So I went to see the second of Shantala Shivalingappa’s performances last Friday. This one was all-contemporary all-the-time and as a consequence was not as mystifying to me as her kuchipudi performance a week earlier. This one was a little shorter, about an hour in length, and was made of only four different dances. All with extremely evocative names; Ibuki (breath of life), Solo, Shift and Samarana. Also instead of highly elaborate and fancy saris, Ms. Shivalingappa wore very plain monochromatic costumes that seemed to be made more for comfort than for anything else. Although she was using the same pink toenail polish as she had for the kuchipudi. I presume that she, like Gene Kelly, is a firm believer in the idea of high contrast on and around the feet so as to better direct your eye.
Despite it’s name, Ibuki (breath of life) the first dance had nothing to do with the character from the Street Fighter III video game series.
And from my seat (actually the second one of the eve, we had accidentally sat in the wrong seats to start) I couldn’t make the connection to anything related to a set of lungs either, despite the fact that in Japanese, the word ibuki, translates into breath.
But neither point really matters, the title of an abstract dance piece isn’t quite exactly the most significant thing. The more I see them, the more I become convinced that whomever names them, for the most part might actually be in a bubble of their own creation, and have no real concept of the possible broader connotations. Ibuki (breath of life) starts and ends with Ms. Shivalingappa lounging on the stage, in something that looks like a sleeveless white pantsuit, almost as if she was posing for some sort clothing ad. In between those two fashion advertisements she does a lot of slow moving and some fast moving which initially I found very jarring. The music is something flutish by Yoichiro Yoshikawa. Not to belittle the music, but it’s fairly straightforward and typical world fusion. A day later I have some vague memories of something that would be played if I was in a movie and approaching a Buddhist temple. But then later in my notes I wrote “Generic World Fusion Music” which would make me believe that somewhere in the middle some other instruments and rhythms might have appeared. For what it’s worth I don’t remember, but I wasn’t there to hear the music.
I was there to see the dance. Or more precisely, how Ms. Shivalingappa moved. As I expected, she moved exquisitely. There were some points where it looked like she was swimming upstream, others where she imitated a rotating cell phone tower, and at some point I noted how she ran around the stage coquettishly. But all of those paled in comparison to what I duly noted on my pad as “THE HANDS!!!”
It was the same exact movement (or pretty gosh darn close) that she had done with her hands in the kuchipudi performance, last week. Since I’m not going to use as much video, let me see if I can describe it in writing: Take one part butterfly, a large dose of Archimedes’ screw, the perception of air blowing, one of those time lapse photography videos of a flower blooming and apply liberally to your imagine in order to visualize a movement involving both hands together, touching at the wrists and spinning that starts at about waist level and finishes above her head.
At one point my insides turned to jelly as Ms. Shivalingappa looked directly at me. Thankfully it was dark, so I think, despite the start that it caused me she was just looking out into the audience, without really focusing on me. She did this just before doing “THE HANDS!!!” a second time. If I were a 15 year-old boy, I would definitely swear up and down that there was a connection.
It’s a good thing, I’m not a 15 year-old boy.
After she returned to the fashion model pose for the second time, the lights went dark, she scurried offstage and this large blurry video of her in blue and orange sari doing what I presume was some kuchipudi dance was shown while she changed. If there would be anything negative about the performance I would say it was the video interludes (there were two others, of which I won’t write an awful lot). There’s gotta be some better way to pass the time while doing costume changes than making Ms. Shivalingappa’s movements the equivalent of moving wallpaper. Something like an animated graphical presentation of where the dances originated that used pretty colors, or whatever the Indian equivalent of the drive-in interstitial is, or in other words something that is instantaneously recognized as the wallpaper and time killer it is.
As long as I’m embedding video, watch this
It was the second piece of the program. Called “Solo” and possibly choreographed with or by or under the supervision of Pina Bausch (the program reads “Choreography made during a residency at Tanztheater Wuppertal-Pina Bausch.” So it isn’t exactly clear, and if you read it fast, you definitely get the idea that some really influential but dead choreographer had a hand in it. (And now after seeing it for the third time, I finally read the title on the video to see that it was Ms. Shivalingappa who in fact did the choreography.)
Now if you watched really closely, you can skip over the next 500 or so words, because now that you’ve seen it, you don’t need to read my description of it. Or if you prefer to skip over the video, thanks tons and continue reading.
