Culture

Contemporary Dance Gets a Lift With ‘The Jumping Project’

‘The Jumping Project’ is choreographer Preethi Athreya’s attempt to view the body as a functional being as opposed to a performative object.

Credit: India Foundation for the Arts

Credit: India Foundation for the Arts

For the first few minutes, the performers walk around the stage, not unlike robots. The fierce faces and the focused eyes seem to conceal a multitude of expressions underneath. The movements, though choreographed, appear to have an ad hoc, chaotic rhythm.

You are immediately hooked on to the performance, eager to find out more.

Gradually, walking shifts to jumping and it gets more intense with a change of pace and music. For the next hour, the ten performers continue to use jumping as their dance medium in the square pit stage. Dressed in track pants and tees, and drenched in sweat, all aesthetic elements are stripped off as only the raw physicality remains. 

In this experimental project titled ‘Conditions of Carriage’ or ‘The Jumping Project’, Chennai-based contemporary dancer and choreographer, Preethi Athreya, explores the body and space around it. Recently, she showcased it in the contemporary dance festival, IGNITE, held in Delhi and Jaipur.

This project is Athreya’s attempt to view the body as a functional being as opposed to a performative object.

She explains, “The functional body is completely engaged is what it’s doing. It is not watching itself. The composition is put together tightly such that there is little scope to be worried about how you appear to the public. As everyone jumps in time and space, you are too tired to worry about how you project yourself.”

With no aim to please, the body is immersed in its own doing, reclaiming its “autonomy.”

Trained as a classical Bharatanatyam dancer, Athreya went on to create her own experimental work since 2003. She has traditionally worked in the abstract space exploring questions such as “what is dance?”, “who are dancers?”, and “how can we explore the reasons we move?” Her focus has often centred around “how can we relook at ourselves, question what we stand for and how we move about?”

This performance – her first big ensemble work – is an extension of that line of thinking, with a specific interest in understanding the aspect of the body that is not excessively dance-like. She chose jumping, in particular, as it does not allow anything fake. The inevitable, quick pull of gravity does not permit any decorative element.

Athreya explains the significance of exploring the functional body, “We live in a hyper-consumer culture, where everything is packaged and sold. Even revolution is. I wanted the body to not be a symbol of any concept such as, say, Marxism or atheism, or indicate any type of societal upbringing. For me, this is what dance can do right now, in the times we live in when everything is consumed rapidly.”

Credit: India Foundation for the Arts

Credit: India Foundation for the Arts

Collaboration with non-dancers

The concept of body and its spaces is not just relevant in dance, but also in other areas such as sports and martial arts. And so, as Athreya reached out to people across her diverse networks, she found like-minded people, who expressed interest in participating. People from different backgrounds such as boxing, parkour, theatre, fitness, classical dance, jazz, and ballet came together for this performance. As there was no prior training of dance needed, it was possible to do this.

But, there were challenges.

Young, old, fat, thin – there were people with varying body dynamics, for whom the endurance training had to be different. And, since they were from dissimilar backgrounds, it was an explorative process to come up with a common syntax of expression that both dancers and non-dancers were comfortable with.

Prabu Mani, a parkour artist who is part of Athreya’s team, points out the paradox in presenting such a performance, “Every step needs to mindful and calculated, but, while keeping the body relaxed.”

He further shares, “The scope of movement and activity has taken a much broader meaning for me…My parkour practice works from the outside in, the outermost muscles gets strengthened first and then the strength seeps into the deeper musculoskeletal system. It’s the opposite way of training here and that was a great learning experience for me.”

Credit: India Foundation for the Arts

Credit: India Foundation for the Arts

Research for the production

For one year, Athreya did the research to put this together. The stage as a square pit did not make things easier. Unlike the typical stage, here, the performers are visible to a large extent in close proximity. So, the choreography involved deciding what’s to be shown and hidden (inside the pit), and how.

She, also, did many experiments to understand how the body behaves during jumping.

One interesting focus of her research was unravelling the idea of planets orbiting – the pull-and-push between the centre and the orbits was then incorporated into the production.

The hard-work and research shows on stage, as the performers interact, negotiating spaces between them and reacting differently when their individual spaces collide.

Taking it to different audience groups

In December 2015, Athreya and her team presented the jumping project for the first time in SPACES – legendary contemporary dancer, Chandralekha’s home – in Chennai. The audience here was a cognisant one with practitioners, thinkers, artists, writers, etc., who were regular consumers of contemporary dance forms.

The contrast could not have been more obvious with the next performance at the YMCA College of Physical Education. “Here, the response was hugely different. It was like being in the middle of a boxing match. The audience was completely locked into it and did not hesitate to verbalise their impressions of what they saw,” shares Athreya.

Recently, they performed in the contemporary dance festival – IGNITE – first in Delhi and followed it up in Jaipur that has no prior exposure to contemporary dance.

Similarly, while their Bangalore event had an urban crowd, the event in Arul Anandar College in Karumathur near Madurai had Tamil experimental theatre groups and students in the audience. For the Madurai event, the team conducted workshops a day before, to set expectations and engage in discussions.

“We got an honest, unconditioned reaction there. People also debated on whether we should read the performance in a certain way or not,” says Athreya.

But she assures that there is no specific narrative, and the movements are open to interpretations. Everyone takes away their own story from it. Sometimes, there is no story, just the evocation of an overwhelming physical or emotional response.

Sumana Chandrashekar, program executive, India Foundation for the Arts, who was present in the Bangalore event, comments, “To me, it represented the chaos of urban life. How, initially, things move at a robotic slow pace, later gets frenetic, and then eventually slows down.”

But there were other interpretations, too. One member of the audience felt that it showed how artists prepare for an act. How, they initially look inwards, and slowly as things evolve, they jump into the pit. Then, how they interact with each other, and ultimately leave the pit as the act draws to a close.

For some, it was not about identifying a narrative.

“I liked how the bodies interacted with each other. The disparity in people, their ages and body types, was also very interesting. You would expect a particular type to behave in a certain way, and you are surprised when it does not,” says Rahul Gudipudi, a photographer, installation artist, and curator.

Well, it appears that to each, his own. But, as Athreya says, “It could be all of that or just none of that.” In that democracy, lies the virtue of the performance.

Ramya Srinivasan is a freelance writer from Bangalore, India and is the recipient of Writer’s Bureau, UK’s ‘Writer of the year’ runner-up award for 2015.