To carry what?
Chennai-based choreographer Preethi Athreya’s latest work Conditions of Carriage started as a ‘jumping project’. The jumps were to take place in and out of a square pit created by late visual artist Dashrath Patel at SPACES, which is at present a venue for artistic practices and performances in Chennai. The process took off with an open invitation to performance practitioners from India and Srilanka. The current title came later from the tagline to be found in boarding passes for aircrafts. It can be seen as an ironical name for this work, because what this work deals with as ‘objects’ of carriage, are far from the dead weights, which are referred in the original context of this phrase.
In her process of searching for an “honest, functional body”, Preethi aspires to deal with not simply that body, but the mind behind it, and more interestingly as well as more abstractly what can possibly be called the ‘soul’ that dreams of and drives that body to fly in the air, or holds it firmly and almost wisely rooted to the ground. Even though this way of looking at bodies make the underlying process infinitely more complex than binary logic that machines are prone to follow, still, certain images in this work do imitate machines. Parts of this piece have been compared to ball-sockets, circuits, clocks, inside of a scanner and so on. But when one sees the work more closely, the humanness within those images of mechanical references can easily be found, and then the piece becomes beautiful.
One can get a glimpse of this idea around looking at the ‘soul’, that is, a certain humanization of the body in Preethi’s own words, from an earlier interview given to the Marg magazine:
“I chose to explore the physicality of jumping for many reasons. Foremost among them is the paradox contained in the act of jumping—a primeval impulse to escape and reach for freedom, while at the same time an expression of inevitable fall, being bound by the forces of gravity. Jumping does not allow anything but the truth of the body to present itself.”
If one looks at the simplified energy-graph, then Condition of Carriage does not try to propose a new or unique pattern—it is almost like an asymmetric upside-down ‘W’—with the left end starting at a lower-medium level, the elbow-like-point at the middle—silent but holding tension and empathy—does not come down as much as the starting point but almost there, and then goes up again, but not possibly to the highest point that it had already reached. The right end takes a long hyperbolic curvilinear time to gradually pace towards a complete low. It is a graph that has been tried and tested earlier in dance, or in art in general, and it works well, as it dos in this case too. The choice of the short but exhausting span of 45 minutes, through which the piece paces out, represents the idea of this graph in a succinct, bare-bone manner.
But a graph of her working process is far more complex and intriguing, and that hints on a proposal of—among many other thought-provoking things—a call for a certain collective existence, while keeping the individual human alive in every body—exploring the sustainability of carriage of real people not just floating in the air, but rooted in everyday complications and drudgery. As she says later in the following interview: “What is being ‘carried’ here is this coexistent plurality.”
I think, as opposed to what I said above, Preethi’s bodies can in fact be seen as luggage—not as a symbol, but in a concrete analogical sense. The luggage is not just a dead weight. The luggage a person carries can partially, quite efficiently define what she is. For example, (somewhat at the risk of sounding like Sherlock Holmes) an old toothbrush or a book, a vintage camera or a brand-new pair of shoes speaks volumes of their owner. This piece is also a lot about that kind of a very internalized, personal ‘speaking’. Through exploring concrete techniques that enable one to lift, turn, float, chase or fall, the jumpers get to communicate more and more closely to their own as well as each other’s bodies. And while they perform, the emphasis on an honest simplicity in the design and choice of movement in the work helps the audience to take part in that conversation.
This dialogue does not end at the performance. Instead, it is carried towards achieving a collectivity. For me personally, this remains the biggest attraction of this work, as I have been in and out of this work myself as a jumper and later as a tech-help, and thus have seen it developing not only through technical improvements, but human associations, which in case of this work becomes very apparent because of its undecorated, un-performative, close-contact nature.
I briefly discussed this proposal on a possible collectivity due to my own interest in that notion. But Conditions of Carriage in general addresses multiple other politics. For example, it speaks of the concepts of violence and empathy, of the co-option of art by the present capitalist economy and culture, and of the politics of the gendered body. These also play important roles in establishing this work as a contemporary, political discourse—especially in today’s world where appropriation and violation of body and intellect have become extremely complex. In possibly a defensive reaction to that, some days it feels as if we are losing our sense of community and shifting towards a fractured space, consisting of infinitely many closed, nuclear pockets of ideas and ideals. It is in this sense too that the proposal of democratic collectivity hinted in the process of this work is refreshing and can rightfully be seen as a form of contemporary expression.
It is the engagement of emotionality in this work in terms of these above points, and how to read them as an outsider, that initiated our conversation, as Preethi Athreya and I met right after the ‘jumping team’ got back from a short performance tour. We talked about the tools through which emotionality intentionally and unintentionally seeped in her form in this project, and also, how Preethi herself had observed this form transforming the dancers and in turn being transformed by them…
Question: Let me start with a question on your choice of form—the choice between theater and dance. I also want to talk about your choice of incorporation of sport, but I’ll keep that for later. Would you say that Conditions of Carriage is more like a dance, whereas some of your early, more text-based works could be seen more as theater? Although for me there is a lot of conversation and theatricality in this piece too…
Preethi Athreya (PA): Actually I don’t want to think of it this way, that I’m now using theater and now using dance. The place of the narrative and the text in some of my earlier works—it made sense there at that point, but if dance becomes a place of hiding behind the text, then that causes lot of loss of content for me. The eventual distancing from text in my own work was for me a ‘body thing’—not to do with the text itself as such. The tendency to use text comes from a very urban, social, representational practice that I too have been a part of.
