Yesterday I had to choose between watching contemporary Indian dance and contemporary Indian rock and a friend of mine is reasonably convinced that I gave The Supersonics a miss (apparently it was a super gig) because of “So You Think You Can Dance”. Which is just slander because I went to see the dance show to see what Attakkalari came up with as a homage to Pina Bausch. I must admit, however, that within a few minutes of watching Attakkalari’s “For Pina…”, I was indeed thinking of “So You Think You Can Dance“. Partly because it was after quite a while that I was seeing real contemporary Indian dance that tried to fuse tradition and modernity while retaining a distinctive, modern Indian character. If only they would get Attakkalari’s artistic director Jayachandran Palakazhy instead of Nakul Dev Mahajan to choreograph. And because finally before me were male dancers who were fit, masculine and whose idea of grace wasn’t connected to how much eyeliner and jewellery they wore. A few even had defined musculature (gasp!) and it wasn’t too hard to imagine quite a couple of them rubbing sweaty shoulders with the “So You Think You Can Dance” boys.
That said, it’s not that “For Pina…” was faultless. Far from it, actually. First of all, live vocal music was a disastrous idea. Alongside Mukul Deora’s plinky-plonky music, it sounded more like wailing than singing and sounded utterly tone deaf. Second, the idea of locating the performance in four spaces and asking the audience to shift from garden to parking lot to foyer and finally into the auditorium was idiotic. It was far too hot to be sitting outside and for the first part, I was seated next to a light, which meant by the time it was time to go to the parking lot, you could have served my leg up at a decent tandoori restaurant as freshly-made ran.
This shuffling from one place to the next might seem arty but it is just not practical, especially if you’re moving to a place that is flat and not tiered like an amphitheatre. Consequently, aside from about 20 people, most didn’t see parts 2 and 3 of “For Pina…”. Instead, we saw the back of other attendees’ heads. At least for part 2, we saw a few of the dancer’s ankles when they stuck their legs out during lifts since it was done on the steps leading up to NCPA’s Experimental Theatre. Part 3 was done in the foyer of the theatre and wouldn’t you know that half of the choreography involved floorwork and the dancer (Palazhy) bending over to become half his normal height? So despite being in the third “row”, I occasionally saw Palazhy’s bald head and imagined what the rest of his body was doing.
It also made “For Pina…” feel very fragmented and the good ideas in each of the parts didn’t feel like they were coming together. For example, using the building as a frame for the choreography of part 1 was wonderful but I’m not sure how that connected to the part in the foyer in which Palakazhy manically chucking rice behind a sheer black curtain upon which was projected an image of Pina Bausch. Then again, if I’d actually been able to see the whole thing, rather than glimpse it past pates and sleek hairdos, maybe I’d have a better idea of what was the overarching idea.
The last part of the show was in the theatre and as one person in the row behind me said to their companion, “It’s amazing how much modern dance improves with air conditioning.” Attakkalari showed us some superb choreography and dancing. Palazhy’s choreography shows clever use of movement that makes the dance fun to watch. It’s abstract, which adds a certain mystery to it, and while narratives are hinted at, the point of the performance is how the body can be used and aligned to create wonderful moments that communicate feeling rather than stories. Two of the women dancers in particular — one is tall and fair and the other is a dusky, slight creature with amazing elegance and power – were fabulous.
But, having watched numerous seasons of “So You Think You Can Dance”, I couldn’t help wondering why five Indian dancers can’t coordinate their movements when the choreography demands it. Why is it that when our dancers line up, every one is at a different angle and moving at slightly different rhythms? As strong as most of the solos and duets in “For Pina…” were, I suspect Madame Bausch would have shivered their timbers if she’d seen them doing the group bits.