A fresh look at Bharatanatyam with a Tamil-Malay accent
DBKL auditorium, Kuala Lumpure
September 18, 2015
DIVERCITY KL International Arts Festival
Titles become indicative and sometimes, problematic. They can either ensnare you in its entrails or push you to un peel the layers of its meaning. In Bharatanatyam, the word MARGAM has become flogged once too often. Used as a marker for the traditional, the classical, the often taught, the much trodden "path" has been mangled, manipulated and maligned over the past 50 years. Many have tried to "reinvent" the 'margam'. Most have failed.
So when talented and charismatic dancer Shankar Kandasamy of Malaysia announced his evening length venture NEO MARGAM for the DIVERCITY Kuala Lumpur Arts Festival, I had my doubts.
After all, Shankar, along with his colleague at Temple of Fine Arts (TFA) had already NEO-ed the margam 18 years ago when they created HAMSAGATI, an intelligent morphing of the Alaruppu and Jatiswaram template. With beautifully dancers trained in Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak and contemporary technique, they are like malleable clay and a choreographer's dream.
So how much more NEO would Shankar take this full lengh venture? Artistic Director of the festival, Ramli Ibrahim, himself a national icon in Malaysia, urged Shankar to take his modern accents into a longer offering, Shankar had many directions in which to take his vision of Bharatanatyam.
Using new nomenclatures for each of the five dance pieces - Rhythm Mandala. Off Balance, Monologue, Gossip and Thrillana, Shankar stayed within the familiar 'margam' progression to implode the choreography and staging with two main ideas as catalysts.
INTRA - using Bharatanatyam's kinetic ability to push each posture and movement into unfamiliar areas and INTER - using the connections between Bharatanatyam and other dance forms.
The presiding memory of the sound design became the piano. In selecting this percussion instrument to become the "bed" of sound to anchor the fluid choreography, Shankar sacrificed the complex melodic structures of Carnatic music. Off tune singing was a ear sore but beautiful staging, lovely lighting with eye catching gobos and lithe dancers pulled the uneven ideas together.
Shankar tried to put the five part performance in context by walking onto stage at the very beginning in a practice dhoti and taking off his T shirt. With his back to the audiences, caught in a gentle pool of light, he went through the contours of his movement vocabulary. He was graceful, light footed and wonderful to watch. If only he could have extended that moment longer. The silent magic was rudely punctured with the entry of the slim but over adorned dancers - bells, jewellery and all.
So what was NEO about this? My mind began to hunt for answers as the choreography unfolded. However, cynical doubts were temporarily pushed aside as the the imaginatively structured Ganapati Vandana and Alarippu etched a beautiful kinetic diagram.
This was followed by the central idea of the evening. OFF BALANCE was an 'neo" response to the lovely Jathiswaram. It was this piece that made the choreographer's vision illuminated most clearly. Tilting ever so slightly beyond the "natyarambha" position and falling 'off balance' throughout the choric refrains was both poetic and arresting.
What followed were three uninspiring dances.. MONOLOGUE was melodramatic and over articulated - cinema influenced hysterics seeping into voices trying to SPEAK the first line of the Lalgudi Jayaraman Tamil 'varnam' in various ways- much like the "sanchari" exploration of a classical dancer. Bodies throwing themselves in various directions. Supple yes. But what was the point?
GOSSIP followed, taking the well known 'pallavi' sections of javalis and padams. None of the 'angika abhinaya' worked. It became monotonous and repetitive. Again, more flailing of limbs
After having watched a cascade of non stop movement from ballet, Odissi, contemporary technique, fall and release training and Bharatanatyam fused together for almost 50 minutes, the final THRILLANA seemed to be the same old same old.
Not to take away anything from the brave attempt by both dancers and the choreographer. NEO MARGAM has huge potential but the idea needs to be more rigorously discussed and Shankar needs to create some intervals where he puts himself on stage and not handling the lights. The dancers need a fresh look at costumes and the choreography can certainly have more variety.
My biggest question was " Where was the CENTRE of the classical form from which one could be pushed off centre?" I did not see a single moment of araimandi and the clear lines of the form in which the blurring or tweaking could then be more enjoyed.
NEO MARGAM is worth watching and this trajectory of dance design is one way in which classical training can travel. Shankar Kandasamy has very good ideas and a marvellous company of well trained young women to mount them on.