In this project, I never tried to think about things theatrically. I did think of certain implications or symbolisms. I also had to think consciously about many sections whether they would it be done by two women, or a man and a woman, or a short body and a tall body or fat and thin—take for example, the satellite section. So I look at these larger readings, which are sort of automatic and to some degree I try to see if I can diffuse the clichéd responses to the best possible extent. Sometimes I do get caught by the reading.
The satellite section: A dancer charges towards another with full physical force and the latter keeps a steady pace, while avoiding the head-on collision only at the very last moment—both holding the other tied to her gaze. While this part has been tried out between a man and woman jumper or two women jumpers of different statures, it is now taken over by two women—both dancers, of similar stature, extreme agility and quite a deep sense of comfort and understanding about each other’s body and mind, having worked together for many years.
Q: You talk about these differences. But the current version of the work looks fairly gender-neutral I’d say.
PA: Jumping is indeed free of gender to the largest extent. But the more and more I perform it to various audiences, there is a certain implication that people read from the kind of bodies, placement of bodies.
Q: Have you talked to the audience about it?
PA: That’s a very wide question. Yes, everywhere. Most people read it from where they come from. Theater-persons read it as a narrative expression. And therefore, they also see it as something, to which further dimensions of that narrative expression could be added, but is now missing. For people coming from the ‘body side’ of things, many have come to me with a sense of being provoked. They feel pushed without relent because of the rigour and the immediacy. Also the way we move in the space has a sense of drawing endless patterns. So, it has got this quality of being an expression of physics. And yet there’s a contradiction because you have anatomy, which is not as scientifically coherent. You have fit and unfit bodies, efficiency and inefficiency. This contradiction also provokes and engages a lot of people from the ‘body side’. But we always have these conversations just after the show and that’s not when everyone has the language to articulate these things.
While we were practicing in Kalakshetra, C V Chandrasekhar came to watch. He said—“Of course it’s so physically difficult that my body hurts for you. But at the same time, I’m very moved, I don’t know why.” And that’s where he left it. Now that’s also something that people in Bangalore said after the show, that they had a cathartic feeing. In my reading of this kind of responses, I think this work manages to provoke a physical empathy. It’s because a certain type of physicality is chosen here. Not dance-moves. Though it’s a long argument what’s dance and what’s not. But somehow this jumping, running or walking are things that anybody can do. It makes it more approachable—to be empathized by. You know it in your body how it feels to jump 32 times—that’s how many times we jump in the opening section.
Q: So the possibility of empathizing comes from this entry point? Not the performativity so much, but this feeling close to this physicality for all ages and all backgrounds.
PA: Yes. But this catharsis—you probably shouldn’t feel from inside the piece what it does to the viewer. If you feel that then you can’t deliver. I also arranged the piece in a way so that there’s no time to think about what’s going on—even at the end part, which is apparently slower. There’s a lot of technique to think about and then there’s the need to feel the whole group. Still, the end part is the only time when I encourage dancers to look out to the audience. Rest, there’s no time. This deliberately takes away the hyper performativity that I’m contesting more and more in my work.
Though truth is a very debatable word, it is about the truth of the body. How do you reduce your self-consciousness? You may know a piece oh so well…like you can do it in your sleep. But if you do it in sleep it’s dead, so how to make it alive? You have asked me many times why this piece is so hard? The hardness for me also helps me to continuously rethink how to do it. Before the ‘horizontal section’, everyone is ready for the pain. There’s an extra grit…
Somewhere in the middle of the piece, this ‘horizontal section’ appears, in which the dancers move parallelly and haphazardly in quick and extremely tiring little crab-like steps—their backs arched, hands and eyes alert like a goalkeeper’s, but slowly gets glazed with the fatigue towards the end. On good days, this movement really seem to push and pull the space—almost like a bunch of insane stenographers in a frenzy of typing and randomly pushing the platens of their typewriters.
PA: So how do you bring a dance to life without submitting to the hyper-performativity and a hyper-aesthetic beauty. For me, this truth of the body is the most important thing. On that moment of jumping, you can only jump—the rawness is beautiful to watch. Of course jump can also be stylized, but you can’t do that in the structures around speed and coordination that we have.
That’s something we did right in the beginning. We had a whole bunch of jumps and turns from Kathak as there was a Kathak dancer in the team, we also had a whole bunch of jumps from Kandyan dance for the same reason. And I spent a lot of time thinking what would work! The root of the ideas came from the bodies that were present. For example, I initially thought of the ‘resistance jump’ solo for a particular jumper, who had that kind of a compact body that could grip the ground with the feet after landing lands. So somehow the bodies themselves contributed to how the work would look and develop. The functionality of the body—that was the key. And the effort to stay close to that functionality brought he honesty that I was looking for.
Q: Evocation of emotion in audience—this is not something that we can visually imagine, right? So can it be pre-conceived by the choreographer?
