Getting Away From Expressional Dance

February 11, 2014

Getting Away From Expressional Dance

Interview : Gitanjali Kolanad

Getting Away From Expressional Dance

The following is the transcript of an interview with Gitanjali Kolanad, a Bharatanatyam dancer trained -initially at Kalakshetra of Madras and then by Menaka Thakkar, Kalanidhi Narayanan and Nana Kesar.

Kolanad has performed in Canada, which is her country of residence, the U.S. and Europe, as well as in New Delhi and Madras in India. Besides being a dancer, Kolanad has taken to choreography too. Her creations so far reveal a modern and eclectic approach.

Initially, she choreographed a work commissioned and performed by the Birmingham Creative Dance Company. It involved about 30 dancers doing modern dance as well as Indian classical and folk dance.

Why did you choose The King and the Corpse? What attracted you to it?

As soon as I read The King and the Corpse, I immediately wanted to put it into dance. I liked a lot of things about it. First of all, I liked the structure, with one character doing all the talking and telling the story. I could immediately visualize how the dances could go along with it. And then there was no religious connotation to it; I liked that too. I wanted to avoid anything religious. Then, I liked the tone that the corpse had, I liked the way he was very cynical, cynical about women, cynical about relationships between men and women, cynical about religious ideals and gurus and all that kind of thing. That appealed to me, and I could see how I could put words into his mouth that expressed my own ideas as well, because he was just that kind of character.

Why did you want to do something that wasn't religious?

The religious aspect struck me as being less and less important, at least to my own life. Especially the way I had to portray it in dance didn't ever seem to come to any significantly sophisticated level of philosophical thinking. It was just mired constantly in this religious sentimentality—the repetition endlessly of the pranks of Krishna and the exploits of Siva—and very rarely got to me. And I found that I was hypocritically portraying devotional elements that I didn't feel, and therefore it lost its charm very quickly.

So would you say you're reacting against the situation of being committed to a classical art form in which are preserved certain cultural specifics that are no longer supported by the prevailing cultural and actual life these days?

A lot of people may say that it's me specifically, it's because of my Western background, but I don't think that's entirely true because—well, a lot of Indian people that I know are not religious in that sense and don't experience the states of bhakti that are portrayed in Indian dance. For me specifically that's true—I don't feel the cultural context at all ; and it may have something to do with having lived part of my life in the West, but I prefer to think that it is a kind of cultural sophistication which comes with age, experience, what you've read, what you've done, what you've seen.

Bharatanatyam didn't evolve to be performed in auditoriums, in front of audiences, but for a whole variety of different reasons.

That's right, I guess that's what I began to feel—that I was working out of context. So, given that I was dancing on the concert stage, there seemed to me no necessity to stick to the things that had been developed and evolved out of the temple context, out of the religious context. I wanted to use the dance in a way that suited it better, that suited the new context that it had, of entertainment, of dance-form I wanted to experiment because I felt that the traditional repertoire wasn't satisfying any longer. I no longer felt I was creatively involved in what I was doing on stage; the endless depiction of the heroine pining for her lover simply had no relevance to my own life.

Isn't this grafting a very modern type of value onto a traditional classical discipline in which what is prized is presenting something—taking pleasure in presenting something, the working out of something—that exists in a timeless and formal form, and in which values such as innovation and originality are absent?

I had gotten to the point of frustration with the foreknown aspect; I felt the dance was becoming like a museum piece, a kind of fossil. And only a few dancers, like Malavika Sarukkai, are able, by the sheer excellence and elegance of their dancing, to make the experience of it very immediate. I do appreciate that the museum quality of Bharatanatyam has a place; but for me, being a dinosaur has lost its appeal.

Say that you find various reasons for wanting to preserve what you love about the form, but also to test it and stretch it; but why did you innovate in the way that you did? For example, why mix different dance styles together with Bharatanatyam in this presentation?

The use of different dance styles was somewhat accidental, a force of circumstances: I was working in Canada and there weren't enough good Bharatanatyam dancers that I had access to, and therefore I tried to use other dance forms that would suit the characters that I wanted to portray. And finally it turned out to greatly enhance the whole creative process, working with people who had discipline  their bodies in different ways than I had, and who had tried different kinds of experiments, and...

It was exciting for us working together with a Kathakali dancer, Larry Tremblay, who had used Kathakali in experimental ways already ; a modern dancer who didn't have the same sensitivity to rhythm, and therefore could improvise and move much more freely, who wasn't tied down by the consciousness of eight beats constantly repeating ; and a mime, who used every part of his body to express mood and emotion, even in the way he stood, very different from the way emotion is expressed in Bharatanatyam.

