A LUNCHTIME CONVERSATION AROUND SOME KEYWORDS BETWEEN CHOREOGRAPHERS PREETHI ATHREYA, SUJATA GOEL AND TAREK HALABI WITH ITALIAN FOOD PREPARED BY AN INDIAN COOK IN SALZBURG
by Daniel Aschwanden
corpus: Shall we eat and then talk or shall we eat and talk?
All: Let's eat and talk...
corpus: You are working in the context of "Indian dance" and you are the youngest generation of choreographers. I´m very interested in your viewpoints from "within" and to trigger the talk, want to offer some keywords, the first of a series being:
Preethi Athreya: That's almost what my work is about right now. It has very much to do with the way you experience time. When making this work I was reacting to the idea -- I don´t know if Sujata would agree -- that of all of the classical dance [of India] is so jammed and packed with sound and noise and music, that there is very little space for any kind of silence to come in. I began by thinking that I want experience time as much as possible, to experience just the present moment and not to always be thrown forward into some other time-space by references of any kind. I wanted to clear the work of any other references other than just being there, at that moment. That was the very particular relationship to time that I wanted to bring into the work.
Sujata Goel: I guess in a sense, with the solo that I presented, it's actually still a work in progress, that within the work, I was approaching the idea of time. I was interested in looking at how images can be seen very quickly, kind of in a cinematic sense: lots of repetitions of the seen image, sort of in the spirit of the 24 frames per second. How that starts to work . But I don´t know why particularly I wanted to come back to a kind of moving quicker. It has to do with something I thought to try and explore also with very short movements. I guess I wanted to approach how I felt, still with this memory of classical dance in my body, which for me was always very much like an animated sensation. So I started to think of how time works within animation and then looked at how movement is constructed in Bharatanatyam and then I started to find it was very much like film. So I started looking at how time and film are related. That was a topic in my exploration. It was more of an idea than a kind of research work into time. I didn´t really think of these things for "Disco Dancer."
Tarek Halabi: Thinking about another sense of time, the interesting is that in the solo, Sujata has this kind of robotic movement which I very much link to an 80's framework. And then you have these disco moves: just thinking of time in a different sense than in the space of seconds -- much more about time periods, and the fact that the work is shown in a contemporary kind of dance context and that it's pretty accurate.
Sujata Goel: The idea was to look at these old styles and what happens when you are re-contextualizing aesthetics from a different context or style or time period. Especially with something that is just sort of trashy, like here [in Disco Dancer] it was just about what happens when you contextualize movement from a B-movie and put it on a theatre stage. How do people react to that?
corpus: This connects already to the next pop-up which I see somehow connected:
Tarek Halabi: I was wondering why there weren't any classical types of dance being shown as part of this festival, to see from where dance in India has gone and is going.
Preethi Athreya: But this wasn't like a kind of chronological recollection of dances. The focus was on what's happening now.
Tarek Halabi: I thought it would be interesting to see the different directions that dance in India has taken.
corpus: In a certain segment, the line of dance reaching out from Chandralekha, we could say it is shown. In the music programming, it's different. The festival presents very traditional music. But how do you relate to these terms in your personal work?
Sujata Goel: In the end, whether you have studied Bharatanatyam or something else, it's all coming from life, there is no separation...
Preethi Athreya: My idea was not clearly to make any kind of abrupt break or divide, but rather to see the work as fairly poetic and as a context I still have the same performance context from India. The whole idea was simply to have the same sensibility going through each work, whether you perceive it as a classical work or other. How an audience is affected is still very much the same for me.
Sujata Goel: I don´t know how productive it is to think in categories of how traditional is this or untraditional. These are just notions: tradition, modernity... they are not necessarily two extreme ends.
Preethi Athreya: It also becomes a question of your personal favorite points of departure. And it does not necessarily have to be translated in a context wider than your own.
Sujata Goel: When thinking about Bharatanatyam in particular, or any Indian dance, theatre, or folk theatre, it's very local somewhere. And that's interesting to me: to tap into very local spaces. That's where the second piece comes from, everybody knows "Disco Dancer," the movie. The story
of the street guy coming up, becoming a star, a hero. It's very popular. That spirit was something that I was interested in. And it's also something very traditional, in a sense, particularly with Indian
traditions of dance and theatre forms. I just enjoy looking into B-movies.
corpus: That's raising the issue of
Sujata Goel: You can think of it like that. What happens if you bring a style back into these times? It becomes a stylistic exploration. But the idea was to test our audience's reaction to this thing. What are people's relationships to art these days? And if you go to the theatre, questions like attention span, simplicity, hyper-image.