PA: The point is, the work must actually move you! It must not get lost in poetry, or protest. So for me, it was about where to take our physicality. Dramaturgically, by the time we come to the ‘horizontal-vertical’, you’re pushed to a certain exhaustion level—intentionally. After that it’s that two-by-two quick exchanges—leg-tough, knee-touch, shoulder-fights—challenging games that play with the duality between humour and anger, submission and cruelty, competitiveness and playfulness, exclusive ambition and inclusive encouragement, childish attention-seeking and complete rejection. In these games too, that exhaustion is important to keep.
Thus, by the time we come to the end of this sequences, you can barely stand. Then it brings you do the ‘hip rolls’—like a transition between the downward pull of the pit and the upward lift of the jumps. After that, even if you want to, you can’t assume an attitude of the body. You must take to the ground. and then it’s more still and more still and more still. It was all about vertical axis till now. So now it’s a preparation to embrace the horizontal axis.
With this kind of exhaustion, the vulnerability of the body comes to the fore. Dancers standing—you can see it in the eyes, neck, hand, sweat. Then comes the first point of real touch—the hug. This touch is not like the leg touch. It’s completely opposite of that. This is support, that’s challenge. That duality gets resolved in this.
This section of going into the floor—I remember that every time one of the dancers left the other on the ground, she was in tears. Something about the whole act of supporting and then letting go, was for her a very emotional thing.
But to see how you navigate that exhaustion in the work makes you very human. There are two types of physicalities here. One is a very compressed, springy kind of physicality. The other one is that of internally lengthened rootedness—constantly pitching against each other. That’s a challenge in this work.
Q: You are almost giving a partial answer to a question that I didn’t really ask, but I’m naturally curious to know your thoughts about it. The question is the most fundamental one: what is dance? If dance is physicality that moves people, then lot more things can be included in it. But in reality, many such things are not considered entitled to be called dance due to various hierarchies—traditional and contemporary.
PA: Now I’ve to consider the matter of physicality very, very carefully. I don’t trust it when it’s about what this physicality would symbolically mean. It is raw emotion in movements that intrigues me. I also avoid the symbolism to avoid a certain reading. For example, say a male dancer and I are doing the satellite duet. I put him in my place. and I remember him saying—“When you’re coming at me, it infuriates me! Because you come as if you want to hit me bang on. That brings my anger to the fore.”
It irritated him. And then the sexist man-woman reading could start to happen. When another woman dancer and I did it, I needed to be aware that I was taller than her, and broader. It might have given the audience a sense of bullying. And that’s when I decided to step out. So, man-woman has a reading, big-small has a reading, woman-woman will also have a certain reading, but that’s something I now have to live with!
Also sometimes these choices are not that profound, like the shorter you are, the more you can run in the pit, and I was covering it too quickly, affecting my momentum too frequently—losing the effect of a forceful charge. These are things I watch with interest, in this context, at this moment.
Q: Coming back to the emotional effect of these strategies and techniques—so then you do sort of discuss emotions with your dancers? Because you just talked about emotional responses of your dancers… Then why would you hesitate to discuss with them what the audience is expected to feel?
PA: I do discuss it in a technical way. The three hours of rehearsal is a very short time. But I talk to them during the classes. I talk to them about what I see as an outsider, as I step out often and watch. So in classwork, say while explaining the action of lifting the arms from the middle of the upper back, I talk about how that line of arms in a viewer’s mind has to begin looking like the biggest and the simplest line they know. It could be the cross, the latitude, or an architectural line—whatever image they could identify with. But whatever it is, start relating your geometrical proportions to everything around you. And that’s when physicalities begin to animate to a viewer. I talk about the biggest physical empathies that are possible. To date, nobody—neither dancers nor audience—has come and told me that this work reminded them of a particular ‘feeling’. But people come with the idea of being moved, and try to express through associating with familiar images. Usually these expressions they use are textural, material relating.
Q: I find it interesting that this comment somewhat talks about this work as a subject to visual arts. As Bhagwan said in Cholamandal after watching the show there, for him the vertical space was like a canvas, with the jumpers’ bodies like moving splashes of paint. How do you feel about such comparisons which brings in a certain decorativeness to the work?
PA: I do not deny it entirely. When you talk about visual arts, ‘painterliness’ is looked down upon. But if you talk to someone like Natesh, he would tell you the importance of decoration. The clarity of lines…you can’t take that away from expression. Natesh would tell you why decoration is very important in contemporary art. Because decoration has a certain cheekiness, joyfulness, even freedom…freedom of being beautiful, without having to justify that beauty, or to place it. When you think of beauty and the kind of reactions that beauty has had, and then the post-beauty period and what modernism has done to beauty and all that, then this idea of the decorativeness becomes very interesting. I find that decorativeness a very celebratory thing regarding the body. Maybe it’s even a South Indian thing! Or an Indian thing—small things—you know? Curves, lines, patterns, drawings…
Q: I even feel that you also have quite a tendency towards cheekiness in your work! Anyway, exploring this decorativeness—was that a reason why you started working with a large group? Also, many in this group come from ‘non-dance’ backgrounds. How does that fact pace out in this work?
PA: No, first of all, I wanted to see for whom this kind of physicality was interesting, so I needed to work with a group. And secondly I wanted to create a space where people from very, very different backgrounds could engage, despite having very different bodies, and feel equally empowered. I want to see what makes a community work. May be community is a big word. But what makes the work space come alive in a very human way, how far we could take this.
