Saturday, November 25, 2006

(D) Seven Graces - Nov 3, 2006

CAN you imagine a group of senior citizens dancing on stage and attempting more movements than their osteoporosis-ridden bones allow? It’s a thought that makes one cringe.

Sadly, our socially-conditioned image of dancers – perfect physique, graceful and agile movements – leaves very little room for us to think otherwise. Generally, mature dancers performing tap, folk and social dances can get away from scathing comments. But not so for those who take up ballet, hip hop, breakdance and contemporary dance.

“I am most interested in exploring the richness and the possibilities of a mature woman – I’m 50 this year – expressing herself without pretending to be younger than she is,” said Anita Ratnam, who is bent on challenging conventional mindsets.

Ratnam was in Kuala Lumpur last weekend to perform Seven Graces, as part of the third (and final) flush of the “Under the Stars Series” 2006. The show, which rounded up Sutra Dance Theatre’s performance season for the year, is her solo “operatic” creation. She worked in collaboration with Hari Krishnan, an India-born, Canada-based dancer, choreographer, teacher and dance scholar.

In India today, Ratnam notes, solo work does not figure in contemporary dance, which usually features group choreography. Thus her solo dance challenges yet another “norm”.

Chennai-based Ratnam wears many hats. She is dancer, choreographer, transcultural collaborator, arts presenter, scholar, writer and cultural activist. With a career spanning four decades and having staged over 1,000 performances in 15 countries, it’s not surprising that she is one of India’s most recognised dance icons.

Apart from being trained in bharatanatyam and the Kerala dance traditions of kathakali and mohiniattam, she holds a Masters degree in theatre and television. She returned home to Chennai, after a highly successful 10-year tenure as TV producer and commentator.

Seven Graces highlights Ratnam’s perspectives on goddess worship, and the many facets of Buddhist goddess Tara, and feminism.

Tara is one of the most ancient of goddesses still worshipped extensively in modern times. Legend has it that White Tara rose from a lotus blooming in the lake that formed from the first tear of compassion of the great Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara – tears that fell when he first beheld the scope of suffering in the world.

In other parts of the world, Tara is known as Tar (Finland), Kuan Yin (China), Terra (South America), IshTar (Egypt), Isis (Italy) and Agni Tara (Northern and Central Asia).

But this piece is not a literal re-telling of Tara’s attributes. Instead, Ratnam used the mythology of the goddess as a thematic reference point and each facet of Tara’s life reflected the choreographer’s personal journey as an urban Indian female.

Seven Graces had seven sections, each represented by a different hue – black, yellow, blue, red, green, white and saffron. Black represented birth and the darkness of the womb; yellow, childhood; blue, a youth negotiating her inner space, and discovering herself; red, a woman’s fierce passion and compassion; green, her wisdom and intelligence; white (where all colours merge into one), motherhood; and saffron (the most holy of colours), the woman’s embodiment of Buddha and her renunciation all things worldly.

Ratnam created a whole lexicon of gestures for the piece. Her gestures were not the conventional mudras used in classical Indian dance, but gestures developed from statements that represented significant areas of her life – such as “my children” and “mother holding on to the umbilical cord” – and from statements on the goddess Tara, such as “centre of the universe,” and “there is no one like her”.

The soundscape was particularly interesting. The blend of music from western and eastern (Tibetan) instruments, voice and sound effects culminated in a composition that enhanced and complemented all seven sections of the dance.

The music made Ratnam seem as if she was moving faster than she actually was, allowing her to move in ways natural for her age. Anita did not try to be younger than she was and she managed to maintain her dignity as a mature female dancer.

In this contemporary piece, the distinctive Indian flavour was not so much a derivative of classical Indian dance but more, a derivative of Ratnam, the archetype of today’s urban Indian female – intelligent, vocal and successful, yet grounded in tradition.