The Contemporary in Classical Dance

When  dancer Ileana Citaristi was called upon to "demystify contemporary dance" in a talk on Monday at the Stuart-Liff Library, NCPA, she took the operative word  "contemporary" and proceeded to analyse it in a refreshingly direct, clear-eyed presentation with video clips of her work to illustrate her argument.

Born in Bergamo, Italy, Citaristi came to India in 1979 to learn Kathakali. She had seen a performance of it in Venice and had been fascinated by it. Her experience till then had been of the physical theatre of Jerzy Grotowski and Eugenio Barba in which the language of expression had to be to discovered through constant  improvisations. In Kathakali she found a ready-made code of movement, gesture and expression that fixed the dancer firmly in a matrix within which she thought she would be free to invent. But three months later, her guru, Krishnan Namboodiri, advised her to go to Odisha to learn Odissi. Although she didn' tell us why, I would hazard a guess that he must have realised how difficult she would find it to bend the rigid grammar of Kathakali to her abstract ideas and how much more suitable the less restrictive Odissi would be for her purpose. She took his advice, made the switch and Odisha, where she studied Odissi under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and Chhao under Guru Hari Nayak, has been her home ever since.

In her talk she argued that the demystification of the contemporary happened automatically with time. Work that made a conscious departure from the conventional was necessarily edgy. Traditionalists who found comfort in clinging to the familiar were wounded by that edge. But as time passed, the edge got blunted and the work entered people's comfort zone.

Cirtaristi gave an illuminating example of how disturbing an innovative work could be from her own first piece of choreography in Odissi, Maya Darpan, in which her dancer rolled on the floor at one point. Purists pilloried her mercilessly for this movement that didn't belong to the traditional vocabulary of Odissi. Coming from the west, where experiment is the life-blood of the arts, and reverence for tradition per se, non-existent, Citaristi was appalled at the attack. Kelucharan Mohapatra alone amongst all the angry gurus, said to her, "That was a masterpiece of choreography." He had already told her that in choreography what she would have to rely on completely was her innate aesthetic sense. That alone would guide her in deciding what was right or wrong about her new work. Thus assured, and undeterred by what purists or audiences might think or say, she even included mallakhamb in her Chhao choreography based on Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha.

Chhau was also the language she drew on for Echo and Narcissus, a work that seems to provide a metaphor for her journey from Italy to Kerala to Odisha. Interested in myth and psychology, Citaristi had dreamt of doing a play based on this story of love and pain from Ovid's Metamorphoses, a verse narrative in 15 books about transformations in Greek and Roman mythology. As Citaristi metamorphosed from a hopeful Kathakali performer into a leading Odissi dancer, the story of Echo and Narcissus underwent a transformation from an idea for theatre into an idea for dance.    

There it was then, an idea she had cherished, just waiting to take off. But take off to where? That question was answered for her in 1985 by Dr Georg Lechner the director of Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai, who had dedicated himself to creating a better understanding between Germany and India through cultural exchange. That year he organised a magnificent East-West Dance Encounter where Chandralekha came out of her self-imposed exile and where Pina Bausch and she formed an enduring creative relationship. Citaristi's Echo and Narcissus had finally found a platform. In the story, a jealous Juno has cursed Echo to a helpless repetition of everything that is said to her. She loves Narcissus, but how can she declare her love for him if she can only repeat his own words? Her pain is intesified by his rejection of her; for he is madly in love with himself, and soon dies yearning for his own reflection in a pool.

Ileana Citaristi danced this piece to much acclaim, bearing witness in the process to  the truth of Ovid's epilogue: "Now stands my task accomplished, such a work /As not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword / Nor the devouring ages can destroy." Nineteen centuries on, Metamorphoses was still vitally alive.

Published On : 09-12-2015