Body Talk: What’s special at Ignite this year?
The idea that a body can make an argument will not be new to you if you managed to catch one of the several recent performances of Queen-Size by Mandeep Raikhy or Nerves by Surjit Nongmeikapam. But if it is, the ongoing Ignite festival of contemporary dance offers plenty of evidence.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the body has arguments to make: that it has beef, say, with the way it is imagined, consumed, constrained, trained, expected to behave. But it is perhaps more surprising just how eloquent, how sharply expressive the body can be, able to speak in singular ways that cannot be translated.
What better way to speak about labour, for instance, than through the body, as in Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy’s NH7? NH7 considers migration, urbanization, the shifting landscape of the city and its effect on the individual, and is able to make observations and arguments through movement, the use of space and the interaction between bodies.
NH7, and several other pieces showing at Ignite through this week, make plain that the body can be powerfully articulate, that a conversation about complex ideas can be had through movement.
The festival is intended as a conversation about “the body in relation to politics of identity, gender, sexuality, governance and censorship”, and it treats contemporary dance as a forum for that conversation, rather than a single, stylized language.
“Contemporary” is often used as a term for a genre of dance, something that appears on a slip pulled out of a hat on competitive dance shows. Yet it is unclear what that genre is. It’s not classical, or folk, or really “Indian” at all except in a sad, fusion-y way. It bears the imprint of western forms such as modern, jazz, hip-hop. It sometimes seems to be formless or “freestyle”.
But if you look at the range of work on display at Ignite—the variety in the performers’ approaches, styles, technique and experience—the idea of “contemporary” as a genre of dance simply doesn’t hold. So what, then, is “contemporary dance”? As it happens, the 2016 edition of Ignite seeks to address just that question.
“We wanted to rethink the idea of contemporary dance,” says Mandeep Raikhy, director of Gati Dance Forum, the Delhi-based non-profit organization behind the festival. To that end, the programming this year is curated around three words—form, identity, dissent—which together offer “a grid to map contemporary dance”. “It is a proposition,” he says, politely, a suggestion for how contemporary dance might be understood. But you might also think of it, less politely, as a kind of bullshit test.
Consider the palpable shift in tone reflected in this year’s programme. The last edition in January 2015 was opened, memorably, by a big, schmaltzy performance by the Terrence Lewis Dance Company, which, besides being stale and gimmicky, was fabulously homophobic. That performance wouldn’t have made the cut this year, because Lewis’s work, though routinely described as contemporary, would not pass muster if evaluated for its engagement with form, identity or dissent.
The pieces being showcased this year were, by contrast, selected precisely for the quality of their engagement with the big three. Taken together as “a proposition” for contemporary dance, they suggest an art form that is inventive, critical, reflective, playful, often political.
The female dancing body, for instance, is turned gently on its head by Sujata Goel’s Dancing Girl, a hypnotic progression through familiar movements, gestures and poses that uses parts of the exotic “dancing girl” image to quietly dismantle the whole. In a totally different style, unSeen by Vishnupad Barve and Kalyanee Mulay frenetically scrambles signifiers of femininity and seethes with exertion in response to Rabindranath Tagore’s contention that nature had made women weaker than men.
Preethi Athreya’s Conditions of Carriage plays with a kind of rhythmic, physical groupthink to discover the limits of the body’s endurance in performance. Field by Swiss choreographer Tabea Martin follows three bodies bound together in a physical fight for love, longing, disillusionment. Nidravathwam by Nimmy Raphel weaves together the stories of Kumbhakarna and Lakshmana, the sleeper and the sleepless, both cursed by their boons. And Singaporean performer Daniel Kok is the tart and exuberant Cheerleader of Europe.
The festival opened on Sunday with Intersect, a series of three collaborations between performers and visual artists, produced in conjunction with the Devi Art Foundation. This, too, is intended to open up dance practice to interdisciplinary cross-ventilation, though performer Rajyashree Ramamurthi says neither she nor her collaborator Susanta Mandal look on dance and visual art as very different disciplines: “There’s a performer quality in his work and a design quality in mine.” Their collaboration is a fascinating interplay between two bodies constructing a space through movement, objects and light, which reflects Mandal’s interest in geometry as “a kind of visual description of movement.”
Another collaboration between performer Rajan Rathore, who brings a b-boy background to contemporary practice, and artist Anpu Varkey, the muralist behind the Shahpur Jat cat and other recognizable works of public art, including Delhi’s towering Gandhi, responds to the suffocating city. And the third, between performer Surjit Nongmeikapam, whose work speaks with incredible clarity about state violence, and Kartik Sood, who paints hallucinatory landscapes, looks at dreams.
Along with a bouquet of performances, there are masterclasses open to both amateur and professional performers, film screenings, an exhibition of archival photographs of the legendary performer-choreographer Chandralekha curated by Sadanand Menon, the launch of a unique handbook on contemporary dance practice in India, and a three-day conference that presents an opportunity to dip into various discourses around dance today. There’s even a satellite festival in Jaipur. (Details on tickets and registration at ignitedancefestival.com)
Besides the breadth of programming, the move to an intimate new space, the Oddbird theatre in Chhattarpur, also signals a shift in the festival’s personality—or perhaps a desire to seek out an audience past the stuffy auditoriums of Mandi House.
So who is the audience for all of this? I’d say anyone interested in dance as more than just pretty athletics will find something in the festival’s programming to surprise, perturb or move them. Or, in fact, anyone interested in any of the ideas being considered through the festival. Pressed by me to spell out what makes contemporary dance a particularly good forum for conversation, Raikhy offers that there’s a particular pleasure to watching an idea “unfold” in space and time.
I totally agree.