Preethi Athreya: I just realized how our considerations have a lot in common, but we are coming at them from completely opposite ends of the spectrum. This notion of audience reaction was also very much what I had in mind. And I have this huge gap of absolute silence - both in terms of movement and music. The idea was to see how people would accept that silence, how calm or how irritated you could become with it. It's always so different, in every performance. And there is some reason for me to do the work precisely for that, in the sense of that urgency which you can sense, in the sense of the concentration with time.
Sujata Goel: That's interesting: that you approach it from almost letting it become a challenge for the audience. How do I deal with this notion of having to concentrate? Our approach is a bit more cynical. People's attention span has clearly changed through the times we live in. It's a bit shorter
now. After I have been working with a choreographer like Padmini Chettur, and her work is very intense, slow motion... now I´m just trying to come at things from very different points and angles, different ideas. Probably I would get into a lot of trouble with her about it.
corpus: That seems to be the moment: Let's talk about...
corpus: ... in the address of form, of method, of time. Where do you look for friction, and with whom?
Sujata Goel: I'm working a lot with very simple cliché-codes - an approach which is departing quite a bit from the kind of work I was doing before I left Madras. But we are looking at those things, the idea of participation -- very literal signs and symbols that an audience can read. Almost like the example of going to see a (mainstream) movie, you can follow the plot. These ideas became interesting for me to approach again. Telling a story or narrative, this is what I´m really preoccupied with, especially in the field of dance.
Since Modernism, the idea of the narrative became completely dropped and replaced by abstraction. This had a certain function during a period of time and even still can have it, depending on how you approach it, but how does it connect also with this notion of time? I´m afraid to say it, but it seems really difficult for people to connect to more individualistic, psychological art which comes from that period of Modernism. I think it's hard to do and that's where I came to the point of thinking how do we re-approach the idea of narrative in dance. Of course in Bharatanatyam, which was my training, it was very much like bibidiidiii, let's get to the point, telling a story in a way that people can read it, can have some reference points. This became very important to me in the kind of work that I´m developing.
Preethi Athreya: When I think of friction, there are a whole lot of things I´m realizing. For example, it only makes sense for me to do work living in Madras. I don´t think I would be making any solo work if I were to live anywhere else in the world. I need to insist on saying something outside of Padmini's work but I´m still working with her. This need to completely neutralize oneself and to crystalize whatever into a very particular image, and not to read too much meaning into it, is the way
we have been approaching work with Padmini and I´m still doing that. Whereas I have not been going through Chandralekha's training, I talked with her, I met her, we knew each other well, when she was still alive. I have been trained by one of her dancers in martial arts but not performance. I´ve never worked with her as a choreographer, so for me the sense of the traditional form is not something that has shaped my body in the same way it has shaped Padmini's body. So there's some friction I find which feeds the work I´m doing now because it still has some vestiges of the form.
When I look at the other points of friction, I recognize that our ways of holding our hands or keeping a flexed foot only reads in a particular way and I don't want to attach greater symbolic meaning beyond that. So what you were talking about as abstraction I very much feel that I´m working with. And it makes sense in the context I´m in. I have no idea what I would be doing if I were living in Europe or New York. I would probably be fed by a completely different energy and may not even be making any work. That whole need of telling a story but without a narrative. But any amount of work with form, any amount of experimentation with form is very necessary with dance because there´s such a lack of trying to go forward. There is no real forum for articulation.
corpus: Seen from an outside point of view there really seems to be this spiral movement of developments in time. We have Chandralekha and Padmini denying the narrative in the form, and then you are taking Bollywood as a model, bringing back the narrative that has been in Bharatanatyam. Bollywood could also be seen as a gigantic recycling machine. And there it is popping up:
Sujata Goel: Yes, looking at the piece "Disco Dancer" and Bollywood film, dancing also raises these questions of originality which were a concern for me. What does it mean to be original? I was quite affected by the medium of film and cinema. I´ve been exposed to it all my life. You can go and see a film in India and years later people are still singing the same song and are still doing the dance moves - so that's already traditional in a sense. It's changing all the time because it's living on with another generation. So this is an idea of interpretation in a very classical sense to me, like Tarek is doing "Disco Dancer" now and it's a movie from 1982. So you can think of it as a kind of originality. Again I´m coming back to that issue of pop culture and what does that mean? Like a way of working: reinterpretation, deconstruction. I was feeling a lot of relief from it.
corpus: There is another Pop Up:
corpus: Identity in the field of art, in local identity, in relation with global identity...
Preethi Athreya: India is not at all a geographical thing anymore, it has to exist at a multiplicity of levels otherwise it's so flat that there is no identity at all.
Sujata Goel: I definitely don´t identify with one particular frame of India or America or now Europe. I cannot think of it like that at all.
