Tuesday, 10 April 2012

That chinese girl who does indian dance

This and That (2009) by Nirmala Seshadri

I'm currently working on a new piece I watched the flowers with Nirmala Seshadri at the Substation, an experimental bharatanatyam work.  The first question I always get, is "why?!"

The short story is that I started dancing bharatanatyam, odissi and chhau during asian dance modules at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.  I had a great connection with my teachers, Nirmala and Raka Maitra, and still perform and work with them today. This led me to other indian-classical based work with Dr Siri Rama, Jayathi Siva and other choreographers who have been interested in my base in asian dance alongside my western contemporary and classical training.

Looking back, though, I know I was interested in asian art and philosophy much earlier. I devoured asian folktales as a little bookworm, and went on to history and literature when I was in school. My yoga practice has been part of my life for over ten years. Dance and performance is an integral component of the oral history and culture of Asia, and the forms as they exist today are fascinating junctions of history, migration and human interaction over centuries - so the social scientist part of me just gets hooked.   The emphasis on asian dance, theatre, music and their contemporization was one of the things that drew me to NAFA in the first place. 

I wonder now if it was an accident that among the many other asian forms I have touched on,  it is these indian forms that have become as much a part of my vocabulary as ballet (which I have done the most) or Limon (my first modern dance technique).  They weren't easier for me than ballet or modern, they were certainly difficult to begin with and difficult even now, as I guess all rich classical forms are!  I don't consider myself to have a complete grounding and practice like January Low (who is also half-indian, for what that's worth) and I don't see myself devoting hours to accomplishing an arangetram graduation. But the more time I take to practice these forms, the more they reward me with their intricacies and my fascination, and provide me with a counterpoint to the aesthetics of Western dance that are easy to take for granted. 

Could this only have happened in Singapore? Growing up in Singapore in a kantang (westernised) family, I guess it's normal that I feel estranged from the monolith that is Chinese history, culture and language, even though I do have great respect and interest in it today.  It's probably also normal that I grew up feeling comfortable with access to the other cultures around me, particularly Indian and Malay (and need I say American and European). I guess there's also the novelty of being an outsider that works to my advantage, like the way I am considered to speak excellent french only because I'm not french!

The most important factor is definitely the affinity that I have with my teachers and mentors, who I'm lucky have chosen to work in Singapore and where I had access to them. They have very different personalities and approaches.  But both celebrate their deep heritage and extensive practice while approach these forms in a contemporary context and constantly question their functions.  They are great improvisers, which gels well with my own approach to making dance.  I loved channeling non-mythological characters and re-creating abhinaya gossip in Raka's Hungry Stones.

Now with I watched the flowers, Nirmala and I are building a duet from our collaborations in 2009-2010 when I was part of the ensemble that performed her work This and That in Singapore and New York. Both of us are dancers as well as writers, and connect strongly with stories and emotional content.  This material has led us to some startlingly profound conversations about feminity, sexuality, philosophy and life journeys.  It will be the most intensely autobiographical work I have done so far.  Bharatanatyam is the main idiom and reference, but there is also improvisation, floorwork, text and theatre - in a strange way, the question of why a chinese girl is doing indian dance seems less and less relevant as we go along.  What I hope we'll share with you is two women at different life stages, in a sincere conversation about womanhood.

I watched the flowers - a meditation on womanhood, maturity and love at the Substation, 28-29 June. Ticket details to come.