Last month, at the Alliance Francaise of Madras, as part of Basement 21's (a collective of contemporary dancers in Chennai) Encounter series, Chennai-based, US-born contemporary dancer, Sujata Goel premiered her latest solo, Dancing Girl, to a small but focussed group. Earlier, in December 2011, at Danse Dialogues (a dance platform that aimed to present Indian and French contemporary dancers), she had presented the solo as a work-in-progress.
Dancing Girl is a very personal creation and through it, Sujata attempts to deconstruct her own image, specifically as a dancer. In this interview with Akhila Krishnamurthy, she discusses her work in detail and also touches upon aspects of her own training in both the classical and the contemporary, in India and in the Western world.
Akhila Krishnamurthy (AK): Last December, at the Danse Dialogues in Chennai, your latest solo, Dancing Girl was a work-in-progress. You showed it in Chennai last month. How has it evolved in the last six months?
Sujata Goel (SG): At the Danse Dialogues' show, the material was there; the concept was starting to emerge but the structuring and editing of the material still needed to be worked on in order to make clear what I was trying to say. So for the past six months I have been working on these aspects. I also wanted to re-do the sound for it to be much more minimal.
AK: From a choreographic point of view, has this re-working process been useful?
SG: I have learnt through this process how important it is to control the aesthetic and form. You have to know where and how to push and pull, how much to add and subtract, how to balance the ingredients in order to keep the spectator engaged. Making the decision to continue working on the piece and not just leaving it as it was at the earlier show, was an extremely educational experience for me about choreography.
AK: Tell us about the Dancing Girl; what was the inspiration behind this creation?
SG: There were many things that inspired the work. I think it's important for a performer to reflect on his/her sense of self at some point in the artistic process. Performance is a medium where it is really easy to get stuck inside of your body, self-image, and not be able to see outside of yourself, which is a very dangerous zone to be in as an artiste. I felt that I needed to make a solo work where I was forced to look at myself at a very deep level, deconstruct my own image, confront it, in order to understand it, and perhaps move beyond it.
AK: Can you describe the form and content of the Dancing Girl?
SG: The piece is very much about deconstructing my own self-image, specifically as a dancer. I tried to reveal different layers of my own personal, physical and psychological identity as a dancer, but through a very stylized, gestural and codified form, as a means through which to subvert that identity. I also used this image and reference of 'the dancing girl of Mohenjo-Daro' from which a lot of images and movements in the form are derived from and developed. The placement of my own personal identity into this historical image set up the mechanism of subverting it rather efficiently.
AK: Tell us how...
SG: This image of 'the dancing girl of Mohenjo-Daro' is metaphoric on many levels. For one, it represents the ancient, classical, Indian dancer, yet at the same time, the image is hyper-modern. The pose, the posture, the expression on her face, the angle of the head... she certainly doesn't come across looking shy and submissive; she seems rather confident and sometimes even a bit cynical. She doesn't look like she is not aware of her sexuality or doesn't understand it; she seems in control of it. So the image for me is almost the perfect critique and exposure of the hypocrisy of this rather conservative, middle-class, aspirational morality system that has come to define the culture and thinking of the classical dance world.
AK: You developed this work as part of a year-long residency programme at the Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts Research, Pondicherry. What were the learnings from that space?
SG: I was at Adishakti on a subsidized residency for more than a year; in that I was able to stay there on campus as a guest artiste. I did not create the piece there however. I worked alone out of a dance studio called New Creation Dance Studio in Auroville. Staying at Adishakti as a resident artiste was very insightful in terms of what it means to work as an artiste in a non-urban world. There is a very different kind of force that has to drive you than what you have in a city. One has to be even more self-structured and self-determined to keep one's process productive and relevant. I liked being there and going through that process, being forced to put together my own isolated, physical and mental artistic regime.
AK: Does the Dancing Girl have autobiographical references?
