Thursday, 18 July 2013

Berlin Margam: Bharatanatyam programme and international symposium “Indian Dance in a Global Age” 22 & 24 June 2013

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Berlin (Germany’s old and new capital) provided the fertile ground for a truly amazing dialogue with other cultures. Earlier it was marked by some rivalry with other centres of culture and learning, notably Leipzig (still an important hub for publishing, science and music) and Dresden (innovation in dance, music, education and more). Several visits by Rabindranath Tagore to these places proved to be important for Germany’s artistic, educational and intellectual life and vice versa; and this in spite of the inevitable misunderstandings and prejudices seeking to neutralize any innovative venture. All this came into focus again when Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary was celebrated with exhibitions, conferences, performances and publications in the aforementioned places and, to a lesser degree, all over Germany.

Before this background it does not surprise that attempts to rekindle the dialogue with India on eye level is met with enthusiasm and anticipation. With increased scope for travels and communication, this calls for a fresh look at the untapped potential of a special relationship. The Bharatanatyam debut by Eva Isolde Balzer, disciple of Rajyashree Ramesh for over seven years, was an occasion for such a forward-oriented move. For them, completing a traditional “Margam” repertoire and marking it by a formal public debut was more than a formality: it would have to reflect a process of translation and transformation as Eva is already an experienced actress involved in projects exploring the “trans-cultural, trans-disciplinary potential of dance”.

The customary handing over of the dancer’s anklets, for instance, became part of the stage dramaturgy in view of the teacher’s modern outlook. This made their teacher-disciple relationship an unconventional one compared to those situated in more traditional Indian society, yet equally special in a different way. Indeed, this special relationship permeated the entire occasion from the dance debut to the follow-up discussions.

The large audience at the Werkstatt der Kulturen included dance afficionados, some familiar with Indian culture, and several noted scholars. One among them, dance critic, Ashish Khokar asserted that this performance deserves to be remembered for its artistic merits: “It is very meaningful to see a same tradition in a totally different geographical context. Earlier if geography decided history, for many of us, in many cultures, today history is being made because of geography too. And Berlin Margam is a good example of that.”

The warm response of a large audience in one of Berlin’s leading cultural centres left no doubt that presenting a fully fledged dance and live music ensemble under the guidance of Rajyashree Ramesh was worth the enormous organizational effort. The sense of full integration of dance, vocal and instrumental music, which Indian scholars have regarded as key feature throughout the ages, was achieved by singer Manickam Yogeswaran, violinist Senthil Paramalingam, mridangist R.N. Pratap and morsing player A. Srinivasan with Rajyashree Ramesh in charge of nattuvangam.

With reference to the brief dance-theatre solo piece by Eva that followed her classical Bharatanatyam performance, Prof. Zarrilli highlighted the “transformative potential of traditional forms for contemporary practice”. He commended her “ability to allow those different trainings - multiple trainings - to work inside and produce both the traditional and something else.” Being an expert for Kerala’s martial arts and its context his cautionary remarks as regards blind adherence to “tradition” deserve attention: “Those of us who know any kind of traditional practices know that they are constantly changing (....) Westerners sometimes have wanted to freeze and romanticize the genres. (...) A part of the work of this evening is exploding those caricatures, those half baked truth and allowing us to see this as a working living tradition in its embodiment and in its practice.”

Martin Puttke said he was deeply impressed of what he saw, particularly by the clarity of the movements. As one of Germany’s leading ballet teachers, his authority can be trusted when observing that “we are using the same technical principles because we are working with human beings (...) I try to work out the universal principle of the human being when its moving and I saw (those) fantastic in the Indian Dance.”

Dr. Avanthi Meduri who was in charge of the project dramaturgy, went one step further: “While you as audience see the exotic dancer in costume, with beautiful eyes etc. (...) In the everyday practice there is no exoticism.”

