A Review of Rajyashree Ramesh Academy for Performing Arts at the Staatliche Museen-Dahlem, Berlin, November 10th, 2001 
by Ciane Fernandes 

May 2002

“Dance theatre has developed into such an archeology of ways of life. Gesture, movement and space are elements of an aesthetic of crossing boundaries, which seeks to develop a new way of perceiving in opposition to ready-made worlds of images which tamper with our ways of seeing.” (Inge Baxmann, 1990) 

“...meaning is not discovered, excavated from the hidden depth of the past, but constructed retroactively, from the future to the past.” (Slavoj Zizek, 1991) 

The term “dance theater” has been increasingly used in the west especially in the last ten years.  The term was revived by a group of contemporary German choreographers - such as Pina Bausch, Gerhard Bohner, Reinhild Hoffmann, Hans Kresnik, and Susanne Linke - in the beginning of the seventies.  German contemporary dance theater fragments the language of both dance and theater, including different movement possibilities - functional, technical, daily, theatrical, illustrative, etc. - interacting with different art forms.  Today, choreographers worldwide use the term to describe performances beyond dance or theater conventional settings, using different media to break up expectations and open the audience’s perception.  

Interrupted by the II World War and Nazism, German dance theater actually dates back to Austro-Hungarian Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958) in the early twenties.  Laban used the term to describe pieces incorporating both everyday and pure movement in a narrative, comical or more abstract form, based on harmonious correspondences between the dynamics of movement and spatial pathways.  His system developed into today’s Laban Movement Analysis (LMA), a major reference in contemporary performing arts - education, composition, and aesthetics / theory - as well as in body therapies.  

While Laban’s theories presented an integrated “thinking-feeling-acting being” (Bartenieff, 1970) in meaningful, understandable dances, contemporary dance theater proposes human fragmented identity and the rupture of dance’s clear meaning.  Such tendencies refer to modern and postmodern aesthetics and attitude, respectively.  But a new century demands other approaches.  Today’s identity is increasingly related to terms such as multiculturalism, interculturalism, and transculturalism, and traditional cultures have gained special attention.  Even Pina Bausch, considered to be the “mother” of German contemporary dance theater, has been exploring this tendency.  Her last pieces have been developed in “local” research on sites around the globe, including India (1994) and Brazil (2000).  Back to Wuppertal after their Indian tour, her dancers - originally from more than ten different countries from almost all continents - had classes in classical Indian dance for about half a year, as part of their daily technical training.  

Indeed, traditions are not “excavated from the hidden depth of the past” (Zizek, 1991), and do not need to be inserted in new forms in order to be contemporary.  The past is already present in the future of a tradition, in the flux of exploration and development of its own principles in different bodies and places.  The natural and inevitable interaction between tradition and “progress” is contained in the refining of a tradition.  

That is the case of a dance theater as old as the Gods themselves.  The Indian classical dance form - Bharatanatyam - does not need to run after updating.  Its beauty transcends words, and its presentation in the west takes care of its novelty and multiplicity of meanings.  Some of the Bharatanatyam performances I saw, are interrupted by linear clarifying explanations about the stories we are up to see in gestures.  By the time the dance is happening, I cannot remember the meaning of each gesture anyway, and rather enjoy the beauty and complexity of the performance.  

After more than ten years of training in German dance theater, I have been having the opportunity to study this rich traditional Indian dance form under Rajyashree Ramesh’s tutoring.  I cannot help associating many of her directions in class to precise technical terms in Laban Movement Analysis, from kinesiology principles into expressive qualities and spatial pathways.  Onstage, intercultural bodies - from German, French, Indian, and Vietnamese ancestry - demonstrate the result of such crafted training process.  

Rainbow Melodies is a performance of traditional Bharatanatyam with poetic “cosmic” comments, rather than explanatory interruptions.  The piece, presented by Rajyashree Ramesh Academy for Performing Arts at the Staatliche Museen-Dahlem last November, has the planets of the solar system as main topic.  Stories of different Indian Gods, traditionally portrayed in Bharatanatyam, are implicit in the planet’s depictions.  In between the dances, little texts about each planet are spoken more like a sigh (than of a didactic explanation) on a dark stage, preparing the audience’s spirit for the next choreography.  Slides with colorful abstract lines and shapes are projected in the whole theater, including the audience space. In perfect synchrony, dancers in beautiful traditional costumes and make up, play in between differently illuminated stage areas, even dark ones.  

