First published in the Sunday Herald, April 19, 2015. Link to article. Cover image by Avatara Ayuso.
A last-minute straggler rushes into a fairly crowded theatre. Her loud giggles evaporate as she encounters seven dancers on stage, all in various states of undress, unnerving the audience with their penetrating gaze. Indeed, it is hard to let one’s guard down while watching Mandeep Raikhy’s mystifyingly named A Male Ant Has Straight Antennae. Last month, Raikhy and six dancers performed the piece to reasonable acclaim during the Attakkalari India Biennial in Bengaluru. Raikhy wears several hats with great aplomb, as a choreographer, dancer and the managing director of the Gati Dance Forum in New Delhi, an organisation that works to create a sustainable environment for contemporary dance practice in India. His life has been a series of conscious choices, bringing out a careful, considered side of himself that he slowly reveals in the course of a conversation. Having experienced contemporary dance as a student and dancer at the Danceworx, he moved to the UK to study at the Laban Centre. As the only Indian student at the school, Raikhy felt progressively homesick and began to question how he located himself in the wide world of contemporary dance. “There was an urge to find and protect my own identity. Around this time, I watched choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh’s work. There was something exciting and dynamic about it, and it was Indian in its own convoluted way. Most importantly, it had tension; at school, all I was doing was releasing the tension, which also has a tendency to wash out any kind of historical memory. Suddenly, watching Jeyasingh’s work, I was charmed by form,” he says. Working with Jeyasingh was the beginning of Raikhy’s preoccupation with Bharatanatyam. Yet, it was not a stable relationship. While working for Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, Raikhy also began making his own work. But he found that he had to harp on his Asian identity to get funding. Writing proposals that said ‘I am an Indian dancer’ felt like falling into a trap. One morning in 2009, Raikhy dramatically decided to go home, back to India. Once in Delhi, Raikhy jumped into working at Gati almost immediately. Still an active dancer, why did he choose to become an administrator? “Back in 2009, just making your own work wasn’t enough. There was no ecology, community or critique to surround that,” he says. He felt the need to build the field while furthering his own practice. Yet, finding the balance was never easy. There were times when Raikhy felt bogged down by administrative duties, without a chance to explore his connection with dance making and the body. This connection was a fraught one. Although Raikhy had experienced Jeyasingh’s choreographic process, his basic training in dance was in the western contemporary idiom. Living in India, he felt that this idiom was not context-specific; it didn’t excite him. Inhabited Geometry (2011), his first ensemble work, explored Bharatanatyam as a geometrical form, out of a desire to build a personal relationship with it. Inhabited Geometry quelled Raikhy’s need to engage with his ‘Indianness’. Soon, he felt that living in India, sourcing material and working here made his work Indian enough. “I don’t want to engage with that conversation anymore,” he says, adding, “My sense of what a performance is has changed. To use the wings to conceal bodies, to have a certain kind of performativity which is formal, which declares — I am on stage and you are sitting in front me — I have moved on from that urge.” After that, Raikhy’s method of constructing a choreographic work changed. His next piece, A Male Ant Has Straight Antennae, dealt with masculinity, which was hardly a subject that could simply be danced as a set of continuous images. The impetus for Male Ant comes from an earlier work of Raikhy’s — a video installation called Big Man, Little Drawings. Inspired by Rahul Roy’s A Little Book on Men, Raikhy examined how masculinity could situate itself, as gesture or stereotype, in different parts of the body. Working with video, he found that he was making meaning from the footage at the editing table. This triggered a need to go back to the body. “The installation became a lot about me and my body. If masculinity was something that irked or interested me, I needed to examine it through a zoomed out lens, look at how it was reflected on other bodies. This was the beginning of Male Ant,” says Raikhy. During the course of his research, Raikhy cultivated an interest in the male traits of animals. This led him to the esoteric fact of the male ant with straight antennae. He was charmed, knowing that something as brittle as an ant distinguished its masculinity. Raikhy has played a pivotal role in organising and structuring Gati’s annual contemporary dance residency for young choreographers. Seeing other people go through the motions of creating work informed his approach to dancemaking. “To jump out of my own skin as a maker, I constantly had people coming into the studio. I asked them to respond to what they saw. It was the only way to tide over a roadblock. I collated all the things people had said, not looking at their responses as suggestions, but analysing what was or wasn’t working for them through their feedback,” Raikhy said. Raikhy’s collaborators, the Swiss light designer Jonathan O’Hear and Japanese sound designer Yasuhiro Morinaga, shaped the work with their interventions. O’Hear asked Raikhy a simple question – did he really feel the need to hide the dancers in shadows or in the wings? This led to understanding the stage as a square space in which dancers played out and clarified their ideas. In his work, Raikhy has always read sound as an abstract entity that mirrors the dancers’ movements. Conversely, Morinaga evolved a strong soundtrack that coloured the movement, planting in it a clear emotional and kinaesthetic experience. Male Ant also uses the voices of dancers, something that Raikhy is still trying to define in relationship to the piece. He says, “I feel that the body can be alive in many ways, and speaking is one of them. What makes the body move? At some points, the voice shuts the body up; sometimes, it instructs the body, and at other moments, the voice responds to the body. Now I have begun a process of erasing the clear meanings that are suggested by the voice during the piece. If the meaning had to be so obvious, I’d rather write it in a sentence and present it to the audience. When it comes to masculinity, nothing is clear; it is a grey zone.”