade solutions or that makes the maker’s journey any easier. It is just a process that has been well-tested and proved to be working within the Indian context. It should provide the necessary ascriptions, mapping the points of transformations of the body that led to pioneering choreographic works in India. It should also perhaps serve as the only possible counter to what may be perceived as a standardization of physicality in contemporary dance. We seem to have accepted and settled into a certain borrowed aesthetic—generic and homogenized—as the only starting point for our dance journeys.

I would like to hope that the story I am going to tell will partially fulfil the absence of references that I mentioned above. I will attempt to delineate 25 years of narrative of body that I have lived. But before this, I must rewind to my Bharatanatyam years. I see my initiation into dance through this form as a crucial starting point for the research of later years. A research that took me further and further away from what Bharatanatyam visibly is, yet, always acknowledged that early training as the single most important understanding of form and technique in my later work with the body.

In this essay, in an attempt to define my own process of finding physical references to the past, while looking for articulation of a contemporary nature, I will chronologically map my points of transformations.

1977-1987: Bharatanatyam

In 1977 at the age of 7, I began my classes with Pandannalur Subbarraiyya Pillai. The first year with him, I was only taught adavus[1], without using arms, in three speeds. Learning happened mostly through observing the seniors in the front rows. The only corrections were to sit lower in the araimandi[2], or to stamp harder. At several moments in later phases of my work, the ideas of the araimandi and the fundamental problem of releasing one leg at a time out of, or into that stable, symmetric position of the body were revisited. In their own un-articulated way, these basic movement elements of Bharatanatyam provided insights to the understanding of physical geometry within a particular aesthetic. For me, these elements acted as the basis for choosing a grounded body as my starting point. It was this body that enabled one to receive energy through the feet and harness it in the spine, to maintain a persistent relationship with the vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines in the space, and to understand time in a way that no other system in the world could teach. I have always felt that time is firmly held by the Bharatanatyam body and not just passed through. In other words, a lot of attention is paid in arranging the moving body in time—in many different rhythm-patterns and with perfect precision. Therefore, time in Bharatanatyam gets intrinsically connected to the ‘lines’ of the adavus, which in turn aligns the body in space.

Thus, space, time and lines—the three most important concepts in any kind of form-based dance research—were already present within the Bharatanatyam form. Yet, it was the exploration of these same concepts that the practicing Bharatanatyam community almost disdainfully referred as ‘grammar’ in choreographer Chandralekha’s work—as if it was an unnecessary excess. Later I will come back to elaborate how it took a sophisticated mind such as Chandra’s to recognize, deconstruct and redevelop this ‘grammar’ in a way that freed it from its classical context. She saw it as technique and language, rather than a construct never to be broken.

In my second year, I was finally allowed to use my arms with the adavus. The notion of ‘planes’ in space was suggested now, as was that of the lines that passed through those planes and the body. There was also a play with counter-symmetry. The relationship of arms and legs was now to be understood through an awareness of centre and spine. To my mind, a dancer’s success in those early years of learning Bharatanatyam was a matter of luck combined with whatever personal intuition she brought to the class. One was never really taught how to hold one’s arms in the back, how to relax the tops of the shoulders, how to widen the space between the shoulder blades in order to extend the arm-line without tiring the neck and the shoulder muscles. Likewise, the relationship of pelvis, ribcage and head was summed up simply with the words “Keep your back straight!” In later years, when a self-conscious study of anatomy entered my practice, I often thought about the disservice that this peculiar cultural stubbornness perpetrated on generations of dancers, who could have been directed towards enquiry rather than imitation, if the pedagogy—stunted and limited by conservatism—had not failed them.

Throughout my engagement with Bharatanatyam for 10 years, it was always the ‘narrative’ that I found difficult to connect with. It was not just the content, the religiosity, or the innate patriarchy that was communicated clearly in the difficult relationship with the ‘master’. It was more about the idea of playing the role of an entertainer on stage—the meaningless smiling, the performativeness that had started to creep into the practice of the form itself. I could never become the Bharatanatyam diva, and so at 17, I chose academics over dance, for which I am eternally grateful.