To this Eva responded by saying that “sometimes in Europe we are so closed by certain ideas about art and I am so happy, it is such a nice process to open and listen to other ideas. (...) I tried to analyze the things that I really like or are useful to me whether I dance classical or contemporary or whatever I do. (...) There is a specific vulnerability that I have to learn to place myself in and in the same time (...) I have to be very clear outward, clearly thinking of the audience. And this is something I am really grateful to learn.”

To this her teacher Rajyashree added that “the process of learning is what we wanted to make transparent. That’s why we had this event. (...) I have broken a tabu (...) because all the exoticism is gone if I talk about the pelvic floor.” She explained how her European students couldn’t sit in the aramandi pose as easily as the Indian dancers in her troupe, not being used to sitting on the floor with the open leg-position. This forced her to learn about anatomy, to find out how it works, and then find a way of explaining it to her German students.

Eva shared her initial apprehension, already being contemporary performer, as regards the conventions of traditional Indian dance. An Odissi performance by Illeana Citaristi left her feeling so light and happy as to undergo a change of attitudes: “Whenever I think about it my mind is changing so much and I feel so calm and light and precise then I thought I have to look what this is all about.”

The performances were immediately followed by a mini symposium at Werkstatt der Kulturen in Berlin titled “Art and Embodiment: Looking beyond Exoticism”. It was meant to bridge the evening’s performance with a longer symposium hosted by the Indian Embassy’s Tagore Centre two days later. The title for the symposium was well chosen considering India’s misrepresentation in Germany whenever the media report on tourism, popular culture and, to a lesser degree, on trade, science and technology. As commercial interests make exoticism all too resilient it is worth subverting it by other means, namely the first hand experience of culture. This revitalizes an unbroken line of mutual recognition and critical reflection India and Germany have shared for over two centuries.

The high-level panel included Dr. Avanthi Meduri (dancer/scholar), Rajyashree Ramesh (Bharatanatyam teacher), Ashish Khokar (dance critic/scholar) and Prof. Martin Puttke (ballet director) and Prof. Phillipp Zarrilli (actor/director). After performing a solo dance programme of over 90 minutes, Eva Isolde Balzer (actress/dancer) once again impressed her public, now by her sheer stamina and presence of mind when replying to a wide range of queries. The panel set the pace for an even wider dialogue by involving several members of the audience. Its members not only proved to be keen observers but eloquent commentators on the programme’s interdisciplinary scope. Their diverse cultural and professional backgrounds reflected the host organisation’s reputation: the Werkstatt der Kulturen is a venue best known for a community oriented exchange of ideas, not seldom with political developments in mind. Here prevailing clichés are regularly exposed and analysed while paving the ground for more authentic artistic idioms that suit the aspirations of contemporary artists and their audience.

Eva Isolde Balzer is a professional actress working in contemporary idioms and international collaborations. Yet in personal discussions she proves to be fully aware of the potential of “classical” traditions such as Bharatanatyam (which she has studied under the guidance of Rajyashree Ramesh for over seven years), just as the pitfalls of the superficial appropriation of, or identification with any “tradition” – European and otherwise. Such self-questioning may seem to be yet another obstacle in the pursuit of an artistic career yet it proves to be in the best tradition of accountability many younger performers have lately rediscovered both in Germany and India.

International symposium “Indian Dance in a Global Age”

The combined performances by Eva Isolde Balzer served as catalysts for a special symposium on 24 June. Hosted by the Indian Embassy’s Tagore Centre in collaboration with the International Research Centre of the Free University of Berlin, it brought together scholars and practitioners from India, Europe and the UK to examine global issues relating to Indian dance production, transmission and performance.

The symposium was novel in that it focused on unexplored themes around cultural translation, historicity, innovations and inter-weavings in Indian dance:

- How are dancers, dance teachers, choreographers and scholars responding to the changing needs of the global age?

- What indeed is the meaning and function of Indian dance in a global world?

The symposium investigated these themes within an Indo-European framework and the long history of East/West collaborations linking India with the world.

Since this was a practice based seminar, the symposium featured select innovative work by young choreographers using Indian classical dance vocabulary to create new interweaving visions, communities and audiences for Indian dance in a global world.

(See for more information.)

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