Conceived and directed by Anita R Ratnam, Artistic Director of Arangham Trust (Chennai), the choreo-lab titled TRANZ was organized by www.narthaki.com and Alliance Francaise de Madras from July 30 - August 3, 2007 at the Alliance Francaise Top Storey black box theatre in Chennai. The choreography lab, the first of its kind in India, was supported by a grant from Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi.
Most contemporary dancers in India have originally been trained in one of the classical styles before they try to branch out and develop their own movement vocabulary. Many a time, this turns out to be a lonely journey as they cannot approach their gurus, contemporaries or professionals in the worlds of theatre, costume design, visual communication, music, choreography and movement disciplines, who will guide or encourage them in their creative process. Having gone through such experiences herself, Anita was inspired to come up with the idea of TRANZ, a mentoring program for emerging professional dancers. "TRANZ is derived from the word Trans which means to carry across and beyond, like a bridge," says Anita. "These young dancers who have made the difficult choice to be professional dancers in a world of spectacle and branding need specialized guidance and skills to address their individual needs. What I have tried to do is assemble a team of professionals from the performing and visual arts to inspire and stimulate them into thinking more clearly and productively," states Anita.
TRANZ brought young dancers from the worlds of classical and contemporary dance, yoga, meditative and martial arts to present their new and unfinished works before a panel of carefully chosen mentors. Taking the daily feedback about intention, choreographic design, plot and energy, the artistes worked untiringly towards improving and clarifying their short dances.
The mentors chosen to guide the dancers all had a lot in common though they came from various backgrounds.
London based Chitra Sundaram is a Bharatanatyam artist who is also the editor of PULSE, the South Asian dance magazine. "The issue with the word 'contemporary' for us in the UK is to interpret it to also mean that our own Asian forms lend themselves to contemporary makeovers, but not necessarily by borrowing technique/vocabulary from western forms. In south Asian contemporary dance in the UK, there has been a certain marketing and political value given to saying one is changing, or even improving, the old (form) in making the new thing. But it is experimentation - people trying to say what they want to, in their own individualised way, and there's less and less talk of contemporary dance with an anti-traditional feeling. The effort is to help this new generation of contemporary dancers develop their range of techniques and skills."
Hari Krishnan (InDance, Canada) is a Bharatanatyam dancer who is trained in the Kitappa Pillai style of Kacceri - Devadasi dance is also an accomplished contemporary choreographer. "Certain themes are universal but the way of expressing is not. Contemporary is a completely different notion and source of dance. Your source of authenticity in India is what you want to say and what you want to do. Bollywood is now recognized globally but Indian contemporary dance has yet to find its place."
Madhu Nataraj (Natya STEM Dance Kampni, Bangalore) is a Kathak dancer also trained in yoga and kalari. "Indian contemporary dance has something to say internationally. If you decide to journey on the contemporary route, you have to learn how to fall and balance, so training in movement arts like kalari is very important."
the Madras Players as a stage-sweeper, Mithran Devanesen is now one of
India's top English Theatre Directors. Mithran works for underprivileged
children by conducting workshops, teaching English at Corporation schools,
and sponsoring scholarships for deserving students. His family runs
an organization called Roofs for the Roofless in 14 villages, south of
Chennai. An award winning lighting and stage designer, Mithran has been
associated with Anita Ratnam and her company Arangham as director and consultant
for the past 13 years.
The participants were all professional dancers.
The classically trained Shiri dancers adapt movements from traditional Bharatanatyam. Wearing smart earth red kurtis and salwars with the company logo on the neckline and sleeves, they presented 3 brief sections in a group format, followed by a talk about their choreographic process. The mentors Chitra Sundaram, Hari Krishnan, Mithran Devanesen, Asma Menon, Hema and VV Ramani and Rex made their observations and gave suggestions on how to improve and clarify their movement and improvisation techniques.
