M.D. Muthukumaraswamy: I want to ask you about the title of your article, 'The Honest Body' (published in Voyages of the Body and Mind: Selected Female Icons of India and Beyond, eds. Anita Ratnam and Ketu H. Katrak, Cambridge, 2014). What do you mean by 'honest body' and is there something called a dishonest body? What is the relationship between an honest body and dance?
Padmini Chettur: Of course there is bound to be certain subjectivity in the use of any of these terms when one talks about an honest person as opposed to a person who lies or pretends, and I think it is very much within this frame and also within the frame of what my history of dance is.
So when one was looking at the early work that Chandralekha did, the work that she was doing or the form of Bharatanatyam of her own, one was looking at the whole form or the way Bharatanatyam was being presented in a certain time of history as false, in the sense of that wasn’t what the form was about necessarily. The form had become, at a certain time, about a sort of entertainment, about a certain kind of seduction, certainly there was a certain pretence that became part and parcel of how the Bharatanatyam dancer was expected to be. And I still do remember when I first started to work with Chandra, there was a lot of use of terminology like cheating or lying and it was always used in terms of the people who weren’t able to really look with brutal honesty at their own action, at their own physical possibilities. So it is like, okay, I can’t do a complete split but let me pretend. That is a simplistic kind of an example I am throwing at you.
But I think that for me over years and time it was really to look for a performer who was capable of being on stage rather than pretending on a stage or a person who could be devoid of certain layers of affectation, ornamentation, who was acting, a person who could just really be and be in the body. So I think that over time I agreed with this terminology of the honest body in different ways and with different levels of, perhaps, brutality. It has also been what I have been looking when I work with other dancers, some who come to me from Bharatanatyam always have so many more problems to understand this idea of just letting go, letting go of these ideas of what your body is and who you are either.
So I think that these are processes and I think these are processes to arrive at or to achieve somehow the idea of what you imagine you want a performing body to become. And of course, the discourse was always a lot larger than just dance especially in Chandra’s work. It was always also about how you live your life, to see it the next day in the rehearsal process.
So in a lot of ways it was for some I think a little extreme and as I work, with every decade I feel dancers less able to engage with this whole discourse about life and art. And so one has to adapt also the idea of what the honest body could be, as an adaptable idea I think. But I think for me it is always possible to see in a performance what the real person is and who is really being there and who is pretending to be there, I think it boils down to that somewhat.
M.D.M.: When did you join Chandra?
P.C.: So I joined the company in 1990 just after I came out of university.
M.D.M.: What were your initial impressions of Chandra’s work?
P.C.: For me Chandra was providing an answer somehow to everything I had questioned in Bharatanatyam before and everything that actually took me away from Bharatanatyam and led me to study the sciences and I hadn’t been dancing for four years.
M.D.M.: You were trained as a Bharatanatyam dancer?
P.C.: I was trained before that. All my childhood I trained in Bharatanatyam with Pandanallur Subbaraya Pillai but it was never an ambition for me to perform that form because there was always for me a sense of disagreement. But as a practice I think that it was something that I physically did enjoy at many levels.
When I first walked into Chandra’s place, I mean they were rehearsing Sri at that time and for me it was a completely miraculous to see. I mean I agreed with everything she was doing at that time on so many levels and I think most importantly for me it became a very important schooling. It filled in, I mean Chandra always joked to us, 'You, English-educated people'. And yes, I wasn’t convent educated, so it wasn’t that bad but there were so many ideas of history, politics, identity, aesthetic that were just absent for us, growing up in a regular CBSE school and I think that for me those 10 years with Chandra were really about that. I think I really understood such a large idea about context and who I was. And even I couldn’t completely embody it because I had of course a huge disadvantage of being predominantly English speaking, coming from what was predominantly family of academics who weren’t that engaged with certain discourses that were alive in those days but I do think that for me it was a very big life shift.
M.D.M.: Let us talk about your disagreements with traditional Bharatanatyam. You mentioned the pretences in the Bharatanatyam just now and then you were also not very comfortable with the narrative of the Bharatanatyam that you mentioned…..And another thing is the posture, the standing of the postures…
P.C.: Yes, yes, I had very big problems.
M.D.M.: What were your disagreements?