SG: Yes, I used my own history as a dancer as a point of reference from which to start to build the form. I have trained extensively in the classical dance, Bharatanatyam. Later, I had to undergo initial ballet training when studying at PARTS in Brussels. I have been exposed to Indian and Western contemporary dance forms, and have also grown up watching, performing and teaching a lot of film dance. I think all these references are clear in the piece when you watch it. On a psychological level, I reflected on the way in which my identity as a dancer had taken shape since my young age. Most dancers start training from childhood and often times grow as people and dancers with the sense of being objectified. Bharatanatyam, being the training form most deeply rooted in me, this persona of the doll was therefore a big reference I used as part of the form.
AK: There is also a great deal of breaking down and fragmentisation of the body, especially in the opening seven minutes. Is that a prelude of sorts to what the work attempts to communicate?
SG: Yes, I think the first section, where the audience experiences the visual of the body in a very fragmented way, where it appears and disappears, where you don't know where it is in space, or at least that illusion that is being communicated, is a kind of introduction to this notion of a broken, fragmented self on a larger conceptual level. The work tries to deconstruct and reconstruct who I am as a performer. It questions, uses, subverts the subject-object nature of the medium. So I think there are layers of fragmentation - whole, broken, fixed, dysfunction, function, embedded in the layers of the form.
AK: As a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, how easy was it for you to make the departure from that space?
SG: It was quite easy in that when I first realized that I could no longer relate or identify with Bharatanatyam as a form anymore, I was determined to find other spaces of dance, and was not afraid to do what I needed to do to find them. For example, in my last year, when my frustration intellectually and politically as a student at Kalakshetra reached a certain point, I began searching out other dance cultures and movements within the city, while continuing my studies there. I met Chandralekha briefly but finally began working with Padmini Chettur.
AK: You have worked extensively with her (Padmini Chettur). Has her grammar and vocabulary in dance influenced you? If yes, how?
SG: Yes, Padmini Chettur was the first contemporary choreographer and teacher I had; the first one who really exposed me to a world of thinking not just about dance but art as a modern phenomenon. In terms of grammar and vocabulary, any dancer who works with her in a committed and consistent manner will gain a knowledge and understanding of movement and the body which is probably one of the most refined knowledge in the field. The beauty of her work, style and form is the ability to communicate something extremely profound through the least possible means. It is truly minimal and this is a principle that I believe is fundamental in creating art.
AK: You are a Diploma holder from the prestigious contemporary dance institution, PARTS (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios), Brussels, Belgium. How did that training cycle help you in your discovery of the contemporary world?
SG: Being at PARTS as a student meant you had access to the best technical information at least with regard to Western contemporary dance forms plus ballet. Also being in Brussels meant that one could see so much more work. It is the hub for contemporary dance. My situation as a student there was very particular, mainly, because I was the first Indian student they had accepted into the school, and also because I was coming there as a dancer who had been extensively trained in both classical and contemporary dance. However, the power dynamic that I was confronted with by the institution was that of having to catch up. In that context I realized that my training had no real relevance because no one knew the forms or recognized the histories that the aesthetics were rooted in. It was a tough battle to try to take on an entire context, try to present my politics, as a young 25-year-old. But I knew I needed to stay on in order to make it work because the means were not available in India. I tried to address the frame that I found myself placed in, the issues and politics that challenged me there and in the work that I began to make.
AK: Between 2006 and 2008, you created your own work, Disco Dancer, a conceptual piece adapted from the Bollywood film, Disco Dancer. It strived to explore representations of sexuality and stardom in Indian popular culture. How different was it from The Dancing Girl?
SG: Disco Dancer was a first look into some of these representations of sexuality and stardom in Indian popular culture. It was a short piece, approximately ten minutes, and employed a simple process- a reconstruction of the dance from the film, at least to the extent that it was possible. The idea behind it was more important than the technique or form. It was inspired by conceptual and performance artists from the sixties who attempted to critique the institution of art and notions of high art.
Akhila Krishnamurthy is a freelance writer based in Chennai. She writes extensively on the arts - music, dance, theatre, in that order - and the people who make the arts happen.