The Shiri group spoke about how one of the pieces was a challenge to even start choreographing, so they started with whatever inspired them, like going-coming, keeping-throwing, moving inward-outward. They used the concept of "Moving so fast that their souls have to catch up," something they heard from an African dancer. Choreography was totally dictated by the music for this piece, though they rehearse sections without music. They are close as a group, so they are open with choreographic movements and create together, but, as the mentors observed, the quality of each dancer was so different that the group as a whole seemed to be pulling the other behind. From the very first day, the mentors suggested that they consider creating short solos for each of the dancers within a larger group work- something the dancers had not considered.
Mithran observed that in the Shiri items, lines were too soft and they needed to bring energy right into their finger tips and toes. Ramani found from Shiri’s movements that they were trying to break away from Bharatanatyam and were quite successful although more fine tuning and clarity was needed.
On the Sapphire Creations work, Mithran said, "I'm totally amazed that you could come up with a story line from a piece of music. But don't separate yourselves so much as both are doing amazing movements but one does not know whom to concentrate on. You must keep periphery vision as an important aspect when you choreograph." Would lighting play a big part in this piece? "Yes, lighting can isolate both dancers and then bring them back together," he said.
Mithran also spoke about energy chakras on stage. You have to be aware of the audience and change movement according to the space (it could be a huge hall, a small one, a garden, a mall...). Using 4 corners and centre is good for rehearsal, but after checking out a performance space, one has to figure out placement so the audience can enjoy the presentation to the maximum.
Costume designer Rex spoke about a program called POORNIMA- the full moon, in Toronto, where the dancers were clad in shades of grey so as not to force the audience to watch the black and white images on screen or a particular dancer, so it was like watching memory come alive on stage in B & W.
After the discussion, Chitra took on the mentor’s role for Shiri dance group as she's closer to classical work and Hari took on the Sapphire duo as he's closer to contemporary work. Chitra guided Shiri on how to give momentum to movements that needed to be imbued with extra energy. Instead of playing into the music and working on the rhythm, when do they work in unison and when not to, had to be figured out. They also needed to know WHY they chose to do this or that.
Hari's suggestion to Sapphire was to make a particular sequence the start of the piece and then present the story element as a flashback. It was received very favorably by the dancers. He also refined a couple of movements to give variation.
The two groups worked on the suggestions by the mentors and then it was back to discussion time. Paromita felt the first time they had presented the piece, it was more natural, but now it is more planned. "But it is a wonderful exercise into why I’m doing it and the reason is showing. Solving the reasons of the movement makes the inner meaning clearer and the extra details give more meaning to the movements." What emotion did the dancers feel at the end of the story line? They had a positive feeling, but Hari felt that he got more of a negative impression so that bit had to be worked on.
The discussion then moved on to issues that a contemporary dancer faces. They were all happy that for the first time their work has been observed by experienced dancers who are aware of other such works happening in the world. Preethi and Ajay found that people complained about repetitive movements in contemporary work, while the same is not said of Bharatanatyam movements.
Chitra Sundaram: In classical (Indian) dance, especially in solo work, one rarely expects something entirely different in every which way, maybe a different sanchari or two in abhinaya - it is about how well you perform, and how you acquit yourself in re-telling beloved tales in familiar tongues and comforting ways, as it were; but in contemporary they expect something new all the time - from the look, to theme, music, even vocabulary. If the narrative or approach has not changed, one does not really look for new expressive stuff either perhaps, as in classical. But if there's a narrative, and it's all trying to be different as in say contemporary work, people expect to be engaged all the time.
Anita Ratnam: In contemporary dance, the audience expects us to do marvelous things all the time and they are much less forgiving. Physical prowess is now expected as a mandatory aspect of contemporary dance but I find that stillness is not explored enough as an important aspect of virtuosity. In classical, they are more generous and always find something to praise.
Hari: In contemporary style, one is afraid to be called repetitive, but why is a movement being repeated? Why has the perspective not changed? Instead of virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity, a piece is enhanced when the meaning of the movement becomes clearer. When light is also planned accordingly, 2 solos or a duet gets tied up convincingly.