P.C.: I think there are many things to be said about this. In fact, I I often jokingly tell my dancers that they should make me a director of Kalakshetra, it would do Bharatanatyam a lot of good. No, jokes aside, I think first there is a huge problem with the way of teaching, with the pedagogy. It is a form which is traditionally passed down by the nattuvanars, in fact my teacher was a nattuvanar, supreme nattuvanar but did not know how to dance. So all of his teaching was done with him sitting on the floor beating the stick and telling us what to do. But there was no detail to that teaching in terms of any anatomical detail, none of that, but I will come back to that later.
So I started at the age of eight and performed my arangetram (debut) when I was 12, and the Mohamana varnam in Bhairavi ragam is what I performed for my arangetram but it was impossible. I mean how can you expect a 10 or 11-year-old girl to comprehend any of that emotionality of what that varnam means or what the heroine is doing? How can you ask a 12-year-old to look coy, to look like they are in love? I mean this is outright senselessness. And I do know that, people do tell me that in the later years people are looking at more age-appropriate content. Coming from a family where religion was not present in my life, I was never a very religious person. I found the whole idea of god difficult for me within that certain context. It was not something I could believe in. The content of what I was asked to represent was not something that I could be convinced about. So all through one’s early childhood, one is acting, one is just fulfilling the obligation to a teacher somehow, but it never felt very convincing to me.
And there was a second thing which joins more together with the idea of pretence. It was this whole idea of constantly smiling. And it just didn’t make any sense to me. Why is somebody smiling through this performance? And as you get older, if you look at the work of some of our senior dancers, it is not just smiling, there is a particular kind of smiling, every dancer has their own style, some have a more coquettish one, some play between a kind of pretend anger and there are different levels at which this smile is enacted. And for me these were all terrifically problematic things just to perform. And also I never enjoyed watching it. It never made sense to me.
And of course, once I grew older I started to understand the history of where Bharatanatyam started from and why it has turned into the form in which it exists today. I can understand it theoretically, intellectually, I see why it became what it was. And so the big relief for me when I went to work with Chandra was when we were working on a piece like Prana (1990) where the grammar of Bharatanatyam was so present but she would say, Please don’t smile, wipe that horrible mannerism off your face.
So this whole business of being able to still perform and to practise everything which I loved about Bharatanatyam which was really the nritta, the adavu, the line without having to also smile at an audience, it made a lot of sense for me. I felt, why hadn’t somebody thought of this before. For me it was an absolute genius of course. Probably the most genius thing that she did.
Of course, there was a very annoying article or interview she did for a newspaper where she says I dislike the diabolic smiles of Bharatanatyam dancers. And it has really become that. Also I think the big difference between the practice of abhinaya in Bharatanatyam as opposed to in a form like Kathakali or Kudiyattam is the lack of technique, quite very simply put. So what ends up happening is the dancer on stage is resorting to their own kind of mannerism and something they obviously observe from film, I don’t know where they get their sources from, but there is no really technical breakdown of how many millimetres to move the eyeball, how many inches to twitch the mouth, which is all remarkably prescribed in so many other forms, but somehow with Bharatanatyam we got so much into this cult of the diva that it became very problematic for me.
And to return once again, I say today there is, the average Bharatanatyam dancer is completely out of touch with their own body, has no understanding of anatomy, doesn’t know where their spine begins and ends, doesn’t know where their natyarambhae (beginning of dance) begins and ends and has no sense of which muscle supports which action or which movement and it is leading to dancers who are injured too young for what they do. A just very unthinking body of people who are doing very rigorous things with their body. It is just not interesting to watch any more, it is too raw, it is too crude. There needs to be an injection of more updated, scientific knowledge. Not that we want to change what the form is. If you want to sit in araimandi for two hours and damage your knees, that is still your choice. But do it in a way that you don’t damage your knees, do it efficiently.
I think in that way the form has and the teaching of the form has remained so stagnant predominantly. But I do think there are pockets. There are people like Navtej (Navtej Singh Johar) in Delhi who have been trying to inject other pedagogic strains into the teaching of Bharatanatyam but predominantly I don’t see this. And I think that when I am working with a dancer who finished from Kalakshetra, I mean, it is just quite shocking for me, the sort of naiveté with which they actually emerge from there. And to be very honest, oftentimes, they are not even good at their own practice. So in this whole discourse about purity and preserving tradition, what are we actually talking about?