Preethi Athreya: I´m actually reporting what I was going to say about my dance teacher ... the sense of aesthetic and the value that is placed on dance no matter how much new work is being produced, those values still belong, I think, to the national movement. You know the movement for independence in India which was accompanied by this need to define an Indian classical dance identity. And therefore we are just as opposed to that. We moved, we moved away from those centrifications.
Sujata Goel: This I find interesting then. If this is no longer the question that we should be preoccupied with, that we are this as opposed to that. When I was in Madras it used to frustrate me on a level that this somewhere still seems to be the question.
Preethi Athreya: All I´m saying is that we have to ask questions beyond that. And I think a lot of work that gets done in India that is reluctant to move forward is also because of what the tourism
industry imposes upon you. It's very convenient to say "Namaste, Welcome in India." And from a host of co-productions and collaborations which cash in on precisely this exotica... Economically it is what pays, and I know many people who refuse to go forward because they have to earn what is paid.
Sujata Goel: Moving to Europe and also going to P.A.R.T.S.—and for you I´m sure going to "Laban"—you have to deal with certain questions of exoticism. It was something that became a part of my life on a daily basis. I was going to a dance school with all my classmates, and there was still this level of fascination. I don´t know if it's a certain degree of understanding of the Indian context or of dance forms but it's something I always felt that I needed to deal with. It's not a problem either: people are curious and they want to know and we have an exchange somehow. I give what I can. But I recognized after finishing school, related to the exotic, you also have to survive: Now I´m teaching Bollywood dance and Bharatanatyam in Brussels. It's part of the way I live there as an Indian dancer. I think it's fine and I find it sociologically interesting to use these formulas. And I try and figure out how I can sort of tweek it from within those systems that I´m working in. It became something that I had to integrate in my life and find ways to make it a positive thing.
Preethi Athreya: You become horribly isolated if you try to exclude yourself from what your context imposes on you as an image. You have to accept it and work with it at some level. But with Sujata it was interesting, when she came from America to India already she was like not the other both definitely ...
Sujata Goel: ...other. But even growing up in the States, we were this weird Indian family. We lived in Pennsylvania, with all those cows around us. It's the home of the Amish. I´m not Mormon but being the
other is something... Living in Madras, working in the Park Hotel, I was hired because of my American accent, it was this kind of "call center" vibe. In fact, it was much more extreme than dealing with the
issues in Europe and I had to quit after a while.
Preethi Athreya: Listening to you makes me wonder, I haven't lived in so many different contexts, but where you are is also where you are in the head, after time. And speaking of identity, I still live in Madras and I was born there, which is kind of a rarity in my childhood. The only way it is possible, is to constantly wear very different heads: I'm working with classical music in dance which has been for a long time the stronghold of the Hindu-Brahmin community which just co-opted the whole scenario. It just happened that I was born in such a family and the constant responsibility that is placed on you to carry things on in a certain way. And to want to stand against that, to stand outside of that is also a huge question of identity for me. That becomes the challenge of living in Madras and taking a stand. Perhaps radical, but not in a political sense, more in a social sense. It becomes sort of an antithesis of all that.
corpus: Some months ago a huge Indian multinational enterprise bought one of the most traditional steel producers of Germany, not a small enterprise at all. These things appear nearly invisible but they happen and they change structures, change economical landscapes. What about a next popup?
Preethi Athreya: Suddenly the whole India-China festival seems to make sense from that point of view. Both economies are booming at the moment. All over the world... the biggest business houses owned by Indians...
Sujata Goel: And I think that in this field of art and dance conceals a similar pattern. That's also why after P.A.R.T.S. and Brussels you can survive with it and everyone goes: "Now is the time, now is the time!" and you recognize, how political all is. When we were invited to work in China, for example, it was very easy to get support because it's all about China right now. Whereas, when we wanted to do work in India for a while as part of the project, it was more of "We don´t have subsidies right now..."
Preethi Athreya: I feel as if India as a nation has not been left alone long enough to develop it's own sense of modernity, for dance especially. If you keep increasing the number of encounters it forces the aesthetic in a particular way, which I´m not opposed to, but I feel the time now for India is to really kind of develop it's own voice and it's not happening. And it's not happening with these Michel Laub productions and similar productions... Somewhere it's about who calls this art. And it works fine to stay in a certain kind of Indian-ness that has been falsified, which does not allow an organic kind of a development...
Sujata Goel: I think India will take its own course of modernity.
Preethi Athreya: It is slowly.
Sujata Goel: It's still a fact that it's dictated by the West, by Europe. We get infrastructure and support.
Preethi Athreya: But I´m still routing for...
Sujata Goel: The home scene?
