Visa problems were not exactly what Dance Umbrella director Emma Gladstone had in mind when she called her festival’s triple bill of Indian contemporary dance Out of India. But that’s what besets an early performance in Barcelona of one of the pieces, Surjit Nongmeikapam’s Nerves. The night before the performance, administrative delays mean that none of Nongmeikapam’s group have arrived. The theatre staff and I collectively cross our fingers, hoping they’ll make it out of India in time.
The four dancers arrive in Barcelona the next morning and go straight to the theatre from the airport. Nongmeikapam remains in India awaiting a visa stamp. His performers hastily rework the piece without him, and none of the Barcelona audience is any the wiser. In fact, they are very appreciative – apart from a few who clearly expected something “more Indian” (stylised gestures, rhythmic footwork, gilded costumes, ancient myth and such like) from Nongmeikapam, and from the new piece by another contemporary choreographer, Hemabharathy Palani, which also features in Out of India.
That implicit attitude, that there is a dichotomy between Indian dance and contemporary dance, is one that both choreographers have encountered before, inside and outside India. Palani – a small, bright-eyed dynamo of a dancer – tells me that she learned classical Indian dance as a girl, just because it was something that girls do. (She was actually more into athletics.) Yet it was only after training in contemporary dance at Bangalore’s Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts – one of the main centres for contemporary dance development in India – that she felt she could become more fully herself.
“Contemporary dance is not a form, it’s an approach,” she says. It’s “like an amoeba. The boundaries change and stretch”. This elasticity of style underlies her solo, Trikonanga, which was developed during a residence at the Ballet National de Marseille. “Next to these beautiful ballet dancers, I felt really alienated. It is such a different language from the ones I learned as a child.”
Contemporary dance became her bridge between classical Indian dance and classical ballet. Trikonanga fluently combines the pointed foot of ballet with the articulated fingers of bharata natyam and the malleable spine of contemporary dance.
While Palani’s approach comes from an investigation of style and form, Nongmeikapam’s is rooted in the society and psychology of his home state, Manipur. “I wanted to show something,” he tells me via Skype (he never did make it to Barcelona), “about what is happening in Manipur.” Since 1958, the north-eastern state has been subject to the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) act, which licenses repressive control by the Indian army of a region that has become riven with insurgency. “There has been war for as long as we can remember. There are curfews and blockades. Interrogations, gunfire, torture and violence. It has been a trauma for everyone in Manipur.”
The criterion that Nongmeikapam used to select the performers for his all-male piece Nerves was not that they were dancers (none of them looks like a dancer), but that they were Manipuri. In fact, with the exception of a self-taught street dancer, none had previous dance experience: one was a musician who thought he was being invited to play rather than dance; another was his administrator, who ended up participating in the performance. What they had in common was their lived experience of Manipur.
Nongmeikapam focused on a single axis: the body-mind connection (hence the title of the piece). He wanted to embody the fears and frustrations of the people of Manipur. “I chose simple movements,” he explains, “like walking, or basic steps from folk dance, and we played with the emotional impulse. We also started to work with the imagination: how can we show people that we are suffering, not just by moving but also by staging? So I introduced props such as shoes, threads, sticks. But it’s not about what we do, it’s about the connection from the inside. I also wanted anyone to be able to understand it, or at least feel it – not just dance audiences.”
His performers speak of the importance of the piece in their own lives. “War had become normal,” says Rajkumar Roseen Singh. “It affected our minds, our bodies. We felt paralysed.” Hence the value of remaking the body-mind connection? “Yes! In this choreography, the steps are not intricate, but we feel free with our expression. If the steps are fixed, the mind is fixed too. Contemporary dance brings ideas of freedom and exploration – and they are the opposite of our reality.”
Different Indian realities are the concern of Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, the third choreographer on the Out of India programme. Like Palani, he graduated from Attakkalari, though without any previous formal dance training. His work is focused on social conditions, but his approach and subject are very different from Nongmeikapam’s. NH7 – the male duet that he will present at Dance Umbrella – is named after the 1,500-mile highway that runs like an artery from north India to its southern tip, which Shivaswamy uses as a metaphor for social hierarchy, the dancers changing from urbane professionals to site foremen to lowly labourers. “NH7 deals with capitalism in India,” he tells me via Skype. “As I travelled in India, I could see frantic building work everywhere. Every time there is a development, there is a huge migration of labourers taking to the trunk roads. Of course, there’s always an argument for development, but let’s go deeper: let’s look at how the body reacts; at what is the hierarchy, the place of the person with money and the person who is a farmer.”
Again, contemporary dance was the approach he found best suited to his purpose. “I needed to look at the body as body, movement as movement,” he says, “not as defined by someone else’s aesthetic.” The piece was developed from everyday actions: there are no formal hand gestures, no folk steps. “Dance audiences sometimes questioned the style, but when we performed in villages, people didn’t worry what kind of dance it was: they could relate to the story. It opened up a lot of conversations there, and that was very precious for me.”
I ask him the same question I had put to Palani and Nongmeikapam – do people think that contemporary dance is somehow not Indian dance? – and he responds with the same eye-rolling recognition. “My work is as Indian as I am,” he replies. “That is all I can say. It’s work from India. Does that mean India as a whole? Of course not. Sometimes westerners want my work to be more ‘Indian’ and I’m like: what is that? We’re in the same world as you.”
Not just westerners; Indians too. I am reminded of the curious commonality between conservative Indian cultural nationalism (much on the rise in recent years) and post-hippie western romanticism: both invest heavily in their own notions of Indian culture, and can be censorious of India’s far more multiplicitous realities. Contemporary dance, with its stretchy boundaries and nonconformist values, often bypasses ideas of national culture altogether and roams more readily between the individual, the local and the international. Granted, it’s no use in processing a visa, but it helps these choreographers cross other borders.