You will not be more surprised than I am to find me writing about a contemporary dance concert based in the techniques of belly dancing. Contemporary dance is free to draw on all forms of natural and codified movement. To see an excellent concert performance emanating out of training of control of torso, shoulders, chest, stomach and hips was remarkable.
At core was a motivation by the the Banjara School of Dance, directed by Meher Malik, to make the process and result of this year’s student performance a journey rather than a showcase. The theme of Navarasa took the presentation beyond fun entertainment to the depth and height of emotions. This was interpreted through improvisation sessions exploring the physical expression of each rasa by an individual class of Banjara students. Based on the guided improvisations, teacher/choreographers developed the emotional energy in space and time.
Belly dancing clearly means different things to different people. Years ago I attended a New Year’s Eve celebration at a 5 star hotel where the cabarat performance of a European belly dancer left me feeling depressed and sorry for her rather than entertained.
Today’s belly dance schools in the major cities offer traditions based on women’s comradery and physically liberating movement. The new name is Tribal Fusion Belly Dance, actually a modern Western form of belly dance. Artists in America and now India frequently incorporate elements from Popping, Hip Hop, ‘Egyptian’ or ‘Cabaret’ belly dance, as well as movement principles from traditional forms such as Flamenco, Kathak, Odissi, and other folkloric and classical dance styles.
Navarasa is a uniquely Indian and universally human subject to explore. Emotions were introduced by one or two dancer/choreographers masked and clothed in black from neck to ankle with back, upper chest and stomach revealed. These danced cameo intros were performed in from of large Prakriti Gandhi paintings connected to each emotion, reminiscent of the old time introductions with signage in pantomime theatre.
The group presentations were framed in the opening and finale with the rasa of peace, Shantirasa melding the Martha Graham like movements of Meher Malik with the idealized classical devi of Nitisha Nanada. As the presentations moved through the nine classical emotions it was quite wonderful to see how effectively the hip shimmy communicated emotion from the core of being, joy as well as anger.
The well designed costumes added the appropriate aharya abhinaya to each emotion – ripped red kurtas for anger, pastel purple flowers flowing for joy, bright yellow for laughter, long draped navy chiffon for sorrow – with the added characteristic of the mid torso bare past the navel or chiffon draped in every sequence except the anger. A minimal number of the nearly one hundred women and few men performing had perfectly lean midsections so the dancers also communicated a clear sense of being at home in their bodies and centered in self. This liberation of revealing what most of us keep covered was exuberantly offered to the audience. The diversity of uncovered abdomens made the performances very human and humane and quickly becomes normative.
Preceding the performance, in a Globelly documentary by Ajay Sapkota, each choreographer as well as some of the dancers were interviewed to share their mental images and the process leading up to the performance of each emotion. Meher Malik spoke of the overarching theme and process as well as her choreography of Gulistaan (love) and Aakhri Sachi Peace). Aakriti Gandi tackled both Teesri Aankh (Anger) and Khwaabon ka Jahaan (Wonder). The horribly irritating high frequency audio track was well designed to heighten the anger as dancers added piercing crys to to the fury of their physicality and she capped the piece by an act of self-mutilation, cutting off a real chunk of hair. Rehearsal shots showed how Wonder developed from childhood and chasing soap bubbles.
In the video and on stage we saw how Pinky Sapkota evolved Andhera Saaya (Fear) through improvisations through the mouth covered, hyperventilation of dancers exploring floor and lateral space and the claustrophobic trapped-in-a-box mime movements under attack until finally smothered.
Shikha Thakur clearly had fun in the process of showing Muskurate Taare (Joy) with bouncing laughter and simplistic but effective dance choreography from samba flavored to jitterbug. In the video explorations and even more in the actual performance, we saw Nidhi Negi really took her dancers deeply into translating Rengti Mahaamari (Disgust) into movement. She used contact improvisation to extend the images as bodies became creeping clawing beings and even included retching and ended with licking feet. Very effectively disgusting! Sandeep Dutta’s light and sound design here and throughout was excellent.
Damini Sahay thoughtfully developed Daldal (Sorrow) from a minimalist solo with tears and a slow body roll to the group expressing their emotion with figure eights of hips, undulations and hand gestures. Nitish Nanda shared her views last in the video about process, the work with her students on Himmat E Mardaan Madad E Khuda (Courage) and positioning of Peace among the navarasas.
Meher Malik’s motivation to make this belly dance based contemporary dance production a journey rather than a showcase extended the Navarasa theme further through the aspirational Stairway to Heaven. This was a reflection of the reality that life is a countdown to death and that, enslaved by our own actions, we exhaust ourselves rather than understand that Peace is the acceptance of impermanence and interconnectedness. Nitisha Nanda as Peace drew on her classical training to elegantly share in creating with Meher a unique genre of contemporary dance. Given the superb foundation in the elements of using space, time, energy and motion in contemporary dance, combined with a unique core technique, I would love to see Meher perform solo as well as through her school.
Sharon Lowen is a respected exponent of Odissi, Manipuri and Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau whose four-decade career in India was preceded by 17 years of modern dance and ballet in the US and an MA in dance from the University of Michigan. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org