Preethi Athreya: Yes, in a funny way yes, the home scene to work irrespective of what comes your way, by way of support or infrastructure.
Tarek Halabi: But going back to something you said before, about to be in Madras making work on your own, going through your own development. For me it was the total opposite. If I had stayed in the United States, there´s no way I would have been making my own work. It just wouldn´t have happened. But immediately when I came to Belgium, and again it becomes this whole thing of exotification, the first work I made was about my Palestinian-American identity and my forthcoming to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the fact that a lot of Europeans are Pro-Palestinian made it possible for me to say something, and I was supported in that environment and able show the work and keep performing it and it has taken on this life of its own. I would be scared to death to go and perform it in the States. I know the reaction to it would be completely the opposite. And maybe the work was also a reaction of mine to living so many years in the States as an Arab-American. So it's interesting that you say it's Madras, where you are able to work.
corpus: Referring to what you said before about this Indian-ness not being something geographical - so even Indian-ness is multilayered. Where it comes from is something personal and it can shift. And it definitely could extend beyond biopolitics.
Sujata Goel: We, for sure, cannot just continue to say we are colonized, we are colonized, we have to integrate that into the identity. It is happening, within these frames that are constructed, there is work happening. What we are trying to do, coming out of that underground movement in Madras, is to deconstruct the frame with the work. And that's doing something. That's the modernity. And this whole Indian festival kind of thing, it has given me a lot of opportunities, I can't keep complaining about it.
Preethi Athreya: Apart from that, I would say that it is stronger for your work to be shown in as many different contexts as possible. It does something to the work to be playing it in as many different
scenarios as possible. Like you told me that you played "Disco Dancer" in a club for example.
Sujata Goel: We took that into consideration when making it. We want this piece to be localized. We can do it in the street, we can do it in the theatre. How can something happen to make a piece like that? This was part of the challenge to make it...
corpus: These were the major pop ups, would you want to set another one?
Preethi Athreya: All I would say is I´m trying to figure out the shifts coming out of this identity culture thing and a new traditional movement, with Bharatanatyam and forms, how can we reintegrate all
these things, re-approach them?
corpus: It triggers the thought that in contemporary dance the physicality, the being in the body now revolves around various traditions, and you can be quite free in choosing methods and using them.
Sujata Goel: It becomes quite grammatical. For example, I had to learn ballet. I remember being formalized about it, like not being European I would never learn it. I was afraid of it. Only then I started to encourage myself, you are trained as a dancer, it's just another code. And approaching dance forms from Europe or America or Postmodern, modern, ballet, Bharatanatyam became very grammatical, another way of approaching dance.
Preethi Athreya (°1976) Master of Arts, Dance Studies, Laban Centre London. Master of Arts, English Literature, University of Madras. Training: 1982-1991, Bharatanatyam - Dhananjayans, Chennai, India. Performance: 1991-2001, Dhananjayans, C.V.Chandrashekar, Leela Samson. 1996-2007, Padmini Chettur. Choreographic solo work: Kamakshi (2003), Chennai, India; Inhabit (2006), Chennai, India, L'Alliance Francaise; Dialogue (2007), work in progress, (collaboration with Tobias Sturmer), L'Alliance Francaise. Publication: L'Inde à fleur d'âmes, a book of paintings by Marion Lesage, text by Preethi Athreya translated in French by Phillipe Beaudoin; published by La Martinière, Paris, July 2004; Total Masala Slammer, a review of a European multi-media dance production, provisionally accepted for publication by the Dance Research Journal, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, June 2004.
Sujata Goel Select Dance Education: Performing Arts Research and Training Studios (P.A.R.T.S.), Brussels, Belgium; Diploma, Contemporary Dance, 2004-2006. Kalakshetra: Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, Madras, India; Bharata Kalanjali, Madras, India. Performance at Padmini Chettur Dance Company, Madras, India: Lead Dancer, 2001-2004; Paperdoll, 2004; Fragility, 2001-2003. Select Choreography: Disco Dancer, Duet, Brussels 2006; Dream Date, Solo, Brussels 2006; Night Beats, Duet, Brussels 2005; Lady, Solo, Brussels 2004.
Tarek Halaby °1980 in Riyad, is a Palestinian-American performer based in Brussels. He is a graduate of The University of Iowa where he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance Performance. For three years he lived and worked in New York dancing with various companies and independent choreographers. Tarek completed the two year Research Cycle at P.A.R.T.S. in 2006. Together with Sujata Goel he is aiming to develop the duet Disco Dancer into a full-length performance with working title: Night Life. Tarek Works (touring 2007); Love. Death. My life with Ting-Yu. Oh wait, I am you. (01.12.2007, Genk); wp Zimmer MIX (01.12.2007, Genk).