In terms of the dance, was there any particular goal you had, was there anything that you were particularly trying to do in this production?

There was definitely one thing I wanted to do: that was to get away completely from the usual expressional dance,

where movement is tied very closely to the verbal element; it becomes almost like a sign language and it becomes very literal as a result. For example, if the line of poetry says, "My lord is beautiful," then the dancer interprets that line using metaphors that work much better verbally than they do as dance images—"His face is like the full moon," with hand gestures for 'his', 'face', and 'full moon'—and the audience is expected to translate back to the words. Well, I wanted to avoid that completely, and for more than the reason that the audience has to be knowledgeable enough about it to understand what's going on: I just don't think dance should function at that level, that it should be so literal. I don't see any reason for this—how can dance be expected to convey what poetry already conveys? They are two different media, and I don't see the need to tie one very closely to the other. That's why I used the corpse as I did, to do all the talking. He makes all the stories completely clear, and it's very verbal and the corpse is a very verbal character, he uses words well, and he plays with them, he exploits the specific quality of words. Whereas the dancers dance. Their dance also conveys meaning, but not a meaning that can be easily recaptured verbally. The dancers exploit the specific qualities of movement. I wanted the dance to have that quality, the quality of dance as a medium unto itself, not in any way dependent on literary conventions, grammar and syntax.

It wouldn't be so strikingly radical if it were modern dance you were saying this about, because the nature of modern dance has evolved as free gesture, as pure abstract form. But you're talking about projecting these values into a form that has evolved as something that is a kind of paraphrase of another art-form, such as poetry.

But look at a dance-piece like alarippu, which is pure dance. It conveys this aspect of invocation, blessing, flower offering,

without ever resorting to the sign-language kind of dance that says T 'offer' 'flowers'. The dancer is herself, the whole dance is, in itself, an offering of flowers; and it is like that in the movement, there's no line of poetry behind it. I wanted to explore fully this aspect of Bharatanatyam. I didn't want to tell stories using dance—that wasn't my aim at all. I wanted the corpse to tell the stories; I wanted the dancing to be on the other level...

You didn't want a dance to which you could put a text.

I tried to make the corpse a sort of modern individualistic hero, like a hero in a modern novel. When I was reading through the various versions of that text, I realized I could put words in his mouth, repeat a process that had probably been done many times through the ages by rewriters of that original text; and I have had a lot of ideas about Indian mythology, religion, aesthetics, that I wanted to express, and this character gave me the scope to do that, that's why I was happy to find a character who didn't behave like a typical Indian hero.

No, he's not a typical hero, he's more like a trickster, he's more like a voice of the unconscious.

He seemed to embody a character who could speak in any time, in any context, and say any number of things. So that some of the lines in the script are from R.D. Laing ; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; T.S. Eliot; Eric Berne—I'm OK, You're OK; and Douglas Hofstadter—The Mind's Eye; and Zen, and Indian philosophy that is Vedantic, confusing, interesting, sophisticated—not on that sentimental level where you often find bhakti. I found I could put anything into his mouth and it sounded just fine. Even dirty jokes. He's that kind of character. He isn't my invention; he's like that in all the versions of the story that I read.

You're saying "Vedantic and not bhakti type of stuff" : in other words, he's sort of intellectual, these challenges are intellectual. The game he's playing with the king is a little bit like that of a Zen master.

Yes. In terms of movement also, he starts off hanging by his legs from this tree structure, and then is dragged down from it by the king, who uses the stylized movements of Kathakali, dragging and feeling the weight of the body. While the corpse comes out of that body and becomes free ; he moves a lot.

Anything else you'd like to say ?

Just this, about the value of experimentation, whether it works or not. The reason I would continue to experiment even if no one likes what I do, and why I like looking at other people's experiments even if I don't actually like the dancing, is because I don't believe that Indian dance has been as we see it today for two thousand years, or that we can ever go back to what it was—the only way to keep it really alive is by constantly working with it and changing it and fitting it more appropriately in and making it . .

...more responsive to what reality is ? Like the reality now, which is that people who are seeing it are not the audience in a temple ?

Yes, the possibilities of what one can do with dance are enless, it's so exciting. And maybe in 10 years, or 20 years, it will be possible to see a direction. I don't want the audience throwing tomatoes at me—I think I've done everything I can to avoid that eventuality by making the production tight, professional, beautiful to look at. But I don't expect everybody to say, "Oh, that's perfect the way it is." That's not what I'm trying to achieve: not perfection, just the opening up of possibilities...

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