Behind such beauty, nothing is arbitrary: sounds, gestures, and images correspond to specific moods and planets.  Associating Western astrology and Indian aesthetics and philosophy, Rainbow Melodies parallels each syllable of classical Indian music with a colour, a mood, and a planet.  The planet Mercury, representing fast motion and rational thinking, is associated with the musical syllable Ga or gandhara, the colour yellow, and the Jathiswaram in Raga Thodi, in complex mathematical rhythmic patterns that demand the dancers’ speed and concentration of mind.  Associated with Ma or madhyama and with the colour blue, Saturn’s qualities of tradition and concentration, but also restriction, inhibition and pain, fear and isolation, are portrayed as the life of women in many societies. Venus - the planet of love and harmony - is associated with Da or daivata and with the colour indigo, in traditional dances portraying different relationships to Krishna. In raga Kapi, the loving but also exasperated Yashodha as mother of Krishna is portrayed in a mother-child relationship. In raga Mohana one experiences the yearning of the Nayika or Radha, in her love for Krishna.  

To the mastery of Nandkishor Muley and S.V. Giridhara’s live music, Rajyashree Ramesh and her dancers float through space with perfect timing, clear bodylines, and gracious faces and hand gestures.  With crafted technique and beyond it, dancers fully use the space of the Museen-Dahlem’s stage, for the first time including the two pillars usually hidden behind curtains.  The atmosphere created by the concentration of dancers and musicians, the lighting (Guenter Ries), and such setting - including pillars and projecting slides in the entire theater - welcomes the audience as if in a temple.  Our attention is captured by the wise alternation of scenes - group and solo, abstract dance compositions or more theatrical ones, with quick and strong or more intimate expressiveness.  Vigorous and awakening Mars movements - associated with Sa or sadja, portrayed by the beautiful and vain Satyabhama trying to entice Krishna into marrying her - under red abstract images are alternated by mysterious and deeply touching Moon sequences under violet abstract curves - portraying presentiments, fear, and misgiving, memories and fantasies, sympathies and subconscious, associated to the Moon and its different phases. 

Besides this fruitful interaction between the arts, Rainbow Melodies have other principles in common with German dance theater.  In Laban’s theory, everything around us is change: growing and decomposing, dividing and uniting, vibrating and oscillating, in rhythm and flow - in the sea, the paradise, the earth and below it, in the planets, in the tides, in the minerals and crystals (Hodgson and Preston-Dunlop, 1990).  Laban developed a complex system of Spatial Scales, in which the body moves around points on space within Crystalline Forms - the Octahedron, the Cube, the Icosahedron, etc.  

In Rainbow Melodies, just like in Laban’s Space Harmony theory, pathways connect points within body chemical compositions all way till the planets.  Placing traditional Bharatanatyam moves in a contemporary setting, Rajyashree describes Laban’s full Icosaedron Girdle Scales (similar to Saturn’s Rings), or surprisingly glides along a deep diagonal of the Cube toward Right Backward Low into her knees, together with charismatic Vinodha Thambipillai and sculpture-like Karen Taguet.  After November 10th, nobody in Berlin can dare reduce Classical Indian dance to a few facial expressions and hand gestures done by a body placed mostly on its own vertical axis!  

In the last scene, the Tillana in raga Purvi is danced to the seven melodic syllables of the Indian music, resonating the sound of the universe - the pranavakara ‘OM’ - representing the absolute or Brahman, the pure, the one without attributes (nirupama, nirmala, nirasha, niranjana, nirguna, etc.), the energy without physical form - perceptible to the human ear through music, just like the seven colours of the white light are perceptible to the eye through the rainbow.  In its spectrum, Rainbow Melodies tones in the body, the stars, mythology and art.  Under a subtle and powerful sky arch, Indian millenary wisdom and European Space Harmony envisions dance theater’s new content / context.  Between east and west, God and human, such amazing beauty reminds us of a future identity that transcends space and time borders.  

“We bow to Shiva, whose 
[Angika] body is the universe, whose 
[Vachika] speech is the universal language, whose 
[Aharaya] ornaments are the Moon and the Stars.” 
(Prayer by Saranga Deva) 

Ciane Fernandes is a professor at the Graduate Program for Performing Arts at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil; Ph.D. on Performing Arts (New York University 1995), Certified Movement Analyst (Laban / Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies, 1994); author of Pina Bausch and the Wuppertal Dance Theater: The Aesthetics of Repetition and Transformation (New York: Peter Lang, 2001); and director of the A-FETO* Dance Theater (*Affection/Fetus), which in 2000 received the Brazilian ANDES-SN National Prize for Art at Universities.