In terms of thoughts around bodies, I think, the need to do this very jumpy thing was to challenge myself first. I was seeing myself as a highly aestheticized person. I needed to challenge that. Also, many different injuries were showing up before all this started. Going into 38-39, I wanted to look at that too. What does it mean to be injured? What kind of body am I looking at? It is only through understanding my own body first I could propose this kind of a work to others. I put myself—long before I started working with any group—under training on footwork and other fitness things with Prabakaran—the boxing coach. Then Prabu and I were working with the actors in Magic Lantern—the theater group from which many of my dancers came. So we developed a certain kind of body training, drew a lot from each other and very nice confluences happened. In the beginning, there were a few Bharatanatyam dancers. We tried to understand the sense of timing from them. Our opening jump section is indeed like a ‘jathi’ in three speeds. We were learning how to notate, how to express…
I was just talking to a friend yesterday about this—that the idea of movement is not so new, so maybe it is unnecessary to label it. See, I never talk about ‘dance’ in this project. Because it would immediately alienate many of my ‘dancers’. Because dance has got this whole idea of beauty attached to it that many in my current group are not inclined towards. Also, it is one thing to understand movement intellectually, then try to remember it and perform it very consciously. But there are certain things that becomes an unconscious part. You need to have muscle memory for that.
If not dance, then what is contemporary dance?
So does this preoccupation with the body as well as the technique behind animating its large and small actions take away the contemporary relevance of a work such as this?
What is contemporary dance? In a literal sense, it can be a form which is not just being studied as a discipline, but being creatively explored, innovated, documented and performed at this present moment. But this might not be such a good definition after all, as we often wish to include some of the visionary artists from decades or even centuries ago as contemporary exponents. Artists, who may not even be alive today, but whose works are still extremely relevant in today’s world, thus contemporary.
Can it then be a form that in some sense speaks of contemporary socio-economic-politico-cultural issues? This might be a better definition, but it has a potential of jargonizing and over-theorizing dance as a physical practice. Also, coming to think of it, I might be a human being living in contemporary times, my body inhabiting this present world at this very moment; but am I or is my body expected to constantly prove the relevance of this presence by actively discussing media headlines? In all practicality, am I not somewhat allowed to take my contemporary existence for granted? After all, we are talking about a very tangible presence of a solid body, which is not so easily nullifiable.
On the other hand, my body indeed has the potential to associate with contemporary information in a literal sense. And it does so too, but without always pointing out the obvious, or sometimes without even intending to understand. The understanding may only come when one takes a moment out of the active body to ‘think’ about it. These layers of consciousness make an existence as well as a creative work interesting.
Can, for example, running be called contemporary dance?
As a somewhat simplistic example, let us imagine that I—an urban Indian woman—am running to catch a bus. I choose this instance not as a passing one, but with the conscious understanding that my body and myself have always been hesitant towards performing actions such as running (and jumping). Thus, it made a positive difference in my life once I went through my temporary association with Conditions of Carriage—a work that addressed this particular action extensively.
What could be the reason behind my hesitation about running? For example, if I ran, I could be running the risk of being perceived as violating ‘decency’, or I could be seen as a clown, or even an animal trespassing my territories—hence punishable. If now, from this perspective, I’m able to view the contemporary relevance of this particular action (running), I might be a step closer to ‘defining’ what makes a ‘contemporary body’, and hence to what contemporary dance could be seen as.
Running to catch a bus is one of my personally favourite and also quite frequently performed actions (despite all my hesitations). And I have often thought about it in many ways. So it tempts me into a little digression—three little stories, to be precise.
The first story comes from a novel. One of the interesting fictional women characters in Bengali literature that our generation of women sort of grew up with was Bishakha in writer Bani Basu’s novel Maitreya Jatak. Set around 400 BC, Bishakha is portrayed as a young, urban, upper-class woman with a strong mind and body. The part that I’m referring to is a small conversation between her and three other men regarding why she refused to run when a there was a sudden torrent of rain and everybody else in the road ran for shelters. “How would a royal elephant look if he suddenly started running at the middle of the road?”—Bishakha asked. The reply came—“Dangerous!” “How would a saint look if he did the same?” “Ridiculous! As saints were supposed to be calm and composed.” “Similarly”—Bishakha argued—“a beautiful woman could not just start running even if she needed to! Besides”—she wittily added—“can’t you see that my clothes were wet? Do you wish for me to get stuck in my own attire and fall?
It was not just those men, but even I—a young-adult woman reader—was by then head-over-heels in admiration for Bishakha—not simply because of her wit/wisdom, but probably more because of her ability to conjure an extremely interesting form of flirtation along with that. That synthesis of a bold but stereotypically feminine (coy and sly) flirtatious wit—was what I meant above by the rather limited word ‘decency’. I was referring to that composed but playful stereotype of a ‘decent Indian woman’, who just doesn’t run!
The image in the second story is even more strikingly clear to me as it comes from a graphic novel. Again, a very interesting woman character in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis—Satrapi herself. During the post-Islamic revolution period, an Iranian moral police patrol—a fag end of the morally conservative government—stopped her while she was chasing a bus, running late for her university. One of the guards gave her the reason for stopping her by saying that her ‘behind’ was moving in disturbing ways while she was running and that could not be allowed in public. Satrapi—infuriated—screamed: “Well then don’t look at my ass!”