However, as has been articulated repeatedly by the first generation of contemporary choreographers in India, who were the architects of new languages that emerged from the classical, that in order to break form, one has to first know it. And though in today’s context this ‘breaking of form’ seems somehow dated and irrelevant, I have always found the ‘reference’ of Bharatanatyam in my body a comfort. It keeps me grounded both physically and in my choreographic practice. I know where I come from, from where I derive my aesthetic. Later in this essay, I will discuss more about how this understanding was intrinsically connected to the politics of time and space, and how through the subsequent periods of transformations, the inter-politics of body, identity and humanity were constantly re-engaged in my work.

1987-1990: The study of science.

I left Chennai to study at BITS (Pilani) for 4 years. My physical practice of dance was replaced by swimming. I strongly recommend to all young dancers to take their time away from relentless practice and performance to engage life in an academic space for a few years—away from the discipline of the guru, preferably away from home too. For me, those 4 years of anarchy and excess paved the way for many conscious choices in later years. Also, I have to say that my counterparts at the university were more intelligent and intellectually provocative than the culturally submissive dancers I would have been with, had I chosen to continue to study Bharatanatyam at an institute of dance such as Kalakshetra.

Everything was questioned, freedom was grabbed, and on top of all, I found something invaluable in my encounters with the rigors of chemistry—the logic of structures in both two and three dimensions, the way of solving problems of a grid, the absoluteness of truth in a balanced equation. Later it became clear to me that it was the pragmatism of science that I had missed in Bharatanatyam.

I wanted to envision dance as an uncluttered set of physical ideas—truthful and devoid of sentiments. In my work with time, I looked for both of these as a goal. I would like to perceive the bodies in my choreographic structures conjoined like the atoms of a large molecule.

At the end of my time at BITS, with absolutely no intention of becoming a dancer, I stumbled into Chandralekha’s world.

1990-1994: Early years with Chandralekha.

By the time I first met Chandra, she had already been choreographing for a few years. I was therefore not a part of the making of Angika[3] or Lilavati[4] and only took part in the later performances of these works. Chandra’s point of departure—to contemporize the ‘Indian’ physicality within the present socio-political context—led to her early research on the body. The Bharatanatyam technique did not suffice for her particular needs. Drawn to the physical qualities inherent in bodies trained in Kalaripayattu[5] and Yoga, she brought these three practices together and explored what lay beneath them. It was this synchronicity that formed the ground for the physical training that her dancers underwent. The beauty of Chandra’s capacity to draw transformative results from her performers derived from her method, in which we were responsible for our own growth, as against the packaging and standardization of learning. She never put herself in the role of a guru or a teacher. Rather, she always insisted that we were not her ‘students’.

At the time, the group consisted of Bharatnatyam dancers—mostly trained in the ‘Kalakshetra style’, Nandu and Nagin, who were highly skilled and experienced in Iyengar Yoga and some students of the Vasu Gurukkal from Kottayam, who were Kalaripayattu practitioners. Apart from actual rehearsals with Chandra, we scheduled daily sessions, where we practiced adavus, yogasanas and basic elements of Kalaripayattu learned from the group members themselves. The work was complex and far-reaching. Given the focus of this essay, it is important that I elaborate on the changes I underwent as a practitioner through those bodily experiences.

I must begin by saying that, in a way, all the practice and learning that we had outside the rehearsals with Chandra were still evaluated and understood by us through the lens of her vision. Chandra was not interested in the perfect Paschimottanasana, or the highest kick one could conjure. With her, it was never about flexibility or of gymnastic abilities of the body. Instead, her intention was to look for specific qualities in various forms. Especially up to the point of choreographing Praana[6], the formal material was thoroughly delineated in her work—always searching for the ‘flow’, identifying the journey from one position to another, shredding the external decorativeness of forms. The notion of flow was also intrinsic to what Chandra was famed for—her work with slowness and even stillness. These concepts were physically understood by Chandra through her Yoga practices. She was also inspired by the ability of a Kalaripayattu practitioner to stand grounded, while at the same time remaining alive in body.

Don’t let the rigor mortis set in.”—she would say. And this was meant for the mind as importantly as the body. In addition to the group-work based on those concepts, there was also the task of thinking about where the movements started from. For example, when Chandra was working on Sri[7], the spine—as a metaphor for freedom and dignity of the body—was much more to her than just a powerful line to hold oneself erect. It was more about activating the spine as a tool to enable flow, or the conscious looking into how the spine is the first to be affected by social habits and brutalities of life. In short, the conversations at Chandra’s studio went far beyond the physical and technical aspects of the body.