M.D.M.: Chandra introduced other forms like kalaripayattu and yoga into Bharatanatyam. What did you think of it at that point?
P.C.: I don’t see it like that at all. I mean, I find the way you articulate the question wrong. Sorry. So it wasn’t that she injected yoga or kalaripayattu. No. Her point was this. We want to find a contemporary practice that emerges out of Indian physical traditions as opposed to just importing western ideas because western contemporary dance had already been in existence for quite a few decades when Chandra began her own work. Her idea was what we would call Indian physicality. So in order to understand what for her Indian physicality was, she looked at what we have here in terms of forms. So we have yoga, in the south we have predominantly Bharatanatyam, that was where she came from. And then in her travels to Kerala she discovered and fell in love with kalaripayattu.
The reason I think that she used these three as the sort of the main poles of what became her own practice later was that she saw certain qualities in all of the three which were unique. So for instance, when she looked at kalaripayattu she saw remarkably grounded bodies, bodies that had strength which the Bharatanatyam dancer did not have, according to her. At the same time, when she looked at yoga, she said there is an understanding about spine, there is an understanding about the flow of energy within the body that kalari and Bharatanatyam don’t perhaps have. So she was looking for the unique qualities really. I think that was the intention with which she started this whole business of cross training. That was very simply where it started.
So Bharatanatyam dancers would not only learn Bharatanatyam but they would learn yoga and kalaripayattu in order to achieve a quality that went beyond what they already had. And I think through her years of work what she really wanted to do, and which I think she finally achieved, was when she created Sharira (2003) was sort of a synthesis of the body principle. Like what she learned from her work with the three forms separately over the years somehow came together. She was looking to create a sort of a vocabulary, I think.
M.D.M.: A vocabulary of a body interacting with the time and space or something like that...
P.C.: Absolutely. A body that has a recognisable aesthetic starting point, a recognisable technical starting point that would be located within this physical context.
M.D.M.: For instance, in Angika and Mahakal, you see kalarippayattu and yoga very explicitly and these are forms that are taken from kalaripayattu, yogic postures and then they are integrated into the dance. But then in Sharira you don’t really see that.
P.C.: Yes. So I think this is what I am talking about. I think for any kind of artistic practice it takes so many years to develop. I mean this is the same with any other field, like if you look at an academic study of science, you have a starting point. Because my background is chemistry, I know you have a starting point of these many schools of thought. It takes 10 or 15 years of research before you can come with your proposition. I think that is the kind of time that art is demanding. But what you do in those in between times within a performative tradition you can’t say, wait, I am going to produce a work 15 years later. You keep producing but the act of producing those in between works which are not always complete and not always what the actual intention is but they become the necessary stepping stone I think. And at a certain moment you feel you arrive and I think that for me the tragedy, whether or not I should call it a tragedy, or what I think what was interesting, was that we must remember that Chandra began her choreographic practice when she was quite mature already, I mean already in her 50s. So, compared to a lot of long artistic careers which span four or five decades she had a brief one. And it took that much time to arrive at Sharira and for me what is interesting in looking at Chandra’s work is not the individual dissection. There were lot of unsuccessful pieces as well but I think what is interesting for me to look at it is where it eventually led her and how we can regard that legacy over time.
M.D.M.: That brings me to another question. You recognise movement as the primary unit of dance in Sharira possibly, which is definitely not indebted to any of these—Bharatanatyam, kalaripayattu or yoga—which is quite free from these forms in a way. But then the movement is well rehearsed and it is not completely free, it is not spontaneous on stage.
P.C.: No, absolutely not.
M.D.M.: And then I remember you quoting Chandra saying that movement makes its own meaning. It is not pre-determined movement. Then how is this free meaning emerging out of the movement if it is not spontaneous, if it is well-rehearsed in advance and then repeated on stage?
P.C.: When we use this word spontaneous, what do we mean? Do we use it in a context of saying something is just improvised or created on the spur of the moment but why does that necessarily mean that it has more meaning than something that is rehearsed? I think that one of the most important qualities of a professional performer, a performer who has to perform the same performance 40-50 or 200 times over years is the ability to demechanise the known. While there are people who are working in the sphere of dance with improvisation but most of the big, canonical names of contemporary dance have never put improvised movement on the stage.
