Inter_rupted: Breathing as One

First published in The Hindu, August 1, 2016

Cover photo by Nirvair Singh, courtesy Aditi Mangaldas

Age, fragility and transience: the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company is premiering its new work in the city


Slithering across the floor on her belly, her face hidden, a dancer covers the stage with rippling masses of black cloth. Unmasking herself once she reaches the edge, she slowly reels the cloth in, drawing it in with one arm, and then the other. There is something hypnotic about watching the cloth deflate into a thin stream as it is swallowed by the darkness; meanwhile, its unhurried pace also calls for immense patience.

The somnolence of this beginning betrays no hint of the tumult that is to come; and perhaps it is this dichotomy that defines Inter_rupted, the latest production of the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company (AMDC). Choreographed by Ms. Mangaldas and co-produced by the Drishtikon Dance Foundation and Dance Umbrella, London, Inter_rupted premieres during the August Dance Residency at the National Centre for Performing Art (NCPA).

Working with tradition

The residency, held annually, invites choreographers and companies to work at the NCPA for a week, offering a programme of lectures, masterclasses and performances during their stay.

Besides a performance, the AMDC will also offer a masterclass while the U.K.-based arts producer and consultant Farooq Chaudhry delivers a lecture on the business of dance. Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, NCPA’s Head of Programming (Dance), felt that Inter_rupted offered the perfect opportunity to dive into global currents in dance: “Having the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company in residence gives us an in-depth idea of how traditional dancers are moulding Kathak for an international audience. And with Chaudhry’s talk, we can begin to conceive of ‘business’ and ‘dance’ in the same sentence, and learn how one can go on to create international dance companies that are rooted in form.”

Like many of Aditi Mangaldas’ previous works, Inter_rupted began on an autobiographical note. She says, “At 56, I am slowly starting to give way. The body is disintegrating. You feel strangely invincible, and then, suddenly, there is a knock on the door. This made me take a step back and think about how the body can be fragile, vulnerable, yet amazingly resilient.”

There was nothing dramatic about this disintegration, Mangaldas insists. But it got her thinking. Instead of resisting the inevitable, how could she confront those sentiments and play with them? Thus, Inter_rupted takes its meaning to heart, its razor-sharp footwork sequences brought to abrupt, disconcerting halts, its circular spins and floor rolls slashed by arms, voices and violent strands of hair. Against this foil of frenetic movement, Mangaldas is a softer presence, in search of an elusive quality that is, always, only just out of reach.

In sync

Though Mangaldas has collaborated with artists for several years, to design sets, sound and light, compose music and offer feedback, the role of the third eye was usually an informal one, played by a senior member of the company. As she dances in all the pieces she choreographs, it is hard for her to view her work from the outside and understand how it is received. A few years ago, she started working with the Scottish artist Morag Deyes, and having a mentor constantly respond to the production changed how she was able to work with it. “It was really interesting to hear from people who have a sense of your work,” she says. “I don’t want to be complacent. It is very easy to fall into the known formulas. But how can one be constantly vigilant and reinvent oneself? The core team of collaborators adds texture to the work. A dramaturge is like a good editor who also sees whether your intentions are moving across the room to reach the audience. In the same way, for Inter_rupted, Farooq is able to see the overall picture.”

The co-commissioning of Inter_rupted by the London-based Dance Umbrella festival means that the work is scheduled for a tour of the U.K. later this year. Mangaldas was also able to work with Chaudhry, who rose to fame as the business brain behind the Akram Khan Dance Company.

For Inter_rupted, he plays the role of a dramaturge. Chaudhry watched the AMDC perform in London in 2014, later travelling to Delhi, where he offered suggestions towards making some of Mangaldas’ works dramaturgically clearer. He was left with a great deal of admiration for her ambition and work ethic, and when the opportunity to collaborate with her on a new production presented itself, he found it irresistible.

The business of performance

Chaudhry’s talk is based on his personal experience of building a company from scratch: “I will talk about business models, leadership, innovation, change management, and networking, but most importantly, you’ll hear a story about a person who had a dream and woke up the next morning and did something about it.”

Cautiously optimistic about the international prospects of contemporary dance work from India, Chaudhry says, “I still feel there is work to be done to create a resilient and dynamic foundation for Indian dance talent to continue to break new ground in an ongoing continuum. This means government subsidies, enterprising producers, cultural agencies that actively nurture and identify talent. Great art tells us what we don’t know about ourselves by showing us who we are. That’s got to be worth investing in and fighting for!”

Catching up

Inter_rupted comes at a poignant moment in Mangaldas’ career. As a dancer, her thoughts are turning to age, to mortality, and hence, to how she wants to engage with a changing body. She quotes the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron: “If we visualise searching right down amid the very marrow for the ‘thingness’ of our body, can we find it?” Simultaneously, Mangaldas has also had to contend with major cast changes in her company, with several newly-hired dancers still finding their feet in her vocabulary. She is one of the few choreographers who maintains a company throughout the year, hiring full-time dancers. While this creates the space for sustained relationships, it can also be exhausting. Yet, Mangaldas is clear about wanting to work with a company that meets every single day. “Sometimes, in June, we look at our calendars and find that we are free for the rest of the year. It gives us time to discover new things. If there is no riyaz [rigorous practice], there is nothing. It’s a step towards the next stage. Rehearsal is not everything. That is why it is necessary to run a company every day. It’s fulfilling too, because you form emotional attachments.”

In stark studio settings, 10 days before the show, Inter_rupted is still an echo of its staged future. Mangaldas is particular about how the piece must be viewed. During a rehearsal at her studio in New Delhi, she is apologetic about the stripped-down dimensions, repeatedly reminding you that the work takes on a different magnitude in the vast spaces it is meant to be performed in. This is true of Mangaldas’ work: mediated by light, sound and careful set design, the dancers are one element of a larger performative universe. Yet, Inter_rupted, with its deliberately sparse template of movement material, banks on basics: the performer’s presence, the clarity of movement. A simple flick of the wrist, characteristic of Kathak, is transformed when it is executed with intent, and conversely, rendered banal and lifeless in the absence of motivation.

Inter_rupted relies on its dancers’ ability to breathe as one and be compelling, even as they navigate gargantuan performance-scapes that burst with character.

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