The third story is not really a story, but rather a few observations on my own relationship with this action of running and in particular running to catch a bus—somewhat in context with both the above stories. Such as, my lack of confidence about running itself, or more precisely, preoccupation with my lack of speed and technique, my injured knee, the shame of a possible fall, the ‘disturbing movement of my behind’ and that of my breasts (thus my thoughts hovering on the adequate tightness of my undergarments), my aversion towards the external gazes—reflecting disgust/humour/greed (none friendly, all of them judgmental of my body in one way or other), the shame of missing the bus, the shame of being ignored by other (male) passengers who might simply refuse to lend me a hand if it tends to a last-moment miss, the same hands that might be groping my body as soon as I manage to ride the bus, the criticism of the conductor and other passengers at my effort (more frequent than what one would imagine) and so on. These thoughts are about certain hindrances to my physical and mental ability to run. But after a point, they themselves become the hindrance, adding to my already existing inabilities.
These are just a few among many, many other interesting associations—political, physical and a mixture of both—that can be made with this ‘performance of running to catch a bus’ in contemporary India. As an exercise, dear reader, you can just make a list of your own stories of politicizing the body—pick your favourite movement and allow your critical thoughts a free rein. As Preethi seems to have done for herself, by taking up ‘jump’, and later more such actions.
Coming back to where we had left our discussion on definitions, it may now seem clearer that even our everyday actions can be a source of immense confusion or empowerment, convoluted pains or pleasures—depending on how we choose to deal with them. Thus the body, the mind and their actions can be perceived as continuously interchanging elements that weave our relationship to our world. It is this particular fact that makes us contemporarily relevant objects. Contemporary dance is not far from that. It can be an expression that exists on its own accord, while having the potential of engaging with contemporary issues, but without necessarily addressing them as direct, obvious references. In this manner, life itself—along with its past, present and future—becomes a vast source of movements relevant to be considered as task, form or content by contemporary dancers—making contemporary dance quite an overwhelming, ever-expandingly thriving space.
Q: I feel that both movement techniques, and sense of time must become a dancer’s inherent quality—so much inside you that you don’t think about it anymore… I mean, don’t you think at some point you have to stop ‘thinking’ about the dance and just do it? Maybe that’s one reason why it is interesting to watch apparently simple everyday actions being performed, as one might naturally have those movements in their bodies to some extent.
PA: I do think so. And the viewer knows about the level of internalization, even if she can’t articulate.
Now the desire is to work towards making people understand that they need these things—not just for one project, but in the long run for everything they do. I’m not sure how to move forward with it, but somewhere the person receiving the instructions also must reach that point.
Q: Can you elaborate?
PA: I think I like teaching, I always have. But the thing about teaching is that every time you are teaching a person you have to sense her, because that person’s way of learning is going to be different. And then you have to continuously reinvent your ways. I think this is good for me, even though it’s tiring. The piece has been tiring with so many people coming in and going out at will. But I can’t in all honesty say that I haven’t enjoyed it. because somewhere I see the joy it brings them and that’s always a kick. Because ultimately it’s not just the body it’s also the mind. And the complicity of mind is what is important.
But now another question comes to my mind, which is—okay, so now we’re going to do these shows and be done with it. but there’s always interest to take this work forward. I don’t know how to manage this, what would be my expectations. Because once you take it as a product, rehearse for couple of shows, I feel it loses something. I need more from everyone. Skills that need to be developed. These are conversations to have. I don’t know how long I’d be able to do this. If not more than one or two people want to continue, then it would be a shame!
This project is the people. What is being ‘carried’ here is this coexistent plurality. If people can’t be out there and do it, I don’t see the point of it, so I don’t want this work to become anything less than what form it is now in. I would like to keep doing it live. And as you once said earlier, we could work with existing spaces—steps. But that would mean I’d need to spend time in that space. That’s not always feasible. There are financial and infrastructural issues to think about.
The choreographer’s conditions
The choreographic goal of Preethi verges on an anti-capitalist path, as she often quotes Ram Bapat—“How can we resist being consumed?” Having said that, she cannot really afford to embrace that path in all possible ways. A large faction of Indian contemporary performances still functions primarily within a comparatively elite, privileged circle. And we have got used to working within that setup, to build our expectations around that. Thus, even for Preethi it is not a very feasible option to abolish, say private sponsorship. Nor is it always practical to completely democratize the process of movement-generation or that of choreographic or aesthetic choices. Thus the movements in this work are largely imagined, placed and transitioned from one to another by Preethi herself, although as she mentioned, the ideas did come from an active participation of the bodies present.
But on the other hand, quoting Bapat again—“We have to keep our agency.” That is, we have to keep trying. And that’s what Conditions of Carriage does—Preethi says. What makes this work stand out in the Indian contemporary dance scenario is its refusal towards assertion of identity and certain standardized requirements of the dancer’s body—both in terms of physicality and ability, and in its ongoing search for a sustainable space based on equal exchanges.
