Translated into German by Marc Staudacher and first published by Tanz, Berlin, February 2016.
(Cover image: Vikram Iyengar in Across, Not Over, sourced from the ImpulsTanz Facebook event page)
Responding to a palimpsest of disjointed words, the lone dancer – his back to the audience – rotates a shoulder, raises a hand and turns his head sharply. As a result, he frames a spine that curves sideways and arches backwards, sinuously levitating off its axis at times. What stories can the spine tell? Many, if Across, Not Over is to be believed.
Choreographer Preethi Athreya succeeds in bringing an objective distance to the creative process while working with the tools of a form she is unfamiliar with – a quality she transmits to the performer, Vikram Iyengar. Within the conventions of Kathak, the dance language that Iyengar inhabits, dancing with one’s back to the audience for a prolonged duration is unthinkable. A dance that evolved through itinerant storytelling practices and in the royal courts of northern India, Kathak favours a frontal perspective with its emphasis on facial expression. Across, Not Over subverts this perspective, making the dancer’s back a canvas for the small, forgotten graces of Kathak.
The piece dwells on the hierarchy of syntaxes that emerges around the relationship of a dancer to his form. Iyengar dons shoes – with a twist – recreating the footwork of Kathak in sharp rhythms drummed out by shoe-clad hands. The popular mental image of Kathak is that of a flamboyant, explosive form, with plenty of audience-artist interaction. Then, the stillness of movement and sound that Across, Not Over seems to encourage represents a marked departure from this image. The bursts of rhythm are punctuated by long silences in which Iyengar waits, his body held aloft in the plank position, staring at his hands. Not all the silences speak, however; there are moments when they threaten to segue into being Pilates exercises.
Initially conceived as a piece performed under the noonday sun, the scenography of Across, Not Over, replicates the contours of Spaces, the beachside performance space in Chennai where it was developed. A blue-bordered cross on the floor is surrounded by sand – the boundaries between these spaces blurring as the piece progresses. Challenging the verticality of the classical dancer, Iyengar kneels on the floor and lies prostrate to roll around the space, streaks of blue powder clinging to his body. He wears a yellow belt and shoes, deepening the allusion to Krishna, a prominent mythological figure in classical lore. Athreya layers impressions of Kathak, interspersing Iyengar’s increasingly Kathak-laced movements with fragments from a public talk about his practice.
In making the journey from Iyengar’s intricate personal notions of Kathak to the public perception of classical dance, Across, Not Over raises several questions about the evolution of a dance practice. How does one find freedom in a particular dance language without forsaking its core beliefs while entering the contested terrain of the ‘contemporary’? Across, Not Over, in many ways, draws on concerns that Athreya and Iyengar share as dancers interested in applying their classical training to new work.