The Choreography Connect
October 19, 2017
Classical ballet in the West, especially in Russia, has been a long established genre and well known for its aesthetics and rigorous technique, such as pointe work, turnout of the legs, and high extensions, its flowing, precise movements, and its superb qualities. There are several standardized, widespread, classical ballet training systems: each designed to produce a unique aesthetic quality from its students. Some systems are named after their creators. In contrast, American style ballet is not taught by means of any standardized training system. French ballet, too, has no standard training system, with each major French style ballet school employing a unique training system of its own. In contrast, contemporary ballet in the West is a genre that employs often classical pointe technique, but allows far greater range of movement of the upper body and is not constrained to the rigorously defined body lines and forms found in traditional, classical ballet. Many of its attributes come from the ideas and innovations of the 20th century modern dance, including floor work and turn-in of the legs.
Contemporary dance in India encompasses a wide range of dance activities and includes varied choreography for the celluloid, for modern Indian ballet and for experiments with existing classical and folk forms of dance. All major classical Indian dance forms have drawn sustenance from the Natya Shastra - especially with elements of nritta, nritya and natya - and have contextualized sattvik, vachik, angik and aharya abhinaya, also having developed their own grammar and cannons of choreography. Not many institutions practising contemporary dance in India can boast of clear-cut grammar and systematic training methodology that can be shared across the board.
Sapphire Creations, an “experimental dance company” from eastern India, felt a need to create abstract movements free from external influences and over last 20 years, is striving to develop an organic, radical, dynamic and alternative idiom of movement, keeping its focus fixed on innovation. Its movement technique imbibes the whole range: from ancient Indian body history, to Western breathing techniques, to modern contact, improvisatory and tuning solo and group work methods. Its choreographic oeuvre comprises issues of gender, art, relationships, society, polity, consumerism and HIV, from a global perspective. Currently, Sapphire has both a training academy and a professional repertory.
Interestingly, Sapphire has launched, since 2007, an initiative that brings choreographers from across the globe for residential training. Called “International Choreographer's Residency Series” (INCRES), this programme has so far involved nine choreographers: Chris Lechner (Germany); Michel Casanovas (France-Switzerland) - returned thrice; J.S. Wong (Malaysia); Dr. Selcuk Goldere (Turkey); Dr. Jacek Luminski (Poland); Mary Carbonara (USA); Idan Cohen (Israel); Darryl Thomas (USA) and Daniel Galaska (USA).
Since Sapphire works in the domain of contemporary dance, it was thought worthwhile to inquire into their gains from the decade long exposure to a fairly large number of modern choreographers from abroad. Sapphire's artistic director and choreographer, Sudarshan Chakravorty -who has steered Sapphire over last twenty years - and the group's co-director Paramita Saha - who partnered Sudarshan all this time and has herself been an enthusiastic participant in all the twelve residencies - were asked to etch out a balance sheet of the entire exciting process and its fruits for the modern dance community working with Sapphire.
Extracts from interview with artistic director and co-director:
How do you select the foreign choreographers for residency?
We use mostly personal contacts during our foreign travels. The countries outside India where we've presented our choreographic works include Malaysia, Spain, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, Austria, Italy, Bangladesh, Canada, Srilanka, Poland and particularly USA. We've gained enormous goodwill in all the continents we've visited and choreographers are invited to come and see our own choreographic work.
Do you give these foreign choreographers any terms of reference?
Besides what they get to witness in our shows or festivals, we also give them our video clippings to study. They get enthusiastically acquainted to our style of work, our limitations, our dedication, our commitment, our passion to keep working in a field or style that isn't very popular or yet very welcome in India. At the other end, the choreographer is free to interpret Sapphire's training, intent and capabilities in their own way and build an item, depending on their understanding or sense of India. Choreographers choose their subject and style of showcase from the residency. We also list out a broader list of techniques that we would like to be exposed to: improvisation, flying low, release, contact, floor-work and the like. But the final call on the content, schedule and output of the residency remains wholly with the choreographer.
What are the terms of engagement that you generally specify?
We let them know the numbers and categories of students from our training academy and our repertory company that we'd like to be exposed to the choreographer. We, of course, define the hours of work: usually comprising 8 hours every day over 2 weeks. Pre-lunch work hours and post-lunch work hours are followed by evening work, broken up among repertory and academy dancers. We take care of the local hospitality, but not the international travel. Yes, we do provide some remuneration.
How do you select participants of INCRES?
It is an interesting process. From the training academy, students are screened and selected. Usually, students are also graded by the external teachers, based on their capabilities: improvisation, composition, theory, etc. For the Repertory members, attendance is compulsory.
Do you define the themes to be tackled in INCRES?
The choreographers are usually aware that Sapphire's work has been activist and has always spoken about issues and themes that are usually swept aside by the general public. Nonetheless, most choreographers do not come with pre-existing or pre-planned themes and ideas for work. A lot of themes get inspired by the material that the dancers produce based on tasks, etc. and, of course, the choreographers' experience of India while they are here. You will be amazed that the most mundane of our daily happenings - like a family get-together, a street brawl, a glad or a sad spectacle - get filtered through their perception and coalesce into some stunning choreography quite often!
They veer towards the abstract, but with a strong narrative. The choreographers work simply with minimal costume and lights and new bodies. But they create work that impacts and inspires. Story-telling is a strong element that we have learnt and imbibed in our work from the way the visiting choreographers knit stories through abstract movement into the overall content.
Does a choreographer find cohesiveness a problem in group choreography?
It is true that most dancers of Sapphire Creation - from either repertory or academy - have a strong and visible individual style of movement and creation. But working with them as a cohesive group for the purpose of group choreography - be it in unison or otherwise - has never been a challenge, as the flamboyance of energies of multiple dancers combining as moving bodies works and fits like a jigsaw puzzle! Also, the dancers have deep rooted training in improvisation and our work, though choreographed, has always a large part of improvisation that adds to the texture and freshness of the choreography and performance.
Do the foreign choreographers share Sapphire's approach and style?
The foreign choreographers recognize our individualistic improvisatory form of movement and have hailed it as something unique and welcome. That has given our dancers a lot of confidence to retain their individual strengths, while they train with these choreographers and understand and learn their approach to contemporary dance and the dancing body. We prefer the choreographers to come in unbiased on themes and rather give us their perspective, their particular cultural moorings, their thematic approach, and their understanding of the body as a tool to live dance!
One last question… do you distinguish between foreign choreographers?
Some have come carrying better techniques, some with better process, some with fresh perspectives to body and some with own views about India in general. But each has left a strong imprint on the dancers of Sapphire who have found more confidence and conviction in their bodies and dance expressions through the following years. We think this has been our overall gain in this unique venture!
Contact Sapphire: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.
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