Thursday, 4 April 2013

Anga Sutra

The dancer’s body is the canvas on which the choreographer paints her picture. The rigour, the discipline, the restraint and the passion, described by one of the doyennes of dance

Anita Ratnam

The production Pushed
Drenched in sweat, she completed her routine and walked to the side of the rehearsal room to take a sip of water and wipe her face with a towel that was already soaked with the previous two hours of rigorous practice. Two more soiled towels lay tossed on the floor. The guests applauded warmly, rose from the straw mats and walked silently towards the other end of the dance studio where a simple meal was waiting. The dancer did not follow. She was already into her next routine - stretching, jumping in place and twisting her torso to stay warm and keep her muscles pliant for another round of rehearsal. She was now into her third hour of intense dancing and her slim body was as energetic as when she first began. Her energy was unflagging. By the time she had finished, the dinner and dessert – a large bowl of fruits and ice cream- had disappeared. The dancer once again wiped her face and arms and gracefully approached the dining table. The single thought with all the admiring guests was “What will she eat to sustain such an amazing body? She plucked a small bunch of grapes, a piece of jackfruit and nibbled on them, still lost in thought. I turned to her aunt who whispered, while still gazing admiringly at her niece, “She lives on air, water, fruit, very little food and her passion for dance”. 

The production Pushed
The above scene was from my recent visit to Sri Lanka to watch preparations for the annual Chitrasena Dance Company’s performance season, this time dedicated to the 82 year old matriarch Vajira, principal dancer and wife of the late dance icon Chitrasena. The ensemble of dancers were universally slim and fit.  Thaji and Mithilani, the two women who are also part of the brilliant Nrityagram ensemble performance SAMHARA, were distinctly superior to their colleagues. In private conversation with Thaji’s aunt Upeka, I learned of the rigorous routine that all dancers at Nrityagram are submitted to. For three years these two young women, accompanied by their choreographer Heshma, did early morning runs through the countryside followed by sessions of  yoga, pilates, pranayam, Odissi adavus, stretching before and after rehearsals, simple food and 14 to 16 hour days immersed in nothing but caring and working the body to its limits. And the results showed on stage with high octane vigour, stamina and stellar performance energy.

The late American dance diva Martha Graham said so rightly, “ Dancers are atheletes of the soul”. The sentence is telling. Like sportspeople, dancers have to train. But unlike their colleagues who grunt, yell, slide, shout, shriek, grimace and pant, dancers have to practice the art of camouflage while still exerting their bodies with the same pitch of hyperactivity and containing all pain beneath a smile or a calm visage. To dance is to share one’s entire being – body and soul – with the audience. A most generous and vulnerable act that not everybody recognises. And to perform at a supremely effortless level of sublime finesse takes hours, days, weeks and years of taxing, exhausting work. On and off the stage.

To tune ones body to the demands of today’s performance spaces and the cynical unforgiving eyes of distracted audiences, is calling for a lifetime of total surrender. Look at the many systems of cross training that has emerged in health studios around India and elsewhere. Gyrotonics, Soul Cycle, Zumba, Kick Boxing, Spinning, Mixed Martial Arts, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Running, Cycling….. the list goes on. Yoga has now assumed many avatars and so has becoming vegetarian, vegan ( no dairy foods) and fasting. Dancers are taking all methods of cross training to keep their bodies and muscles alert and alive in order to express anything and everything their minds conceive.  In Indian dance, the torso remains static and the legs mostly in a demi-plie, araimandi, semi squat position which demands that the lower body and the core become very strong to support the back and the spine area. The arms and feet are those that are moved and exerted while the extremities and the facial muscles are trained to “speak the stories”. As a contrast, western dance forms, especially modern and contemporary dance training demands a shift of the centre of gravity where the torso can turn and the centre of gravity can be thrown any way it chooses. That, combined with extensive floor movements and upside down tumbles demands a different system of training. Indian dancers are getting introduced to these newer systems of sustained hyper physicality in order to quieten the facial communication and transfer the energies to the entire body. 

Aditi Mangaldas
This calls for extreme discipline and a 24/7 lifestyle of abstinence. Dancers in the west take to smoking in order to cut their appetite and remain thin. A slim Indian dancer was not the norm until about 15 years ago, when the large scale of international theatres called for a hyperkinetic level of dance excitement from the performer. To succeed in leaping, jumping, stretching, turning while retaining compusure is not what the traditional gurus taught. After all, classical dance schools did not have mirrors or sprung wooden floors. Indian dancers trained on stone and concrete surfaces and in mostly small rooms.

The late Ranjabati Sircar recognised this shift in dance viewing and called for a new system and method of training dancers, both in the classical and contemporary fields. Classical dancers were more likely to rest on the weight of the great tradition and allow the music and poetry combined with the cultural memory of eyes accustomed to seeing voluptuous temple friezes transferred onto mature bodies on stage. The focus towards fitness and the articulate body began when the contemporary dancer in India recognised the dire need for new ways of training the body as a machine. Western dance styles offered the tried and tested methods and so began the ideas of “warm ups” and “cool downs”.

Kalpana Ranjana Raghuraman
Today when we watch Bijoyini and Surupa of Nrityagram , Padmini Chettur, Preethi Athreya, Mavin Khoo, Kalpana Raghuraman and Aditi Mangaldas perform, we can recognise the hours of cross training those classical dance bodies have undergone to make smooth transitions from one level or pose to another. Rehearsing Odissi, Bharatanatyam and Kathak steps cannot create THAT level of precision and perfection. The seeing eye is often forgiving while the camera’s eye shows every imperfection. The new age dancer of today recognises that every moment is a “Kodak moment”. That every muscle and tissue should be in perfect simpatico at every moment to communicate whatever the soundscape is saying.

To dance with the entire body does not always mean to create fast, breathless nonstop movement. It also means that slowing down a particular moment or a movement to near stillness calls for extreme control of muscle and breath. That too is not taught in classical dance systems. These are neo-classical interventions of the here and now. To extend one arms in longing and to make the entire body stretch in anticipation calls for strength and flexibility. To stretch on the ground as Vishnu in regal respose atop serpent Adisesha needs balance, Krishna twirling on Kaliya’s hood needs focus, Nataraja dancing in the heavens demands the extremes of every asset the body can call upon.

Kalpana Ranjana Raghuraman
In contrast, the ideas of nightmares, changing moods, tornados, feminism, dislocating geographies and personal memoirs also mandates another kind of  fitness for non narrative presentations. Watching the dancers of Pina Baush, Nederlands Dance Theatre, Marie Chouinard of Montreal and Lee Hwa Min of Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Theatre makes me realise the kind of observation, improvisation and out of studio experiences that these dancers have. Observing birds and animals and translating those into choreography, making calligraphy into body art, social behaviour into performance – all these inputs from imaginative creators needs an empty but pliant canvas to work on. The dancer’s body is that empty canvas. Unless it is ready, primed and toned it cannot become the site for the choreographer’s imaginative paintbrush. 

The writer is a Chennai-based dancer, choreographer, curator and arts’ activist

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