When we mention “Indian dance”, more often than not we picture “Bollywood” dance in our minds. “Bollywood” style is actually a mix of classical and folklore dances from India, as well as jazz, rock and even hip-hop. It is the fruit of choreographic globalization stemming back to the 19th century. Dancers, who were performing around the world, began to exchange and borrow each other’s gestural vocabulary. This journey takes a look at choreographic creations, performed in French venues, in which Indian dance crosses the paths of other dances, interweaves with them or evokes its own particular journeys. An invitation to discover this dance through the dialogue which it initiates with other choreographic, musical and performance forms.
In Tempus Fugit, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui explores human destiny through the prism of the passage of time. The ten performers of this cosmopolitan troupe move around a scenescape composed of Chinese poles joggling between the highs and lows of their existence. In this play on bursts and drops, leaps and falls, ambiguity reigns supreme. And, that is what this sequence illustrates. Like in an Indian musical, music, dance and confetti transform soul-searching into a festive scene where the disorder of the world is absorbed. Everyone moves forward at the same pace yet unison is but fleeting. The stone doesn’t budge from the shoe. Just like slapping and stroking are initiated by the two sides of a single hand, the enchantment which the “Bollywood” dance lavishes is crisscrossed with complications.
For the Dance Biennial Défilé, focusing on the theme of “Silk Roads”, the Vénissieux-based group called on Fatiha Bouinoual, a hip-hop choreographer, and on Annie Torre, a Bharata Natyam dancer, a classical dance from Southern India. Each would choreograph their part, both would follow on in sequence to the score of Le Chant des Canuts (Lyon silk workers chant from the 19th century). Annie Torre’s creation remains true to Bharata Natyam codes. Performed outdoors, it reminds us that this dance was once undertaken by priestesses who would parade pageant-style during processions. In the streets of Lyon, for the amateur dancers who had the opportunity to have a go, the difficulty encountered was to maintain the sound quality of their stamping feet and to keep up with the choral-initiated rhythm, in spite of the noise from the streets.
In Rajasthan, musicians tap two sticks of wood, known as kartal, the ancestor of latter-day castanets, together in their hands. Yatra actually describes the journey Indian dance completed to arrive in Spain. In this extract, the kartal player and Andrés Marin engage in a rhythmic joust. Although the instrumentalist does not dance, it is striking to see the analogy of his gestures in tune with the arm movements of the bailaor. This vigorous face-to-face between the two men, born and bred in two far-distant lands, reveals the kinship between flamenco and Kathak, a classical dance from Northern India. The dance’s characteristic fast-paced feet stamping is recognizable through Andrés Marin’s zapateados and taconeos.
Akram Khan learned the Kathak dance when he was just 7 years old. After ten years of the discipline, this choreographer, born in England into a Bangladeshi family, turned to contemporary dance. From this other approach, he gained a new language, characterized by powerful, precise velocity. In this extract from Gnosis, Akram Khan and Fang-Yi Sheu appear in unison when a gesture, from one or the other, runs counter to this promise. Their glances tend to opposite directions, before reuniting, only to shift yet again. Impactful movements accumulating energy and freezing it in space evoke the rapid whirling of Kathak which, following a rhythmic explosion, conclude with a long pose. Arm flings and wrist inflections are also highly-recognizable.
In Ibuki, we can easily make out the legacy of Kuchipudi. Shantala Shivalingappa, who trained in this Indian style, had the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with ballet and contemporary dance choreographers. These encounters led her to perceive her dance differently. Her collaboration with Ushio Amagatsu, founder of the Butoh company Sankai Juku, whose creations seem ever-so far removed from Indian dance, focused on the conviction that, despite their highly-differing technical languages, they were inhabited by the same conception of dance. In this extract, the dancer combines continuous slow movements, although a few accelerations, stemming more so from the energy of Butoh, are detectable, with mudra – hand gestures – arm geometry and foot positioning specific to Kuchipudi.
These gestural features are also characteristic of the Bharata Natyam, of which Priyadarsini Govind is one of the greatest performers of her generation. With her associate Elisabeth Petit, a French dancer of the same style, she created Sahasam, a performance for youth audiences, an occasion for them to discover Indian dance and music. In this extract, she calls on Abhinaya, the art of narrative dance where, through the body, hand gestures – mudras – and facial expressions, the performer recites a sung poem. Here the text is chronicled by the on-stage narrator, which ensures the spectator understands the signification of this body language. The gestures used are less symbolic more analogous, resembling pantomime-style, most certainly to make it easier for the public to understand.
In more depth
Rosita Boisseau, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Textuel, 2013.
Anne Décoret-Ahiha, Les Danses exotiques en France : 1880 – 1940, CND, 2004.
Xavier Fischer, Chorégraphe Akam Khan, DVD, Albalena films, 2012.
Emmanuel Grimaud, Bollywood film Studio ou comment les films se font à Bombay, CNRS Edition, 2004.
Anne Décoret-Ahiha is an anthropologist of dance, doctor of Paris 8 University. Speaker, trainer and consultant, she develops proposals around dance as an educational resource and designs participatory processes mobilizing corporeality. She animates the "Warming up of the spectator" of the Maison de la Danse.
Texts and bibliography selection
Maison de la Danse