In those early years at Chandra’s, prior to any thoughts about myself as an independent choreographer, I learnt invaluable lessons which are hard to articulate in words. I learnt that choreographers were philosophers, that their aesthetic vision of the body came from its connection with the harmony and disharmony of life. I learnt that dance was something that needed to be redefined every day and could not be prescribed and thus, taken for granted, because then the body quickly tended to be lazy and dishonest. I learnt that movement could come from all sources but what mattered was how we chose what meaning we intended, that movement must become our own and not remain ‘borrowed’, that the body communicated as far as the space it extended to and that a performer had to deal with that space not only with her body but also with imagination, intention and concentration. I could then see dance as created within the body, but manifested outside it. It was the charging of molecules between bodies, the succumbing of both ego and control, a moment of almost allowing oneself to be moved, to be part of something much larger than the self.

I learnt that dance was not really about the dancer.


In the mid-90s, while we were still working with Chandra, Krishna Devanandan—a fellow dancer—and I began a series of explorations that resulted in a few short duets, and it ended for me with Fragility—the quartet that perhaps marked my most complete departure from Chandra. It was also the beginning of the next decade of ensemble work.

Krishna and I met every morning and our early ‘exercises’ looked mostly at extending the spatial language of the adavus. We sometimes set small improvisations between the adavus. Often the technical need would be dictated by our own choreographic choices, thus sometimes leading into new directions. During those years I also chose to travel and spend time in Europe—mostly watching dance, but sometimes clumsily joining the odd class or workshop. It was a busy, confused time. But it led me to understand a few things with great clarity:

  1. a) that my physicality was rooted in and defined by Bharatanatyam;
  2. b) that I could not, convincingly, execute any western contemporary technique. Also, I did not want to;
  3. c) however, that my highly conditioned body—limited by my habits and the physical impositions that I bore—needed to be understood more consciously. For example, I realized that the curvature in my spine that Chandra had demanded all those years was perhaps not the best physical choice for my body. I felt, it was the time for shifting the ways of looking at the body to a closer and more personal plane, especially if I was to carve an independent choreographic space and wanted my dancing body to speak my language and not Chandra’s.

In the late 90s, Krishna and I spent a lot of time looking for the means to unlearn all that we carried in our body as the result of our trainings. We were open, and grabbed hungrily at whatever information we could find, asking every visiting dancer to share material. We were clear to ourselves that we did not just want to collect ‘movement material’ or to simply learn other techniques to use them in our own choreographic work. Instead, we were interested in finding a new way of approaching the body, and further, of training dancers, who would work with us in the future. In effect, we were almost looking for a new philosophy in order to build a system through which a dancer could get closer to her own ‘neutral’ body. At that time our ‘search’ led us to systems that examined anatomy, rather than movement.

By the year 1999, when I was ready to create Fragility, I realized that the ‘unlearning’ that I was proposing—the letting go of old knowledge—was being perceived as unsafe by dancers trained in classical forms. Classical dancers were, still are, taught to be strong and beautiful. Fragility was the work that articulated precisely the notion of placing the body in a vulnerable place, playing with the levels of grounding of the body and the lack of it. The movement ideas were simple, repetitive, yet all the time looking for a particular tension that came from asymmetry and imbalance.

While making Fragility, I was also working as a dancer to create Chandra’s last work Sharira[8]. To my mind, this is her only work in which we can no longer see Bharatanatyam, Yoga or Kalaripayattu, Instead, we see dance as something that is more than a series of movements in time. In my body, and my spirit, I experienced Sharira as the last masterful breath of an artist who could draw lines with her body. At the time, Chandra said: “No need to start with meaning, meaning will arise from movement.”  While performing Sharira, I felt dance in my fingertips, in the tips of my toes. I felt the base of my spine literally as the pulsating force that Chandra had spoken of all those years. And finally, Chandra said: “Padmini, you are only now a dancer.