First off, the music is by Ferran Savall. If I hadn’t read it in the program I would have guessed José Feliciano. I should also mention that Mr. Savall’s mom died two days before the performance.
Second off, Ms. Shivalingappa kind of dances like the hippy older sister of a friend of mine. I’m certain there are a bunch of allusions in the dance to things that I am unaware of since I haven’t seen all that much dance. Her arm moving like a sweeping second hand and with her body following, the way that she holds her head from teh top while following her hand strike me as being just incongruous enough to the rest of her movements that I would think that they were placed there for slightly stronger reasons than “they flowed.”
At the risk of sounding clichéd “Solo” is dance for dance’s sake. Basic form making beauty, as done by Ms. Shivalingappa. No more, no less. Somehow it makes me think of a painting by Mark Rothko.
The third piece “Shift” was also choreographed by Ms. Shivalingappa – I gotta hand it to her, in this day and age when everything dance seems to be centered around the choreographer, Ms. Shivalingappa is successfully bucking the tide and bringing the focus back to the dancer – and this one says so in the program.
“Shift” starts with Ms. Shivalingappa in a classic ninja pose, you know the one, where they are jumping through the air, their trailing arm raised above their head, one foot fully extended, as if they just finished some humongous kick. Just like that, except she’s not flying through the air, she’s crouched on the ground. From that position she kind of walks/creep across the stage.
The main feature of “Shift” is the A-OK sign she makes with her fingers, her index finger and thumb are slightly pinched together instead of being in a circle.
She uses it a bunch of times during the dance. Unfortunately, I have no idea if it has the same cultural meaning in India as it has here. But I do know that in France it is used to signify zero, instead of everything being alright. And what in means in the context of her dance, I have no clue. It kept my attention focused on her hands for the most part of the performance, and while she did not make “THE HANDS!!!” her fingers wiggled a bunch and she made it obvious that she had mastered how to move each digit on its own (and I won’t get into the anatomy of the hand here, suffice it to say that it is complicated). I don’t know who composed or played the music, but for the most part it is just a bunch of hand drumming, although after a very intense period where she continues to move while there is no musical accompaniment towards the end the music starts up again and some steel pans get involved as well. In contrast to the rapid rhythm of the drum, her movements are slow and deliberate, during the show I wrote “zen moves,” “stylized martial arts.”
I think “Smarana,” the fourth and final dance, is a Sanskrit word meaning “the act of remembering.” Sadly, I have no idea if that is the idea that Ms. Shivalingappa is trying to give. My knowledge of Indian languages (besides Sanskrit there’s also Punjabi, Hindi, Tamil, Urdu and dozens of others). It was choreographed by Savitry Nair who also is Ms. Shivalingappa’s mother.
Most of it takes place while Ms. Shivalingappa is sitting (or kneeling) on the stage. There is a spotlight directly above her that causes some pretty cool shadows to be cast. During the performance I tried to write just her moves, almost like a play-by-play announcer during some sporting match. This is what appeared on my pad:
“Sitting middle stage, back to us leaning over, she rises on her knees and wiggles back and forth, One foot extended, and slowly turning, while holding ankle, cross over and turn, spin, fetal position, Roll over, Extend and cross feet, sit up startled, calm, turn around, sweep hand back and around, Upright fetal position, get up on toes, spin around 360, crouched over all still slow, Notice shadow, Back kneeling, arms doing a balancing scale side to side, Faster, then stop wiggle fingers, Raise hand, Kneel forward and reach around, arms akimbo, slowly raise her hand, Slow and fast, A-OK again, looking like a flower, and it slowly fades out”
It was an experiment, trust me the dance was much better and more interesting than my description.
At this point, I’m getting to the limit of even what I can concentrate on. I wanted to explain the choreography of Ushio Amagatsu, Pina Bausch, Savitry Nair, and explain how they are all fairly important, which would lead into a couple of paragraphs on the the similarities between kuchipudi, butoh, and some other dance styles. But I’m going to have to save that for another day.
In closing I can only express my disappointment that it took her so long to get to Montreal and that we got such old shows (both Namasya and Gamaka are more than four years old). She’s been touring internationally since 2005 and has many other performances that could be presented. it kind of makes me feel that Montreal has become some kind of dance backwater, instead of being the leader that it used to be.