I’m able to see it as a piece that is continuously and smoothly transforming, bending to the requirements of the present bodies and the minds that came along. Personally, it has been interesting to watch this group communicating with one-another and in that process building something that might have the potential of eventually becoming a collective space.
In such a democratic space, there is always a substantial loss of the choreographer’s pre-decided plans of achieving goals of aesthetic and intellectual perfection. What then becomes an alternate form of reward that keeps her going? It is not a question that can have a straight-forward answer. But I like to think that the answer lies in the difference between considering that goal of achieving those certain qualities as a sole primary, or a secondary, or a collective primary object. The idea here is to not take it as secondary, but a collective primary. It does come with its own set of compromises, but the rewards are possibly in the beauty of divided leadership, equal rights, friendship and an unforced communication based on willing participation in spite of adversities, such as lack of money! It also probably plays an important role in making a choreographer less lonely in her creative world.
Q: How has this project been in financial terms?
PA: This project has been made possible by the dancers themselves in the initial stages. Later on, we have had the support of the India Foundation for the Arts and the Alliance Francaise of Madras and SPACES. These institutional models of financial support do matter when it comes to performance, but when it is still in process, over several months of being formed and moulded, the pressure was on me to make the minimum conditions of work possible.
I wanted to pay the performers. It’s a big cast. But I didn’t want to bring the remuneration level down beyond a certain point. So my way of doing it has been sincerely asking everyone if they would be able to manage with this.
Q: But when you talk about having a community, in my experience, after a point, you do need a financial back up. At the end of the day, or a week, or a month, people need a financial reward.
PA: I understand that. Some of my projects become the source for the start of other newer projects. I do various things to make up the difference. Communities are not always self-sustaining. And everybody needs to go through constant management of various aspects of their lives.
However, there are certain salary grants in the private and the public sectors. But they too function on arrears. So, that’s not really the best possible way to go about it. Also, if you avail a grant once, you probably won’t get it again. Where does that lead people in few years? You must have alternate incomes. Moreover for me, part of the group I’m working with is far from elite. So the coordinating person—in this case it’s me again—has to try and do a combination of funds. I’m working purely through selling the shows now, paying my dancers the most I can afford. We don’t even get to practice enough. Sometimes it feels like creative exploration depends solely on possessing a large family property…
I think the way forward is to know that several generations of artists before and after would do work because they have to. And they would do it as a combination of things. Whatever works. I think, first and foremost your work must be relevant to you as much as possible. Let everybody try and find a point where they feel empowered in the space. These are big words, and it remains to be seen whether they make some sense in my own work.
Next year would be a test. Can this space sustain? How does this empowerment happen? For instance, how can a jumper be encouraged to bring her personality into the work? One of my jumpers is a lawyer and she is also very interested in current socio-political issues. I’d like to see how she brings her contention with law, with society, into the work. How would a parkour practitioner—another jumper—bring his contention with body into the pit? Only with that kind of participation it would become a relevant space. I would also like that to happen because then it takes away my having to always decide what we are doing as a group, because it becomes fake after a point.
In some cases, I’ve seen collectives which are run by certain independent practitioners meeting time-to-time. It’s like if you are on the ‘jumping piece’, today you are working on Conditions of Carriage, tomorrow I might be doing something for you as a team member. This process has its pitfalls. The feasibility depends on my team, my people. First of all, this is the first time they are touring together—all day in presence of each other. Fatigue, injury—all of that. At the end of the upcoming Delhi-Jaipur tour, we need to take a bit of time off and then come back and talk. First, about continuing it as a piece, then about continuing with each other. Maybe it will work for some, and then some new faces might come.
Q: I feel there’s already a sense of empowerment within this particular group. A sense of sharing too…
PA: Yes, with some it is a technical sharing of skill and capacity. With others, it is a sharing of purpose. It is not always easy to create a clean openness of relationships. I’ve never seen myself as a hierarchical person. But it sometimes helps to delve into that mode. On occasions, I’ve submitted to the division of space. I realized I could not impose on other people’s space. But I’ve kept a sense of sharing alive. I’ve asked one of my dancers to teach a folk-dance class to us all. I’ve asked another to take us through body-works such as kick boxing sessions. If I see a particular passion in a person, I like to see its implementation. I want to see the value of a sustainable relationship through this mode. It must come from a personal level. My artistic interest now is only starting with the bodily enquiries. Emotionally—it is a desire to see people seeing themselves as dancers in some sense, and to figure out what that sense is.
But there’s a rigour I expect and that I don’t always sense, and then there are moments when it becomes tiring for the whole group including myself. Sometimes I need to, and I do work the piece according to individual dancer’s abilities. And then there are rewarding moments when something really works out.
Q: How would you place this project in the current scenario of how contemporary dance is being made? Because the kind of things that you are talking about—these are not always the points of interests of the financiers, or even dancers.
PA: At the end of the day, the jumping is an act of rebellion at a certain level. We’re not looking at beautiful or virtuosic jumps, but very ordinary jumps, to express honest sense of awareness and presence—to keep our agency. We are in a time when ideas become appropriated, redecorated and compartmentalized easily. Also, there’s this need of validation of what Indian contemporary dance can be considered as. You see the works that are coming up in dance residencies and rat-races in the name of festivals, you see the jury that is being set up—kind of people who are not in a position to say what Indian contemporary art is, but are being given a certain capitalist power to do so.