Our search for technical knowledge was contingent and need-based. For instance, classical dancers were prone to hold tension in their fingers. Letting go of this led us to explore the connection of arm and torso. Several of those ‘habits’ had to do with holding excessive but unnecessary tension within the body. It took years of work to arrive a greater level of efficiency. We learnt those things on our own terms, by observing ourselves and each other. Innumerable days were spent lying on the ground, deconstructing walks, standing on one leg, sitting in the araimandi, observing how all of this changed the spine…

When I look back at how the physical realisations of that time influenced the formal aesthetic of my choreographic practice, I feel that the most important ones were to do with the understanding of being in ‘parallel’ with the legs—a position in which the leg attaches to the hip in a way that is neither turned out nor in. This is a way of working with the legs in which the centre and the spine can be thought about very differently from the more open position of the Bharatanatyam araimandi. My arm began to find its line and gestures found their way back into my hands. I also began to think about the relationship between the head—an extremity of the body, and the tailbone. My precise interest in observing how the minutest change in the positioning of feet and the foot to hip relationship affected the body, as well as how the spine was influenced by the limbs, became some of the sources for the actual grammar of later works.

The confusion of many years finally gave way to clarity. Krishna and I felt that our process up until that stage of analysing, deconstructing, articulating and creating pedagogy had brought us to a point where our knowledge could be shared as a process of physical transformation in other dancers. In this process, the questioning of what they already ‘knew’ always came as a confronting first proposition. This was to put them in a place of ‘fragility’.

In a sense, the broad parameters of my bodily aesthetic were laid at that point and were developed with greater complexity in later works.

2000-2006: 3 Solos and the collective vocabularies (Paperdoll, PUSHED).

Following Fragility and Sharira, I was invited to create a full length solo performance for the Téâtre de la Ville in Paris. The solo format was never of great interest to me. I do believe, however, that working alone every now and again helps to create choreographic/physical ideas for ensemble work. The most interesting aspect of 3 Solos (2003) was its spatial structure. This was an emotional time for me—soon after the death of my mother. I was also burdened with questions that had been drawing me away from Chandra’s work, and taking me into my own—what place did ‘expression’ really hold in the body practices? How could we slowly infuse our work on the abstract form of the body with a humanity that was of tangible proportion? As though to find answers, with 3 solos I allowed feeling to re-enter my body. It was a narrative of birth and death and was the most raw and honest work I had done till date. All the trademarks of my later works—the obsession with line, the tension growing out of a spiral, the preoccupation with centre, the detailing of feet in the ground—were born in and out of this work.

The marking of time became more precise with the solos. The movement language in the piece was held together by a strict rhythmic organization that could be referred as sarvalaghu[9]. The task here was to counter the long notes with the short. The intention was to define with greater precision than in Fragility, the beginnings and endings of actions, punctuated with speed, or sometimes with non-action, that is, stillness.

In 2003, while I was still touring 3 Solos, I had begun working on a quintet—Paperdoll, which was completed in 2005. The spatial and temporal premises developed in 3 Solos were instrumental to this new piece. No exits or entries were to be there in the piece. The work was to negotiate a square and explore all the possibilities within it. Time was tightly structured, and exciting rhythmic possibilities opened up while working with five bodies. Paperdoll also unravelled two very significant directions in my work. The first was creating the movement vocabulary from within the collective group actions, and the second concerned moulding multiple bodies to create a single composite form. These formats were unlike the ‘contact improvisation’, which was then popular in the West. My work on ‘joining bodies’, which continued up to Wall Dancing (2012), grew out of a different premise and need. They had everything to do with knowing and respecting the boundaries and limits of our bodies with respect to the presence and absence of other bodies in the space. This way of thinking grew out of the very basic concept of Paperdoll—a work that looked at notions of connectivity, sameness, and oneness of bodies; a work that dealt with obvious physical dependence of multiple bodies in contact, but also looked at the possibilities of dancers to be outside their physical selves, which could be seen in phrases of reaching out, complementing or balancing one another from a distance.

To collect material, for almost a whole year (the first year of work on this piece), I divided the body into three zones. I asked the dancers to come up with sets of movements for the torso (head included), arms, and feet. It felt like a children’s game—mixing and matching different body-parts to assemble an odd character. My own intention was not so far from that. I felt a strong need to break out of an aesthetic that had become familiar to me, of a habit of choosing series of movements based on that aesthetical hierarchy. I liked the randomness and surprises that this process brought, when, for example, three groups of movements were assembled. It created ways of articulating different body-parts with certain techniques that had a little piece of each of the dancers involved. Yet, by the time we collected and learnt all the forty phrases that were formed out of the eight initial movements, an entire language—detailed and ornate—was created. It was not random any more, but it had the beauty of a truth that was reached collectively as well as individually and in which, each element was equally shared among the contributors. I asked the dancers to strive for absolute precision in articulating the actions.  And from this collective search for likeness and precision, an almost paradoxical individuality became apparent. In Paperdoll, dance lay in space between bodies, and in time between movements.