Choreography means necessarily the precision of movement in time and space. Now if a movement needs to get from here to here in 'x' amount of time, of course you can give a little bit of leeway to the performer because every day a performer’s rhythm is a little bit different. So every time when I was performing Sharira, some days it was 50 minutes long, some days it was 48 minutes long. That was my rhythm of the day. So there is a certain flexibility especially in a performance where movement and music aren’t necessarily together all the time. Where there is a certain freedom to allow for each other. But let us not fool ourselves. In any performance whether it is a Bharatanatyam performance that makes you cry because it is so emotional, or a Kathakali performance, these are extremely well-rehearsed. There is no improvisation. So why is it that there is an expectation when it comes to a contemporary practice? I hear this a lot, a feeling that anything goes in contemporary practice.
M.D.M.: No, no, that is not the idea.
P.C.: Okay. So to come back to a specific strain of thought, of movement creating meaning, I think that this is spoken in a context. Of course, it depends what we call meaning again. It is spoken in a context where movement has its own existence that is somewhere separate from even the interpretation which the performer gives it. I do believe that. Because if you are constantly at the mercy of a performer’s interpretation to give meaning to the movement, you would be in quite a lot of trouble. So movement is an entity on its own. A performer of course enters this idea of performing movement but eventually I think that meaning must be read predominantly from where the visual sense of movement takes the audience.
I think that of course different audiences have different abilities to read movement. Some people have more references than others, some people respond purely instinctively. Some people are still constantly looking at the blank faces of performers wondering what to think about it all. So there are so many types of ways of viewing dance.
But I think that in the context specifically of Sharira, in all of Chandra’s previous works that were so conceptually led where she necessarily went into the studio saying this is a piece about this, and this is where my research ideas come from, this is what I want the piece to express, I think with Sharira she really came in in a very different state of mind, very much having a real sense of understanding of what her form had become over so many years.
So again I disagree with you when you say it doesn’t derive so obviously from Bharatanatyam and yoga and kalaripayattu, because for me it very obviously derives. It is just that the lines are so much more blurred where she said, let us not worry about what we want to mean.
M.D.M.: Yes, you were talking about movement and you were saying even a rehearsed movement in a contemporary dance still allows the room for individual dancer to be creative, spontaneous and even give free expressions within the limited scope of whatever is available within that time.
P.C.: Vast scope.
M.D.M.: Sharira was performed at different time scales and at different performances. And I want to draw your attention to the statement that you always quote from Chandra saying that where does the body end and where does the body begin. What is the philosophical import of that statement in relation to the pieces that you worked with Chandra and also your work?
P.C.: I think this was a real question for her. I think at the core of her work she saw the body as a very primal and central character or as the vehicle for larger questions about life. I think that in the time that she worked, she felt there was a real need to revive this question. She felt that as a society we were perhaps all the time just caught up in the mundane. It was affecting bodies in certain ways. Everything was about speed and information and capitalism. I mean these things had already started then, let us not forge, in '80s-'90s India.
I think that for her this question, 'Where does the body start and where does it end?', had very much to do with the particular vision that she had for the body. And for her the body was not something to be trivialised. It was at the very core of teaching us how to live as people, as better human beings. So in a way for me this question of hers came from her own certain kind of political investigations but what was interesting for me was actually how this question translates into her work as performance. I think that the question itself led her to create her entire theory about body and space that the arm was never just reaching from the centre of the spine to the tips of the fingers, it had to reach into eternity. So there was a certain extension of the body which actually became a tangible, a sort of technical thing that when you worked with Chandra as a dancer, this was what you had to learn. You had to create endlessness out of your own body line.
In Sharira for instance, the first half an hour of Sharira in the version that I was dancing, I was only sitting on the floor in one stationary position and only working with my arms in certain kind of gestural movement. But for the whole half hour I had to have a real sense of connecting myself to something that was far below me, the visualisation of my spine had to become an extension that came from the core of the earth and that extended infinitely.
It could sound vague in a moment but after years and years of working with her, with hearing her say this isn’t charged, try something else, this is dead space, try something else, you realise that this work— you know today people say, what do you mean when you say space, what do you mean when you say charging space—but you only know when you really work at it. When I performed Sharira in Bombay at NCPA, a famous German choreographer Sasha Waltz was in the last row and, you know, it is a big auditorium, and she came to me after the performance and said to me, I could see every breath that you took. And that is what travelling through space becomes about.
