Subverting an ancient dance form to tell stories, old and new
Dance is a universal language whose means of communication is bodily motion, posture and gesture. It is a set of movements strung together like syllables composing a word, words composing a sentence, sentences composing a story. The more expressive each movement, or syllable, the more expressive the series of movements, or sentence; the more meaningful the story, the higher its emotional impact.
Just as movement is cross-cultural, so are dance forms rooted within specific cultural traditions, of which they can be their purest expression, bridging religious ritual and entertainment. Classical dance tends to combine set pieces to tell its stories. Performing a highly formalised dance tradition before an audience that is unfamiliar with its context and content can therefore be challenging. To those in the know, the performance is partly an enactment of familiar narratives—so a Bharatanatyam performance will retell a section of, say, the Ramayana. For others, a key is needed to unlock layered meaning. Therein lies the difficulty of conveying the multi-layered emotional power of traditional performance.
Preeti Vasudevan addresses this challenge head-on in her new performance, Stories by Hand, created in collaboration with multimedia artist Paul Kaiser, and premiered in November at New York Live Arts. As a New York-based contemporary choreographer trained in her native Chennai as a Bharatanatyam dancer, by way of Japan and the Laban Center in London, individual expression is what matters to her. At once at home in her Tamil roots and a citizen of the world, western contemporary dance is her element, even as Bharatanatyam inhabits her—like a habit she needs perpetually to break, in the name of what she calls “the basic need to move”. For contemporary dance allows itself freedom from set languages, formal subversion and narrative play.
As the performance opens, Vasudevan, seated on a bench, dressed in simple black practice apparel, has her back to us, intoning the Sita Kalyanam—telling the marriage of Sita and Rama, and sung at all South Indian weddings—a discreet but potent leitmotif throughout the performance. She then turns round, faces the audience, and declares, “I struggle with English. Tamil is my body language.” Language is at once expressed, designated and invoked as a boundary, an opaque structure. When she next launches into rapid-fire, cadenced Tamil, its sounds ricocheting through the theatre like music, the words understood only by its few speakers in the New York audience, the moment becomes infused with comic intent and effect. Language becomes wholly embodied, physical sound, transparent even as syntactical meaning is irrelevant.
The first part of the show is didactic. Vasudevan shows what hands do. Words are gestures, gestures are words, the ones expressing the others. The dancer looks at her hands as if they were separate entities, complete bodies that her words point to, giving them further meaning. Life is concentrated in hands and eyes, whose visible motions within their orbits aim at maximised theatrical effect, true to tradition. Ostensibly, the story she tells is that of the marriage of Sita and Rama, but this is not a Bharatanatyam performance. Kaiser is her “story extractor”, and for much of the time she is the centre of the narrative he helped her spin. She shows us how one can indeed tell a story through the hands— fingers, she says, are “the final point of delivery”—and enacts the contrast between verbal linearity and non-linear movement, leading us to ask, along with her: what does the movement reveal that the word indicates?
For dance is to body what music is to sound. Kaiser, along with his long-time collaborator Marc Downie (together they form the OpenEnded Group), invoked William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience for a site-specific installation at the Lincoln Center in 2007: “Not conceptual speech, but music rather, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth. Many mystical scriptures are indeed little more than musical compositions.” Some stories may be told whose ultimate meaning is not expressible through linear words. Such is the story to which ultimately leads Stories by Hand. Vasudevan takes us from mudras to short moments of classical dance, assisted by two women who dress her briefly in Devadasi costume, ready for the temple dance, tantalising us with its theatricality before shedding it, as the scene moves to Lahore, and the religious frame-work from Hindu to Muslim. Here is the tale of a courtesan’s dance performance perceived through a window that is shut as soon as the intruding onlooker is seen. There is also, significantly given the musical leitmotif, the story of a visit to her grandmother to tell her of the collapse of her first marriage, one of the familiar signposts for the construction of identity the audience is invited to take on, as embodied memory tells its tale while the telling simultaneously seems to unravel its coherence.
But there is coherence here, and the presence of words on stage makes sense of silent movement once she draws on stage, in chalk, the first rice flour kolam from her childhood, around a central point—simple lines that form a complex pattern. It takes within it and the white dust moves with her. She points to three of the eight cardinal points that make up space, and in which she takes up her own individual place, Shiva sitting in the north east, Yama in the south, Agni in the south-east. Linearity is disrupted, and time becomes movement. Now the dancer, alone on stage as she has been throughout even as she has populated it with her interlocutors, takes the audience to an unexpected story that dispels the levity she began with. The story is that of her cousin Karthik, whose marriage, celebrated with that starting chant, has the appearance of an idyll, beneath which a black hole lurks, leading to a total unravelling that leads to his killing his three children, his wife and her mother, before killing himself. Freely performing Shiva’s funeral dance of birth and death, the rice our becomes ash. A funeral chant in Sanskrit, “shanti, shanti, shanti”, may remind us, in its echo of TS Eliot’s last line in The Waste Land, how universal is the sense of an ending.
The continuity of tradition provides the guiding line throughout, but the narrative is all but linear. Hindu stories are not the point here, though the Hindu rituals of family life enrich experience and load memory. But what is represented is a self set up to prepare for a story where the centre does not hold, just as words cannot hold together the underlying meaning of an embodied narrative. Word and movement have become enmeshed in the world of contemporary dance, their combination capable of producing intense representations of trauma. This is how genres as well as languages enrich each other, and how the performing arts can help us remove barriers between cultures which turn out to be as evanescent as chalk dust.
This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2018 issue of The Indian Quarterly magazine.