Anita Ratnam suggested that movement workshops should be videotaped because certain movements emerge in an improv session and this movement may not happen again. "Play the music, dance it through, videotape it and see how each dancer reacts," advised Chitra Sundaram.
While each dancer was totally involved in his/her independent movement patterns, they all seemed to finally converge in the centre of the performance space in a pile, without being aware of other dancers also veering towards the centre! After the improvisation piece was done by the dancers, each one explained what they had done and the mentors made their observations based on that.
Chitra gave the 'snake in the room' theme mainly because "movements cannot give the story. Ideas are mainly for us, to realize the level of heightened awareness of the body and how we sense it." 1. The theme was to create awareness, to make genuine connection with the other person/s. 2. When you use literal images, you cannot make others see the snake. 3. How to use the awareness to work with others.
"Everyone does their individual thing and then come together, each group having a different strength. One is peaceful, the other is aggressive. But despite the clear division, they all want to get together, working off each other's energy," observed Madhu.
Don't feel bad to think something may not work. When you share, you need to make your own mental note on how you work on the narrative or movement individually. In contact improv, those who have not done it are self conscious. Talk to your partner, make a quick plan and execute it. It's a quiet learning process to support and not pressurize your partner. A large part of us like to be in the comfort zone, so it is good to do some experimentation. Quality of movement in contact improv can be done around certain techniques like lifts, entanglements etc. Without instruction, you can go into your own natural mode.
Anita Ratnam felt that Dibyendu generally shows his expressive face, so the challenge for him would be to convey what he wants to without showing his face! "We don’t dance like each other, but we use our own language and develop our vocabulary," says Paromita.
Ajay is an
MBA lecturer, Dibyendu is a graphic designer, Anitha Santhanam is a dance
teacher, while Janardhan, Somashekar and Preethi are full time dancers.
The mentors were happy to see these dancers have the courage make a career
in dance. One has to push a bit, but now one can survive, especially since
there are lot of corporate shows happening in Bangalore and Kolkata. How
does one make the difference between glitter and glamour that is needed
for corporate shows that pays their bills and puts food on the table and
the quieter more artistic work that has a much smaller audience? The mentors
listened to the dancers and pointed out that they would have to KNOW the
difference within themselves and perhaps make the choice one way or the
other since corporate shows demanded an increasing level of showmanship.
What was the intention behind this particular exercise?
Chitra: This will make you take decisions and stick to them. Some were very clear in what they wanted to do. Set counts, apply to the music and then see what you can come up with. Capture the mood of the music. You don't have to be the sole interpreter of the music. If you go into the narrative, see how you can make it into movement.
Hari: Phrasing is very important. See it till the end. In the process of making choices, use theme variations, non-predictability... Surprise the audience. Try to have a simple vision, articulation in terms of choreography, but most important is the vision.
Madhu: Given a situation like today, choreographing to music, one way of reacting - one with mood, one with layering, one with theme and so on. Find articulation, one clear idea that will throw up a 1000 different possibilities. But to choose that one idea is the most difficult. It was interesting to see some of you use the dance movements you have trained in, like Kathak and Bharatanatyam.
Mithran: In the space of 3 minutes, what you all came up with was wonderful. With Hari and Chitra I agree that like in theatre, you need a beginning and an end.
Rex: Being a visual person, I see flaws first. Your instinctive imagery comes from instinctive response. Try and challenge yourself to do something different from what you think first. None of you used the stage or props around you. When you use a prop, be careful that the prop is a part of the dance. Be aware that the audience is very clear when you are transitioning from point A to B. Every movement should be given thought to and not appear clumsy or unrehearsed to the audience. There has to be continuity. Hone your product. Make sure you have done everything to eliminate all the flaws. Film it, watch it, get a friend or outsider for comments, then hone it.
Anil: There is nothing more joyful to a musician than to see people surrendering to the music. It is like a classical padam to me in my mind, a poem that can only be seen. This piece is called Destiny and is inspired by a story called 'Appointment at Samarra.' No matter what you do, who you are will come out and so will your identity. That is why Dibyendu's story about his friend the army jawan who lost his life at Kargil is poignant to me. His entire solo was like a chapter of my life. Like the flow of inevitable destiny.