You look at production houses in collaboration with international or Indian economic partners, who are also dictating what kind of outputs would happen. And what is coming up is mostly solo collaborative things. Also solo works are being pushed, as people seem to think that it’s easier to do and more manageable in terms of money and infrastructure. Individualization is being pushed for in a big way, which then becomes an opposing force to collective expression. Collective expression means that ten people stand for a larger intellectual and ideological presence. The fact that ten people can come to do a work reflects that at least there’re a hundred people out there to watch that work, to support it. You don’t consciously think about these things. I’m not wrong to think that there are many out there who can do this work. I know that tomorrow if I want to do something but I don’t have the money, I’ll have dancers who would come and do it, provided I’m able to create such a welcoming space for them.
This kind of sureness comes from a need to do this kind of work. It’s not propelled by existing work or capitalist economic models, which are becoming more and more prevalent. I could ask for a Swiss working designer, or a Japanese set designer. But that’s not what I want. I feel that this whole effort of this work functions from that space of collectivization.
The question around what dance is, is also equally important. I’m impressed by many of my dancers’ ability of coming to a piece without worrying about what it represents. The fact that physicality can stand for a larger representation than dance—that’s important.
This flexibility around representations is another interesting point in this work. Flexibility is also a natural characteristic of collectivity in general. The incorporation of sports in this work (or vice versa!) is also a form in which this has been done. In fact, Conditions of Carriage has been primarily known as a cross-platform work that explores the body-aesthetic of sports within the training and the process of creation and execution of movements—fusing the boundaries of playing and dancing. As Preethi has mentioned in several interviews and post-performance conversations, sports have played a great role in this piece not just in terms of vocabulary, but in terms of learning to stick to physical elementality.
As if echoing this line of thought, C. L. R. James writes in his book Beyond a Boundary:
“The players are always players trafficking in the elemental human activities, qualities and emotions—attack, defence, courage, gallantry, steadfastness, grandeur, ruse. This is no drawback. […] Some of the best beloved and finest music is created out of just such elemental sensations. We never grow out of them, of the need to renew them. Any art which by accident or design gets too far from them finds that it has to return or wither.”
Q: What are your thoughts about seeing sports as arts, seeing dance as sports, and using the sports vocabulary to generate movements?
PA: There’s a lot that has been written about it—in very broad senses too. Richard Schechner, for example, talks about Leela and Maya; Leela is play and Maya is the mystery of the universe.
In general, sport is also performative. And at the same time competitive at moments. Sport has a certain focus on action, whereas dance has a certain focus on expression of that action. When the two overlap, I feel there’s a healthy mix, because it gives me the unadorned body, a sure, clear body.
However for this piece, I thought of sports more in terms of training. Three/four hours of jumping, skipping, Prabakaran’s training… Dying of fatigue and then seeing what it’s doing to the body. It’s endless.
Her thoughts about creating this dance-sports synthesis in terms of this endless cycle of excitement, freedom, sweat, fatigue and catharsis are reflected in Bernhard Berenson’s words about Wrestling:
“Now if a way could be found of conveying to us the realization of movement without the confusion and the fatigue of the actuality, we should be getting out of the wrestlers more than they themselves can give us—the heightening of vitality which comes to us whenever we keenly realize life, such as the actuality itself would give us, plus the greater effectiveness of the heightening brought out by the clearer, intenser and less fatiguing realization. This is precisely what the artist who succeeds in representing movement achieves: making us realize it as we never can actually, he gives us a heightened sense of capacity, and whatever is in the actuality enjoyable, he allows us to enjoy at our leisure. In words already familiar to us, he extracts the significance of movements, just as in rendering tactile values, the artist extracts the corporeal significance of objects. […] “He is grappling with his enemy now,” I say of my wrestler. “What a pleasure to be able to realize in my own muscles, on my own chest, with my own arms and legs, the life that is in him as he is making his supreme effort! What a pleasure, as I look away from the representation, to realize in the same manner, how after the contest his muscles will relax, and the rest trickle like a refreshing stream through his nerves!” All this I shall be made to enjoy by the artist who, in representing any one movement, can give me the logical sequence of visible strain and pressure in the parts and muscles.”
Q: The last thing I wanted to ask is about the ‘floor section’ that ends the piece. What exactly did you have in mind while creating this work other than the image that the exhaustion is now pulling the bodies towards the floor? Because that section is still changing, even after almost two years.
PA: The difficulty at arriving there was, not everybody could do everything. And people struggled the most at that phase. In that section, I wanted to play with the idea about shifting of axes and at the same time watching and being watched. And for me this frame was about someone watching you watching something. That twice removed thing was important. Somebody told me the first time we did it, that it was very sinister. Now I wanted the sense of removal but not the sense of cruelty coming across. But that time there was no money to work on it. Later, after we got a grant, we worked on it. And I wanted to oppose that sense of cruelty. What we have now is closer to that earlier version.