I think that this work is something that I feel I could only carry forward in my own solo work which is very limited because I have predominantly a body of groupwork and I always found it very difficult to do that work which Chandra did with me on space. I found it difficult to do it with other dancers.
But in my own solo work, for instance if you look at the work of Beautiful Thing 2, it attaches itself completely again to this idea of moving space and that is what Beautiful Thing 2 was about. A series of the same movement in repetition, constantly only traversing one line and I call it displacing space. And I think that for me that work is a direct extension of this technique of space which I actually learnt from my years of working with Chandra and especially from that experience of working on Sharira with her.
So I think that, as choreographers we say lofty things sometimes, we all do that, but you can always call someone’s bluff: okay, you said this but what is it actually, what is it becoming in terms of a choreographic trait or what is it becoming in terms of movement. So I think for me that is why time and again as I see dancers today I ask them how you see your body? Because if you don’t have an image, if you don’t have a visualisation of what your own body is, then where is your own authentic idea of body and movement coming from? Without a dancer developing a sense of that, for me they shouldn’t be choreographers, because it is an important starting point. It is not just about what movement should I do or all of that. Those are the secondary things. But what is this vision of body that you have for yourself? I think that is an important thing.
M.D.M.: Let us talk about your practices then. The practices that you mentioned in distributing work to your group dancers and then provoking them to come out with movements, you divide the body into three sections, torso, legs and other things. Is it not fragmenting the body?
P.C.: Yes. As a starting point it is, but this was one particular work. I don’t follow the same idea of task.
M.D.M.: But ‘homage to feet’ (3 Solos, 2003) for instance, the title gives away that you are particularly looking at one fragment of the body.
P.C.: Yes. That was a solo work. But I think the work to maybe start looking at is Paper Doll because I think that until Paper Doll (2005), in all of my works including Fragility, I was following a more traditional choreographic methodology which is what I had learnt from Chandra, which is you create a movement, you teach it to the dancers, you organise it in time and space and that is the work. And I had a feeling at the point of Fragility that it was leading to a certain distance between the dancer and the action because they were all the time trying to execute a movement which came from my body which I had thought about and created and has somehow more to do with my physical practice and aesthetic. So with Paper Doll I thought, let us think about creating vocabulary that comes from a collective starting point. So that everybody feels a sense of inclusion and involvement and that the actual creation of language can go beyond my own imagination.
So what I started to do with Paper Doll alone was, I created the divisions between bodies. I would ask different groups of dancers to create with very controlled parameters because I always find dancers are very afraid when you give them too much freedom, they absolutely don’t not how to deal with that, so I always have created very clear parameters. So my parameter everyday would be like, give me eight simple actions of the feet. To another group I would say, give me eight simple actions of the head together with shoulders and to the last set I would say, give me eight simple actions of the spine. Each group doesn’t know what the other is actually creating, and it doesn’t matter.
Then it was almost like, you know, when you have these puzzles as a child, you have these men with hats, t-shirts and shoes and you can mix them all up. So it was a little bit like this. I think a lot of my ideas come also from these games. Then I would randomly say, okay now we collect, in random sequences, we put together your sequence of head with my sequence of feet and Krishna’s sequences of spine action. So you are actually creating a set of strange action that isn’t controlled by intention so much but has a random quality to it.
We did this for almost a whole year. We created like a huge amount of material that all had this same strange connectivity of body parts and coming together and this became the starting point for the work. Once I had this, this is the sort of the ABC, then I start to draw out. I would say, well, this phrase is interesting, let me lengthen it in time, 10 times. Let me apply certain other questions to the material, and that is the way I developed the language for Paper Doll. And I enjoyed the process so much and I felt that it helped the dancers too because there was always a movement that they had created that was somewhere in it. So it didn’t feel like this was a language that was solely mine, that I had imposed but it felt like a language that everybody had shared.