Rex also showed actual pieces as well as photos of some costumes he had designed and why that particular style or color. This was followed by the 3 groups performing their pieces without inhibition as there was no outside audience. We could see how the initial work of the first day of the choreo-lab had progressed and shaped up.
Hari: It's like a whole new piece. I loved the images, clever use of footwork, the establishing of aggressive quality as well as softness. I love the reaction, collision, coming together, but there are too many encounters. You must be clear on what comes before and what comes after.
Madhu: Make it simple and clear. What I was saying in the classes and what you have shut out. The mentors are saying exactly what I have been saying in our choreography sessions in Bangalore.
Let the sound come out naturally. Get clear on the last few symmetrical
Asma Menon: For me, the relationship looked like between ego and alter ego. I also saw a mix of colors in some of the movements.
Rex gave his suggestion for costume colors based on the mood of the piece. "When there's a duet, it looks nicer when the man goes bare bodied. It lends a lot of visual texture. Grooming is very important, so pay attention to excess body hair. It does not look good on stage for men."
Chitra: I liked the opening and the second section is coming together well, but push some more to clarify the concept. Don't start playing characters. Watch each other.
Madhu: Make the dressing up section a little more enticing. In the second part, Ajay has to be more pushy.
Hari: Make a conscious decision – formal or casual, obvious or inferred, character build up, whether the tone is condescending, non threatening...shadowing of each other was done very nicely. But push the physicality more in the 2nd section.
Asma: I enjoyed the mirror shadow play. At one point the shadow overcame and that came through well. In the second section, wooing the woman with the foot is very nice, reminded me of Brahmin weddings.
Anita: Have less choreography and more movements. The process of where you are going needs to be enjoyed.
Madhu: Ask an outside opinion if certain movements were suitable. Get a theatre director to help you change expressions (to Dibyendu).
Choreography vision seems clear.
Asma: Certain energies when you come together...and there's a stillness that speaks for itself. That was the strongest point and there should be more such moments.
Anita: It's a bit too long and too melodramatic. Don't get carried away and pose. Use more natural movements, have eye contact, edit some movements – less is more. Don't use same pace and rhythm of moves. Make it a little more unpredictable and surprise your audience. In Kolkata people are very emotional and a certain coloring comes into dancers from Kolkata...
Once the presentations had been commented upon and suggestions noted down by the dancers, everyone heaved a sigh. This was the last day, 5 eventful, fun filled days of hard work in the choreo-lab, spiced up with delicious lemon tea and yummy 'royal tarts' from the Alliance Francaise canteen run by Yusuf. The tasty mini lunch from Sangeetha hotel was a hot favorite. Even in their spare time, dancers mulled over suggestions as they drank cups of spicy sambar and gorged on jasmine soft idlis and crisp dosas! The mentors on their part thought up new suggestions to impart the next day, so involved and sincere were they all. And of course, everyone would miss the comic of the group, Dibyendu!
So what were the experiences of the dancers as well as mentors with this first of a kind choreo-lab in India? The dancers spoke first about how they received the experience.
Tranz was such a beautiful experience. In every way. From the
dance / design inputs to the hospitality. Every bit was organized
so well. It was almost like a nurturing womb and I can say for sure
that Shiri was re-born after five days of Tranz.
Preethi: We were so morose the first day. We all come from different backgrounds and are constantly exchanging. As we step further, we get more contemporary and lose the form somewhere. We have body limitations and we try our best to create with all that baggage. We were stuck and this lab will really help us immensely so we will go back and work with new perception. You have all gone out of the way to be so giving and making us all feel so special.
It was indeed a special experience to have participated in TRANZ. It was nurturing and so enriching. Seldom do we come across such forums/ collectives where dancers come together to share and especially mentor upcoming troupes. As for Shiri, it has clearly been a step forward and we think, in the right direction, being able to access people of high repute in their respective fields like Mr. Mithran, Mr. Hari Krishnan, Ms. Chitra Sundaram and Mr. Ramani. Mr. Rex was just great...we learnt so much that even now I am slowly internalizing it.
