Note: I wrote this for the British Council India blog but didn’t hear from them in over two months. I didn’t want the article to languish somewhere on my hard drive so here it is.
On a sultry September evening, Chennai geared up to see ‘Political Mother’ by the Hofesh Shechter Dance Company. Chennai does not get that many international shows a year and when it does, it’s theatre and not contemporary dance. I doubt if contemporary dance exists in the public consciousness. If you ask people what comes to mind when one says ‘contemporary dance’, you’d be lucky if anyone mentions Astad Deboo, probably India’s foremost contemporary dancer. I remember watching the Akram Khan Company perform at the same location and was looking forward to the Hofesh Shechter dance company. But nothing prepared me for the sheer scale, decibel level or visual extravaganza that I got to see.
I am getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning. ‘Political Mother’ starts in darkness. That’s not a surprise, is it? But it was an absolute kind of darkness. Not the darkness where you can make out shadowy forms of people and things. Out of this absolute darkness appeared the name of the piece as if out of nowhere. Then started the signature music that weaves in and out throughout the performance. After this, we saw a series of tableaus – the Japanese Samurai who commits hara-kiri on stage, a row of drummers beating the drums, dancers in groups and in twos in freeze frame, a rock star singing wildly on the upper stage. Each time the lights went off, I gasped at the surprise waiting for us. Perhaps a sense that what makes this cinematic are the jump cuts. A few steps were repeated, combined with the others and modified just as like the letters of the alphabet in various permutations and combinations to make words, sentences and therefore meaning. And it’s up to you what you make of it. I saw oppression in the stooped form of the prisoners; I saw the dictators in the drummers; I saw the rock star, whose songs in gibberish didn’t need any translation, as the noise from mainstream consumerist culture; I saw the couple’s dance as the dance of love; I saw conformity in the circular dance; I saw struggle, revolution, freedom and the madness of it all. It was like watching one of Marquez’s novels played out in the rock concert format.
Which brings me to the music. The high-decibel, heart-thumping and strangely addictive music was a literal cry for change. The idea was to shake us out of our staid and complacent lives. Music also sketched the emotional canvas of the entire performance. It soared, dipped and reverberated through my very being. It was difficult to be neutral to such music. No, strike that. It was impossible. I wanted to get up and follow the dancers’ movements! Towards the end, when we thought there were no more surprises, both classical music and a popular love song made its appearance.
The first thing that hit me when the lights came on were the grid of lights on either side of the stage. Unconventionally placed rows and rows of lights close to the wings were a visual treat. When dancers came in from the wings, it looked as if the dancers came in from the light and when they moved back into the wings, they disappeared into the light. That gave a rather surreal effect to the whole performance.
No response would be complete without mentioning the dancers and their fluid movements. Through the various costume changes and tableaus, the movement of their limbs was mesmerising.
The stage with its grid structure was a constant backdrop to the changing scenes. It was highlighted or hidden depending on the effect required. In fact the stage space was transformed in quick succession with strategically placed lights and the judicious use of both horizontal and vertical space.
Sometime in the middle of the performance, written in light ‘Where there is pressure, there is folkdance’ appeared in the centre of the stage. Since ‘folk dance’ appeared after a longish pause, there were a few chuckles. The message is a reworking of the idea that art can be found in the most unlikeliest of places. In other words, art gives us hope when there is nothing to hope for. That sounds like something Banksy would agree with.
Much like Banksy, the Hofesh Shechter Company subverted a few of our existing notions. Especially, the notion of an ending. What do you think an ending looks like? The lights come on, the performers disappear and there is no action on the stage, right? Wrong. All these happened but the music played on. Probably the biggest clue that the show wasn’t quite over. A few people walked out and missed the part where the performers literally ‘rewound’ the introductory tableaus in swift succession towards the end.
When finally the show was over, I was left feeling in a trance with the music playing in a never-ending loop in my brain. ‘Political Mother’ was truly an explosive experience that moved beyond the confines of dance.