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by Sam Kumar, Chennai

Dec 2001
It was dance unlike anything one has seen before. In fact for some people in the audience it was not even a dance, in the conventional sense. Dressed in body hugging white tights the German dancer Susanne Kirchner, a tall and statuesque woman, moved inch by inch in an excruciatingly deliberate manner. She progressed from a static starting posture to a final resting position. After a brief pause she moved to another spot on the stage and began another delicate movement, totally different from the first one but at the same slow speed. What made the performance peculiar was the total lack of music or any sound for that matter.
The dance at Museum Theatre organized as a part of The Other Festival was quite a shocker for the Chennai audience. To learn what her unique dance is all about, I spoke at length with Susanne. Excerpts from the conversation:

Could you please share some details about your background.
When I was a young girl I wanted to improve my health. So I took up yoga seriously and have been practicing it for over 20 years. Yoga gave me suppleness and agility to my body. Though I wanted to study medicine somehow I ended up studying classical music for six years. I played the violin. After a few years I switched to vocal and became a professional singer. I sang for five years in a professional opera company in Germany.

Being a trained classical singer how and why did you become a dancer?
I felt a strong urge to find another medium, other than my voice, to reach the audience. Meanwhile I had learnt African traditional dance merely for fun. After a long search I discovered dance in total silence. I had very favorable response from my friends and other dancers, which encouraged me to
continue with it. After much improvisation it has reached the present form.

You dance in total silence. Why not dance with music?
When one dances to music, I feel there is a competition between music and the dance. Without music the focus is totally on the dance for the performer as well as the audience. There is no distraction. To me silence is the best music. It is like white, which has all the colors within itself.

Could you describe 'Dance Sculpture' which you performed today?
Dance Sculpture is the result of my research to find a creative expression that uses the human body without other stimulation such as music. This form of expression has existed from time immemorial but unfortunately been lost in modern times. My performance concentrates on gestures and balances and consists of abstract body forms and slow movement. Silence helps the audience to concentrate better. In the process they focus the observation on themselves.

Do you teach your unique dance style?
It seems that I am the only dancer who is doing this style at present. But I am teaching a few students on this style of dancing and one day they will start performing. I also teach part time in a few Art academies in Germany, Vienna and Japan. I teach in general about slowness in dance and about silence.

Do you compose your dance on specific themes?
Not always. Some of my compositions are based on themes such as Fear, Violence and Friendship. But some compositions are pure dance without any particular subject. Tonight's dance was an example of this. In such cases I make it open for the audience to interpret themselves. It makes them think and resolve it for themselves. It is amazing how everyone will have a different experience watching the same performance.

Some of the postures resemble yoga postures. Is there a connection?
I learnt yoga when I was young and have practiced it for about twenty years. So yoga has become a part of my life. But there is no conscious connection as far as I am concerned.

During the dance are you aware of the audience? Do you sense their response?
As I dance, my body is open and I feel that my whole body is sensitive, from head to toe. I feel the concentration of the audience on my body. I sense the mood of the audience. I hear every little sound, a cough, door opening or a whisper. There are times when I have make some minor changes to the composition or postures in response to the audience's reaction.

How do other dancers feel about your unique style?
I have worked with many actors and dancers and corroborated shows with them. It was a wonderful experience for me. They also enjoyed working with me. I find that most dancers find it difficult to do the slow movements. They are used to fast and complex movements but find it tough to do even simple movements at slow speed. And silence disquiets them. Some dancers have told me that they have become more conscious of their bodies and become more sensitive with movements after working with me.

How does the audience react to your style of dance?
Since I dance in silence the audience is forced to be quiet. This makes them concentrate on the dance. First there is a resistance in one's mind to focus on the dance exclusively. But soon they surrender to the dance. It is a new experience for most people but they soon start enjoying it. I have performed all over Europe, in Japan, Cairo, US and India. I have got very good feedback from my audience everywhere. Once I performed in a school for a group of little children. First they could not understand what was going on but then they started to enjoy it. I cannot forget the expression on their face as they got engrossed.

How is the response for you in India?
This is my second visit to India. During my last visit I danced in the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. As I danced, I moved from one hall to another and people followed me around quietly. It was an interesting experience. In Calcutta I performed in open air, which was a new experience for me as well. I felt a good vibration at the performance here at Chennai as well. I am pleased with the tremendous response and positive feedback from my audience here.

Are you enjoying your visit to India?
Yes, I am. I know that India has a strong dance tradition with a number of classical dance forms. In addition to my performance at the Other Festival, I am here to do a project sponsored by the Max Muller Bhavan. As a part of this project I will stay a few days in Mahabalipuram and study the sculptures and the environment. Then I travel to Aurangabad to study Ajantha and Ellora cave paintings for a couple of days. Based on my interaction with these two places I will choreograph two new dance numbers. I hope to perform these dances during my visit.

What are your plans for future?
I want to work with forces of nature like water and fire. I have worked with waterfalls and it is a great feeling to see water diverted by the body in different directions. I want to dance over a large platform floating on the still waters of a lake. I also want to work with a large open fire. The shimmering glow of light and the play of shadows should be an interesting experience for me as well as the audience.

Sam Kumar is a Chennai based writer and photographer who loves all forms of classical art. Painting and traveling are his other passions.