Ajay: It is heartening when people notice that we are on the right track and we are not creating in a vacuum.
Dibyendu: This has been like magic, meeting everyone and becoming friends. We all come from different backgrounds but we have all become close in these few days. We have found an involvement in our working together. We will never forget this choreo-lab.
Paromita: All the inspiration and energy structure came from our first visit when we performed for The Other Festival in 2000. This helped us in organizing our own festival Interface. We attend many workshops, we are busy with many shows, but we are also teaching the younger lot, so our own work was getting lost somewhere. We were stagnated. Now we have more courage and confidence to start work as soloists. We have learnt so much about visual arts too from Mithran. We have never worked with any other choreographer, so now is the start as individual dancers. We have explored many things in this lab and learnt to question our moves now.
Soma: I'm lucky to have been selected to attend this lab. The first thing I learnt was to question why I am doing what, thanks to Hari's guidance. Before that, we wanted to do nice movements. What we had done the first day and what we presented to you today are so different.
Janardhan: We were just returning home from our overseas tour after a long gap and I was missing my family. But I was so touched by the warm welcome. I was quite terrified first when I saw the mentors watching my moves. But I learnt to be true to myself and that's the best part of the workshop. I felt very much at home and free to be myself instead of being on my guard. Ranjit taught me so much about visuals and I'm so happy.
was caught on camera by photographer Ranjit Sinha. He is a
professional commercial photographer, who has been recording the work of
Sapphire Creations for the past 4 years. He is based in Hyderabad
and also travels around the country teaching. How did he get interested
in dance? "I love workshops like this. I'm looking at it as
a visual person, since it is also an audience oriented thing. I can
now see the movements develop into a definitive form, pattern, which not
only means a certain language or a certain word, but is also appealing
to the beholder. Ultimately if you perform behind closed doors, it
is not a performance.
What did the
mentors feel about their involvement in the lab?
Contemporary dancers work in isolation and all sorts of comments come our
way. It is up to us to choose and filter. It is important for
us to work in each other's studio and share ideas and thoughts. It
is such a small community. This is a fantastic space and thanks to
Anita for arranging it. It is rare to have a space that is secure
enough to take risks...a space where you know a work is going to evolve,
where you get nurtured. When you are on a panel, you have great responsibility.
You come with respect and go to the next level and it all happened organically.
It's a small step in the direction of the community coming together.
As the director of this choreo-lab, Anita Ratnam must surely have been happy that the coming together of so many individuals from different places and backgrounds had been a pleasant and nourishing experience for all concerned. "I am thankful to all my mentors who readily agreed to participate in this choreo-lab. I know what a lonely journey mine has been. Though this lab was open to all, only contemporary dancers came for the mentoring. Maybe that's because classical dancers are already trained by their gurus and if someone asks them to change something, it would put them in a sticky situation. In contemporary dance, a dancer's interior exploration is more significant and intensity of movement becomes more pronounced. Unlike classical dance, contemporary dance in India is an urban phenomenon. Big names in dance have already been presented, so I want to do something for young, upcoming dancers and make them blossom into their own. A mentor is more than a parent or teacher. India is changing but the govt has not caught up. But I am very happy that this effort has been generously supported in part by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. When I discussed this idea with Secretary Jayant Kastuar, he readily agreed to support this effort. I also want to curate a contemporary dance festival with superb standards and take it on a tour of India. But there's a lot of work to be done. We are only in Phase 1 now."
As Anita's mind started working already on how to evolve the choreo-lab further, the dance groups met the mentors individually for last minute guidance on stage, lights and costumes. That's not the end, as the mentors have urged the dancers to feel free to contact them any time for guidance.
On my part,
I have included the comments of dancers and mentors in such a way that
any young contemporary dancer seeking guidance, could in some way benefit
from this exchange!
Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of www.narthaki.com