And with every piece, I tried to create a process like with Pushed (2006) it was more a process of sharing your own experiences of emotional moments for yourself and deriving the visual code for the language from the actual written material. So with every piece I was very clear that it wouldn’t just be me deciding I would do this movement because after a point this whole business of choosing movement became very meaningless. Why is one movement better than another? So my philosophy would be that every movement is valid. What makes it work or not work depends on what context I place the movement within. And that became my work as a choreographer and that is the work that I love to do. I love to play with structure and it is in the structuring of the material that the work becomes created.
So that was a process that I began with Paper Doll and ever since then I have tried to actually create in a way that the process is somehow outside of myself, that I don’t control it too much.
M.D.M.: That was one thing I wanted to ask you about. When I watched your earlier performances prior to Fragility, something like Soliloquy if I remember, there was a kind of a bewilderment in the whole sequence, there is an anxiety, there is a helplessness, there is a revenge.
P.C.: But I was 26 at that time. So you can hardly blame me.
M.D.M.: No. I see that slowly you are coming out of those, and then again I see that kind of emotion expressed quite explicitly in Pushed. But the rest of the other performances I don’t see the emotions expressed so explicitly, they are all very controlled, understated, even doll-like-expressions. Why should the face be out of the body in terms of expressing the emotions and everything?
P.C.: Was there any face in Pushed?
M.D.M.: Well, Pushed has quite a few very nice expressions, facial expressions I would say.
P.C.: ... But Pushed is a work about emotion. None of my other works explicitly look at emotion. I mean the starting point with Pushed was because we were doing this research with Korea at the time and all of the music for Pushed was created with traditional Korean musicians. It was an interesting idea for me to look at something that connected the way Korean traditional music is organised, with the way our own music and dance are organised. So this compartmentalisation of emotions and we have nine, they had seven, I decided, after many years of completely trying to avoid an obvious looking at emotion, I wanted to make this work again about emotion. For me it is still a very abstract work. It is not a work that is about expressing emotion. It is a work for me that looks at what actually happens to the body in an emotional state. So it is two very different things. And I think every work for me is looking specifically at a conceptual idea. And if I were to restrict my whole exploration in terms of dance to one area which was emotion, I think that would be quite limited for me. It is not the most interesting thing for me.
In fact, if you look at a work like Beautiful Thing 1 (2009) where I specifically say, I actually just want to create a Beautiful Thing that doesn’t necessarily have to say something either politically or thematically, that it is just a work that is about time, so the speeding up and slowing down of time, then for me there is obviously no overt space for emotion but for me this simple act of a human body on stage is an emotional act. And of course, much of that, the quality of its expression is lost when one is watching on film but I think that I have never been very interested in the idea of expressing emotion because I find it so limited by the individual. I try to look at the idea like we talked about, meaning being created out of movement and I like to think about the idea of emotion as well being created out of a moment and not necessarily as in you are having a bad day and then you want to create a solo which is full of angst. Or sometimes you have very angry dancers who put these feelings into movement and I find that very tiring and unnecessary.
M.D.M.: The two choreographies Beautiful Thing 1 and 2 (2011) were very brilliant too. But the other one like Kolam (2014), were you wandering into some other area which was not your own?
P.C.: Yes, absolutely. But it was an area that interested me. I mean I don’t do, I have done a few projects which have been commissioned projects. So with Kolam, yes and no. There was a starting proposition which is that, there was a huge restriction on what the movement could be, so I didn’t have to think about it. It had to be only walking. And there were many parameters which I think are not so interesting to talk about but what interested me about Kolam was that what the audience is seeing is very pure in that it is only about the way the piece is structured that you are actually creating certain narrative of space and time and that is all and this has always interested me. Therefore, it was a work that, that was a fun thing to do for a few months but very also not layered, it couldn’t go far. So after that, in fact somebody had asked me if I would be interested in developing it into a longer work but I wasn’t really interested because the whole fact that I could only play with this whole vertical action of walking meant that okay, it was an interesting thing for me to do for those 10 minutes but that was it.
But I think it is wrong to see Kolam as a work on its own as I said, in the way that it is always shown. It is always with five or six other similar ideas of carpets and people walking and then you see a choreographic stamp when you look at Kolam because that is what I could bring to it. Whereas all the other works of the French choreographer, David Roland, have very different ideas of time and space. I mean there is no stillness in his work. There is no tension really between sound and what the dancers are doing. I think that was why, I mean the work that Maarten (Maarten Visser) and I did together with Kolam was kind of interesting for us to do.