I built the work out of these ‘phrases’, at times focussing on a single phrase—elongating, playing with qualities, and in other moments, focussing on a single movement taken out of a phrase. The element of weight in the bodies, the giving and the taking, the learning how to make a single part of the body heavy were some of the technical elements that were later played out with more abstraction in PUSHED (2006). In the final form of Paperdoll, there were solos, duets, trios, quartets and quintets. In terms of choreography, this was the school in which I learnt the rules of balancing space—how a single body could counter the energy of four other bodies, how important it was to be able to imagine these other bodies and the space—all moving and stopping in unison, particularly when it came to five dancers timing together with perfect precision. This was also the work in which all my research on drawing energy from the ground into the body became apparent. When the audience entered they saw the image of five bodies simply standing in a line, holding the ground in such a strong way that I have so far only seen among the dancers I have worked with. The feet were alive, soft, yet drawing from below. Their torsos weighed downwards, with an acute attention to the movement of their spines.

I see Paperdoll as my last narrative work. The linking together and pulling apart of bodies in this piece commented on the tenuous links that connected people in the society. The final image of Krishna Devanandan, being assisted to her feet to join the group after her last solo on the floor, made an almost animalistic reference to images of herds and stray individuals, of isolation and empathy.

In 2005, Paperdoll was playing at a festival in Brussels. It was there that I met the South Korean impresario Kwang-Lim Kim. He invited Maarten Visser—the composer I had been working with since Fragility—to create new music with traditional Korean instruments. He also invited me to create a work that would premiere at his festival in Seoul in 2006. Two exciting concepts emerged out of Maarten’s research in Korea. The first one was regarding the quality of sound in Korean traditional music, which varied depending upon the emotion it was required to express. The second dealt with the philosophical and aesthetic propositions inherent in the yin-yang theory.  Those two ideas led to the creation of PUSHED. One working idea behind this choreography was to define emotions through a visual language of the body, which was also related to the earlier question about emotions that I had for myself while working on 3 Solos. Interestingly, this connected my work to the Navarasa[10] theory, though from a more abstract perspective. The abstraction was at the level of treatment of the emotion through the imagery of the body, as against directly expressing them. In other words, what we had on stage was an unobvious physical and visual representation of the emotion instead of the emotion itself. PUSHED also made me think more precisely about definitions of positive and negative space, none more important than the other.   

The first months of research with the group involved putting together personal narratives that dealt with feelings. I was looking for words that described the physicality of joy, anger, sorrow, jealousy, love and lust. This led to the creation of a bank of about hundred movements and postural ideas, which I then connected together, attempting to propose the transitions as the most important structural ideas. I used the accumulated material to create visible representations of positive and negative space, while using the notion of composite structures of bodies. This extended what I began in Paperdoll. The final, and in my opinion, most significant choreographic decision that I made was that PUSHED would remain a series of lateral images, using only the horizontal axis of the stage. This design would only be broken at the end of the piece, through the physically engaging representation of ‘lust’ as a snake.

In terms of physicality, PUSHED explored the extreme curves and arches of the spine. The performance played with the concave and convex and how the push and pull of the spinal curves affected the way one saw the space around the body. It had also a lot to do with the idea of an impulse that travelled through the body and that could be transmitted from one body to another. In this way emotion travelled through energetic fields. It was also a work in which the body became the image. And perhaps the need to hold these images, to stop them in time, to repeat them led me to many choreographic ideas that become apparent in the Beautiful Thing series.

PUSHED was also the work that provided further clarity of thoughts and brought me closer to my understanding of tension as a tool to make the body dynamic even during the smallest of shifts or movements. At the same time, the demand for honesty and truthfulness between the dancers, who were paired or were in groups, led to many interesting arguments and conversations about ‘faking’ the physicality. You had to be strong to catch a falling body, had to relinquish control to fall convincingly. These are the kinds of discovery that I love and that keep me creating new work. In a way, they tell me that dance is ultimately as bad as our worst fears and deepest insecurities, and as good as our openness and ability to share.

