Nerves: The Thin Edge

First published as The Thin Edge in The Hindu, September 2016

Cover photo courtesy Nachom Arts Foundation

In Nerves, the powerlessness and fragility of the human body makes for a telling commentary on power, authority and violence.

Trapped by a ring of lanterns, a woman throws herself to the ground repeatedly, as if possessed by an unseen force. A group of men holding tall bamboo poles creep into the light, first prodding her, then manipulating her unresponsive body into various positions and prying her limbs apart. Eventually, the men leave, and the woman is left to stagger away into the darkness, weighed down by her rickety bamboo cross. This is a scene from Nerves, a new dance piece by the Imphal-based choreographer Surjit Nongmeikapam. Nerves uses performance to channel the frustration and helplessness of people struggling against a constant disenfranchisement, resigned to violence and with dim prospects of a better future. The piece is part of The Park’s New Festival, which breaks journey in Mumbai this weekend before ending its six-city tour in New Delhi.

The festival is conceived and curated by Chennai’s Prakriti Foundation, which also organises the biennial Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Award (PECDA), where choreographers compete for financial support to develop a new performance. Nongmeikapam won the top prize at PECDA in 2014, and then spent 18 months developing Nerves with a cast of amateur performers in Imphal before premiering it at The Park’s New Festival earlier this month.

Nerves began as a solo in 2013 with a focus on the constant state of conflict in Manipur. In 2014, Nongmeikapam performed the solo version in Osaka, where he learned about the history of Okinawa in relation to the Japanese mainland. Finding many parallels between Manipur and Okinawa, he began to look at the experiences of indigenous people across cultures. Initially specific to the situation in Manipur in its use of news footage from the state, the piece slowly evolved to offer a universalised portrait of citizens who are constantly discriminated against and violated by powerful authorities who govern themselves by a different set of laws.

Nongmeikapam consciously decided to work with amateur performers. He found hip-hop dancers, a non-performer with an interest in meditation, among others, seeking out people who would be open to experimentation. How did he find a starting point while working with a motley crew? “Before beginning to choreograph, I made them walk. We walked for weeks. As they walked, I asked them to think about what happens in Manipur. It started to modulate the emotions they felt,” he said.

Working with non-dancers gave Nongmeikapam the opportunity to steep his dancers in the body language required by the piece. But this was no mean feat. Given the significant amount of time he had to work with them, he could have trained his performers to dance. But he felt there was more to be gained by keeping it simple. He said, “I taught them how to roll on the floor and synchronise their movement. Their rawness was an advantage. We played a lot with slow and simple movements before evolving what we have used in the piece.”

Nongmeikapam was well into his adulthood when he made the leap to professional dancing, dabbling in a smattering of dance styles. He can be wonderfully laconic about the nature of his practice. This loose and unsentimental connection to form defines his work. For Nerves, to temper the simplicity of the movements, he used props. He feels that props make the performers more conscious of their movements and deeply attuned to their emotions. The props also afforded a material connection to the socio-political realities the performers inhabited. Then, for instance, the bamboo poles become symbolic of the weapons used by the establishment, and of the power that comes with the use of militarised force.

As an artist, does Nongmeikapam feel the need to take a stand on the political situation in Manipur? In a way, making work is cathartic. He finds analogies in data storage – performing a work is like emptying the memory card to fill it with new information – he muses. “I am not doing this for Manipur. I work for myself. When I perform, I don’t want to change Manipur. It is an expression of what I feel inside me. I feel relaxed because I release all the negative energy from my body. When we performed in Manipur, people from the NGO sector told us how happy they were to see someone casting off their anger. If the frustration leaves my mind I can use the free space to think about another work,” he said.

And that’s what he has done, putting Nerves out into the world to turn his attention to Folktale, a new piece which he posits as the story of the lemon. The humble lemon, he feels, is a versatile subject, rooted in nature and bursting with complexity. At the PECDA 2016 final, Folktale ended vividly, with a row of performers determinedly chewing the lemon to bits. As skeins of drool and sweat ran down their chins, the visibly taken aback audience added a theatrical intensity to the pointed pitter-patter of saliva splattering the surface of the stage with their gasps.

In an intriguing turn of events, with Folktale, Nongmeikapam and his company, Nachom Arts Foundation, won the top prize at PECDA again. Within dance circles, this sparked off a debate about the stand that the award presenters were taking in relation to contemporary dance. In a country with little funding, PECDA is the only major competition offering a significant amount of financial support to emerging choreographers – a prize that can enable huge growth curves in a choreographer’s career and also catapult them into international circulation. As a choreographer who is only slightly better off than his peers, one can hardly point fingers at the winner for accepting the award. While he was definitely a strong contender, what are the ethical implications of giving Nongmeikapam or his company an award twice in a row, even as other promising choreographic works by newer choreographers could have benefited from the support?

While this question may remain unanswered, for Nongmeikapam and the audience, there is a full-length version of Folktale to look forward to in a year’s time.

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