Q: But it doesn’t look cruel now…
PA: Because we have worked on what connects the ‘standers’ to the ‘floor persons’. It’s the spine. When you have the two bodies coming in, there’s a hip to hip connection. When the body pulls away, they are connected by the feet. And through feet you have a spinal connection. It starts with the feet being on the other person’s feet, going to the top of the head. And I always push for the top of the head and feet going together. You have to imagine that. To some degree that is there now. The way you look at the person also matters. The back of the head. It doesn’t bend, but connects. It’s a very small thing. That image stays. And the contrast of horizontal and upward spirals makes it visually interesting.
Q: One last thing—just curious, as we talked about emotions and collectivity at length—how personally attached are you to your dancers? There’s an attachment that grows among people who work closely with body. But beyond that, for you personally, is there anything that comes from them and that has a space in your life?
PA: Well I like all of them! There’s an overlap with the four theater people. Even if I’m not acting, I’m doing costume for them, or even working as a tea-boy. Basically, I hang around in their space a lot. I think I’m attached to the people I work with. I feel, there’s something precious that we exchange. There’re small details that the rest of the world will never understand. Who would find it worth spending time for this? What do I go and do in the morning? I rehearse. What? Really?—the rest of the world is always going to look at it as an unbelievable waste of time. So I find that our being complacent with that value gives us a certain closeness. But I also had the time to grow in this piece to know that I don’t or can’t afford to feel possessive about the people I work with. That doesn’t mean that I sometimes don’t feel terribly let down!
On the larger part, I’m happy people have spent so much time on it. and the time that they gave me, they have been there hundred percent. Nobody has been reserved.
Q: In general, when you talk about a collective, there are two things that usually become a problem. One is money, another is interpersonal relationships.
PA: The way I see it now, I haven’t gone very far with this group yet. I don’t know if they would become a collective. But I see the way forward in allowing certain spaces. To let them do their own thing. For them to find their own relevance. After all, everybody is adult in this piece. Very formed. You know it takes time to create relationships. I don’t dare have very personal conversations with my dancers. Moreover, there are various class and gender separations. Even without that, I find that I can’t really go to certain places.
Sometimes it’s necessary to have a certain distance. Each of them also needs that space. In fact, on occasions they have very clearly told me—“You are overreacting. We need some time alone.” Then I’ll be away, roam around for twenty minutes and come back. I think that openness is nice.
So you see, you need that collectiveness to ‘happen’, you can’t always channel it yourself. And if it doesn’t happen, that’s also okay. It might happen with a different bunch of people. but I must say this work has been a good experience.
Q: Yes, it looks like that.
As our conversation comes to an end and I eventually trace my path back to a nearby bus-stand (not running, but taking small, measured steps), I think about the range and depth of ideas, imaginations and research, and the amount of time and thoughts invested in some of today’s contemporary dance practices. And it makes me wonder how much potential Indian contemporary dance has as a language, an expression, a discourse and a defiant, invincible source of collective energy.
Yet, it is a surprisingly less explored path among artists, art-aspirants and art-appreciators. In a city like Chennai, which is one of the few goldmines of contemporary physical performance practitioners, a mere morning’s chat can only touch the tip of the iceberg. It can possibly at most partially satiate one’s own subjective curiosities and interests, and in turn make one greedy for more. But the large questions around the practical possible osmosis of creative and personal solidarity and collectiveness remain almost unaddressed, and hence unanswered.
Photography: Yannick Cormier @Spaces, Chennai; Sharan Devkar Shankar @Oddbird Theater, Delhi; Madhushree Basu @Arul Anandar College, Madurai.
 Indeed, this work has often been compared to Conway’s game of life: the coordinate-determined, endless movement at the very beginning of the piece indeed gives the audience an image of the cellular automaton.
 A Bharatanatyam exponent based in Chennai, also a former student of Kalakshetra—a famous institution in Chennai for classical art forms.
 In St. Joseph college, Bangalore, on 28th September, 2016—a program organized by India Foundation for the Arts, who have also co-sponsored this work.
 A boxing warm-up—similar also to the shuffling Sarukku step in Kalaripayattu
 Bhagwan Chavan is a renowned visual artist based in Cholamandal Artists’ Village, Chennai.
 Natesh Muthuswamy is a renowned Chennai-based visual artist, who has also worked for decades as a set and light designer for performances.
 Prabu Mani is a Chennai-based parkour practitioner, who has been part of ‘the jumping project’ from the beginning.
 A Chennai-based theater group currently being directed by Pravin Kannanur, who is also a jumper in Preethi’s project.
 Rhythm patterns in Bharatanatyam.
 This reminds me, after the first show of ‘Conditions of Carriage’, of which I was a part, a friend in the audience pointed out to me that every time I jumped, the fat in my thigh kept shivering even after I came to a still. I’m inclined to put a smiley here. but what would that smile signify? Humour? Self-doubt? Shame?
 About 25 dancers have trained with Athreya at different points of time in this project. The piece is choreographed for ten (or less) dancers. The current group consists of Prabu, Devika, Sruthi, Sekhar, Pravin, Vasanth, Nidhi, Dipna, Maithily, and Preethi herself. Other than the last four, rest came from ‘non-dance backgrounds’ such as theater, parkour and dance therapy.
 A book on Cricket
About the Writer
Madhushree Basu is partially a writer, partially a dancer and partially other things. Sort of based in Chennai – she is currently working with choreographer Padmini Chettur, and is editing an online bilingual little magazine named Aainanagar along with writer Nandini Dhar.