2007-2011: Beautiful Things.

Beautiful Thing 1 (2008) is perhaps the most ambitious and complex work that I have created to date. It was also the most technically complex, with light designed by Jan Maertens, collaboration on text with Vivek Narayanan that required all the dancers to be close-miked, and sound score by Maarten Visser that was an integral part of the work-premise that explored how the acceleration or deceleration of time could be felt in the body and how they could visibly create a sense of changing movement qualities.

So far, I have been focusing on the body alone, since that is what I set out to do in this essay as well as in my choreographic practice. But through Beautiful Thing 1, I welcomed ‘words’ into my exploration. In his review of this piece, Helmut Ploebst—the Austrian critic—referred[11] to William Forsythe’s definition of choreography as ‘organization of things in the passing of time’. Those ‘things’, in the context of this piece, were a set of movements created out of randomly sequenced words speaking the names of certain body-parts out. As the process developed, the dancers created long phrases from those words. Later, the phrases were to be manipulated in length and time. The original words too eventually became a part of the ‘text’—a rhythmic layer on top of the underlying sound created by Maarten.

The physical challenge was in arriving at a level of clarity in initiating an action of an isolated body-part, moving in a specific direction away from the body, and in finding the connection of that action to its preparation and conclusion. Further, collectively working with gradual speeding up or slowing down meant that for every set of actions, certain simple qualities had to be researched and decided upon.

There has always been a lot of speculation about the process of ‘slowing down’ in my work. I think, in the premise of Beautiful Thing 1, I tried to deliberate on what that actually meant beyond just moving slowly or quickly. Speed, for me, is a relative phenomenon. Depending on where and how we begin a movement, it becomes either ‘faster’ or ‘slower’. As we worked on slowing down a set of actions from speed 200 bpm to 30 bpm, what became apparent was the incremental importance of flow, control and clarity. Also, one started to understand with better clarity that speed was about the time we took from one point to another, and was not about reaching or arriving at a prefixed point at the end of the count. There were so many details and revelations in our process! Even now, just as an exercise, I recommend dancers simply to understand the mechanics of movement in connection to the parameter of time.

In terms of dramaturgy, a dancer in this piece never entered or exited the stage while dancing—this was one of the significant ways it differed from PUSHED. All of the entries and exits were ‘walked’. This entering and joining the action of the movement at a precise moment were important dramaturgical elements of Beautiful Thing 1. Also, we worked hard to understand how to ‘stop’ and leave—almost asking a viewer to see where dance began and where it ended. The plain walks in and out of the stage created sets of lines in the space, to which the bodies then aligned themselves. The work on parallels and perpendiculars created a strong sense of grid in the space—the dancers becoming the drawers of lines.

Unlike PUSHED, here the moving through space was not a part of the actual vocabulary. All our movements tended to travel around the central axis of the individual body. Therefore, the real challenge for the dancer was again to imagine the greater extent to which the energy of each movement could reach in order to have the necessary visible impact. During this work, my colleague Krishna Devanandan worked extensively with the group—almost asking the dancers to throw the movement out into the space, but at the same time looking for the centre of the movement in order to maintain the balance of the axis.

The seed of Beautiful Thing 2 (2011)—the solo I created after Beautiful Thing 1—was planted as I became more and more intrigued with certain questions and ideas such as the relationship of our own central axis to the concept of ‘turning’, how turning forced the body to confront its inner diagonals and spirals, how to align ourselves in space and so on. But the central question of Beautiful Thing 2 was the following—if we perceived how the small spaces that existed around us moved, being perturbed by the disturbance created by our own movements, then was it possible to gradually minimizing that disturbance? In other words, how could one think about ‘carrying’ those spaces which were contained within and around our body?

I set myself the task of etching nine spatial lines on a stage—both linear and curved ones. For the whole year that it took to create the work, I worked alone, every day—mostly trying to build the stamina and strength to perform ‘solo’ after many years. Also, working on my own body, with its own particular physicality, I felt less like a choreographer; rather I allowed myself once again to fall back into the role of a dancer. After so many years of working with other bodies, being alone felt self-indulgent, yet necessary at that juncture. The absolute lack of separation in the choreographic intention and the physicalized form that my body took—devoid of layers of re-interpretations in articulation and misunderstandings that normally lay between the concept and execution of my works—gave this particular work both its immediacy and its relentless stubbornness.