M.D.M.: Was Wall Dancing (2012) your political piece…covertly political?
P.C.: I don’t see it that way. Why do you ask me that?
M.D.M.: Because you wanted to break away from the centre space and then wanted people to participate and come and go in any time offered…?
P.C.: I think it was political in a sense that it was addressing a certain politics of performance and I think it was addressing a politics of market. As I said to you earlier, in the previous work already, Beautiful Thing 2, I started to work with some curators from Bombay who had written to me at the time. They are called the Clark House Initiative. And it was interesting for me because all of a sudden after so many years of only being in dance festivals, dance theatres, these visual art curators wrote to me and said we want to do an exhibition with you. And over the years even before I started working on Wall Dancing, I started to find it quite interesting to frame my work as visual art and not as performance. And I think it worked for me also because of the nature of my work. Often people have said to me that there is something about my work that has a more visual art frame to it, in that it remains a proposition, and it often didn’t go beyond the fact of proposition itself. There was often no narrative. It is very abstract. It has a sculptural sense to it. It engages very much with all visual art kind of frameworks.
When I started to engage the visual arts space, I found it quite freeing in the sense that there was a sense that work could remain quite raw, like there wasn’t this whole drama of production, and I felt it quite nice that people could be—that there was the possibility of proximity—that it took me very close to this idea of letting go of kind of this notion of projecting off the stage. So people could be very simple with their bodies.
So there were certain ideas that came over the years. Every time I performed Beautiful Thing 2, off the proscenium, in a simple setting with just some tube lights or gallery lights and with nothing around, with people just sitting around me, I started to really enjoy it as an experience. So I thought with Wall Dancing, rather than making a work for a stage and taking it away from the stage, why not start by actually creating a work for a non-stage situation.
People were always telling me, the work is so slow, it is boring, and we can’t really sit through an hour. So I thought, okay, come and go as you want. So I was really responding to 15 years of hearing of how people were reacting to my work and then I thought to myself, okay, you can’t sit through my work for more than 10 minutes because you can’t concentrate, so you have the freedom of coming and going but for myself, I actually wanted to create a work that was much longer than an hour because I felt for myself that I had the possibility to create and structure much longer work. So it felt like a happy balance. I could create a three-hour, endless, slow and boring work but the audience could choose. But ironically what ended up happening was that audiences were always coming at the beginning and sitting for three hours. So the purpose was defeated. But some were still leaving saying it was slow and boring.
M.D.M.: Nice interpretation and background information on Wall Dancing. I was curious about the absence of some male dancers in your performance. Why is it so? Except in Wall Dancing you don’t have male dancers in your choreographies.
P.C.: One of the biggest struggles has been despite living in a city which is filled with dancers, there are not many who are a) interested b) willing to do the kind of work that I do. And I have never had a practice of auditioning or putting out calls for dancers. I wait for dancers to sort of knock on my doors. So somebody hears about me through some source, they write to me, I meet them, if it works out, they enter my practice. No matter what quality of dance they come with, I am willing to work and train them etc. And I think that the absence of male dancers is simply because male dancers haven’t shown an interest to work with me and perhaps because there has always been some kind of a subtext where people have referred to my work as being about certain kind of ideas of the female body specifically which maybe it has, maybe the language I work with also is more specific to the female body is something I have thought about from time to time.
M.D.M.: And could you elaborate your work with musicians and music in general. How does it affect the compositions?
P.C.: Most of my work is created and structured without music. I very rarely have started with a piece of music and said, okay, I am now going to make a composition. So I have always have like a grid, which is a time-based grid which is mostly quite a rhythmic grid because that is sort of an understanding of time that I know very well. So I always am creating without sound information which makes it actually difficult for the people, the musicians that I work with. Most of my work has been created with one composer, Maarten Visser. I think that in the early work that we started to develop together, I saw it as a sort of a parallel research where I was very much looking at movement aesthetic and my question to him was how do we find a sound aesthetic that somehow matches and resonates and perhaps challenges what one is seeing.
I think that his own journey in creating multiple works with me has led him to also rethink what sound is and how to generate sound and exploring different ways to record different ways of looking at pitch frequency. So you asked me a while back, what do I look at as research, but I think that his journey has also been a parallel research, I think, for both of us.