Beautiful Thing 2 has lived large proscenium stages as well as small, bare platforms. While performing it, I played with the very elaborately designed light score of Jan Maertens as well as Zuleikha Allana’s light box. For me, this was the work that answered all the questions I asked myself when I departed from Chandralekha’s practice in 1993. After almost 20 years since that point, I somehow understood—very profoundly—that our emotional responses were released in the moment the body succumbed to the space, that ego gave way to egolessness, that somewhere in those connecting lines between our feet and our hands lay an entire narrative of what we lived and experienced. As I am saying this, I hope that my realisation would not be misunderstood as ‘sentimental’. It was not even about expressing oneself. It was one of those rare moments of clarity that we artists look for, through long years of daily engagement with our form. The most difficult question is, of course, through what process can one transmit this technique? Is it a technique? Or is this purely personal research? Only that—personal. Is it possible to take another body down this road?

2013: Beyond the proscenium—Wall Dancing.

In 2012 when I began the work on Wall Dancing, I felt that I was at the end of the kind of work I had been doing for the proscenium, that I had become preoccupied with image in a very lateral way. I also wanted to be freed from the collective lack of patience that I felt was preventing me to proceed more radically into areas regarding space and stillness that seemed tedious for the ‘sitting duck’ audience!

Wall Dancing eventually opened as a three hours long performance that people could enter and leave as they wished. The dance was played out at the periphery of the room—the dancing bodies almost always leaning into the walls, or into each other. The work was created by looking only at those spaces between the bodies and the walls. I wanted the audience to move into that space, to follow the choreography, to choose perspectives.

In the removing of distance, a new set of performative as well as physical challenges emerged. Retaining the quality in smaller details became more vital, compared to projecting larger ones. Where and how to focus the eyes became more important than ever. The ‘performing’ of dance was in a way replaced by the simple ‘doing’ of dance. The dancers were constantly required to keep a deep inner concentration, without shutting off to the audience at the same time. There was a strong sense of touch in Wall Dancing—very different from the way I used contact in my earlier works. Here, the bodies yielded without resistance to the walls. Their energies were always unaggressive and unassertive. They almost peeled off the wall surfaces, always acutely aware of their dependence on those supporting planes. At times, the choreography challenged them to avail their independence, bringing them to find their own balance in the absence of support.

Perhaps the opening moment of this work could be described as the embodiment of why dance still excites me. The five dancers stood within half a foot of wall surfaces in different parts of the room. At times, they were still—a stillness in which they seemed to be looking for their spines, their centres, the ground under their feet. Every so often they took a 45 degree pivot, facing a new direction, and then started to look for the ‘active standing position’ all over again. In those acts of simple re-aligning, there were times when one could see the larger invisible walls, which criss-crossed the space, moving with them. Almost as though the power of imagination of the dancers potentially created those new lines and angles that the viewers were then able to feel and experience. I could watch this for hours, finding my own standing.

For I am afraid, until we do that, there is no dance.

[1] Basic exercises for the body in Bharatanatyam—building blocks for the Nritta in in this form.

[2] The fundamental posture in Bharatanatyam—symmetric, knees bent, hips opened out, feet firmly grounded, spine erect and the distance of the head and the navel is same as that of the navel and the ground.

[3] Angika (1985), choreographed by Chandralekha, in an attempt to decipher and recreate the mythical angika-lipi—a dance, or rather a collective physical tradition depicting the everyday life of the prehistoric women and men in India.

[4] Lilavati (1989), choreographed by Chandralekha, based on the playful riddles in Bhaskaracharya’s 10th century mathematics text of the same name.

[5] Martial art of Kerala.

[6] Praana (1990), choreographed by Chandralekha, exploring interrelation of the body, the breath and the planetary movements.

[7] Sri (1991), choreographed by Chandralekha—a chronology of women’s movement, depicting enslavement and empowerment.

[8] Sharira (2003), choreographed by Chandralekha—celebrating the freedom of the body. This was her last choreography.

[9] Cycles of 8—referred from the grammar of rhythm patterns in Carnatic music.

[10] The nine dominants facial and gestural expressions generated from nine different states of mind—as noted in Natyashastra—the ancient Sanskrit treatise on dramaturgy. They are also considered as the basis of emoting in most Indian classical dance forms.

[11] Der Standard, 2009.


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