Monday, 9 February 2015

Dance: Constanza Macras and Dorky Park 'Back to the Present' ~ A Startling Take on Today

(On February 9, 2015, I watched Constanza Macras' Dorky Park troupe perform 'The Past' at Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore. It took me back to a piece I had done for The Hindu Friday Review in December 2004, when they first made contemporary dance lovers in the city sit up and take notice with 'Back to the Present' at the same venue. Here's a sharing of my take on them way back then).

CONSTANZA Macras has the power to electrify and energize. To upend conventional notions of dance theatre. To draw optimal output from her multi-faceted, cross-cultural artistes. To satirize society with the precision of a Powerpoint presentation, the joy of peaking from collective achievement.

There was no arguing with these facets of ‘Back to the Present,’ the Argentina-born, Berlin-based Macras’ cheeky look at reality shows and lifestyle bytes, when her troupe ~ 2003-born Dorky Park ~ took the stage at Chowdiah Memorial Hall on Dec. 1, 2004, .

The prop-packed, many-tiered stage setting had us wondering what was in store at this Asian premiere when a curly-haired dancer of Mexican origin began to execute rather conventional contemporary dance moves, slowly, sensuously, dramatically. Caught off guard, within a trice, we were watching a melee of performers vaulting through an array of doors, tripping each other while performing karaoke numbers in the oddest positions, balancing, tilting, pirouetting, miming, surviving a series of abysmal ‘accidents.’ At its very core was contact improvisation, synchronized to a seeming spontaneity.

What was the point of the perfectly orchestrated chaos with a cast originally of Australian, American, Dutch, Mexican, Peruvian, Indian and German origin? To quote the programme notes, Macras “takes the audience on a journey into the past ~ memory as looped feedback, as it were. How do you recycle the stuff that never decomposes, like love letters, flags, old props and old ideas? As history becomes increasingly digitalized, what is the difference between storage and memory? And where do you go when you don’t want to deal with either the past or the future?”

With its individual inputs directed by a conceptual overview, dizzy with high-voltage performances and brilliant costumes by Gilvan Coelho de Oliviera attuned to a spoof, this tour-de-force overturned Indian notions of dance theatre. Those who entered with specific ideas of Kalakshetra-style dance dramas or more established musicals had to jettison their baggage within the first 15 minutes of ‘Back to the Present.’

For here was a performance that took a shy at globalized notions of entertainment (especially reality TV), urban ideas of living and loving, idioms of contemporary dance, and even performance per se. It jolted us out of comfort zones, handing out new lenses with which to view ourselves at a manic, irresistible pace. It was an enchanting, challenging experience for dance connoisseurs and laymen alike.  

Macras’ show, originally performed as a site-specific work at a derelict, abandoned, rambling early 20th century, centrally-located department store in former east Berlin, proved outsize in both vision and execution. It entailed the audience following the cast from room to room as scene followed tumultuous scene.

Adapted to the proscenium stage, the 2 ½  hour non-linear performance offered unforgettably absurd scenes that gauge the futility of TV realism engaged in “the flatness of everyday struggles.” Such as the madcap couple engaged in a gluttony and karaoke contest. Or the serious-faced introduction to the sex lives of the insect world, against the backdrop of a musical soiree. Or even the roughhouse, seesaw battle of the sexes amidst the merry-go-round of life, in which a kiss and a cuddle are no more potent than a sock on the jaw.

Back to the Present,’ characterized seamlessly by the here and now, showcased a mind-blowing range of virtuosity, interspersed with onscreen sequences to allow for scene shifts ~ whether as a slapstick sequence, a warbling duet in an on-the-move relationship, couch potato combat, a take-off on classical concerts, or a frenetic chase between improvised exits, culminating in a madhouse fight with stuffed toys. 

With frenetic movement as its only constant, the show wove together elements of pop philosophy, visual satire, lyric-based melodrama and over-the-top wit with perfect body dynamics to the tune of musical hits, including ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Kal Ho Na Ho,’ the latter rendered by Delhi-based artiste Anusha Lal. Bangalore dancer Abhilash N. stepped into the shoes of Israel-born Nir De-Volff without missing a cue, while B.S. Arun Kumar proved as adept at the drums as at staging deadpan interludes.  

At the end of the non-stop action, what did we take home from this premiere, sponsored by Daimler-Chrysler and Max Mueller Bhavan? An understanding of the strong emotions generated by Macras’ workshop at Attakkalari earlier this year. A hope that ‘Back to the Present’ could be pruned slightly for easier interface with a stationary audience. And a fervent wish that Dorky Park will be back in our midst soon with another brilliant production.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Book review: Freedom Run by Subhadra Sen Gupta and Tapas Guha


Story and script: Subhadra Sen Gupta

Illustrations: Tapas Guha  

Pratham Books. 2014. Paperback. Full colour. Rs. 35. 14 pages. 

ISBN: 978- 81- 8479- 545- 5

India, according to history textbooks, achieved independence from the British on August 15, 1947. Has self-rule proved worthwhile? Do we have universal freedom from hunger, from homelessness, from illiteracy today ~ at least for our children? Not by a long shot, as any random reality check in 2015 proves.

The 2011 Indian national census (in lieu of elusive current figures) found that, of a total population of 259.64 million between 5 to 14 years old, about 4.35 million work as child labour. In agriculture. In handicrafts. Even as household help. That’s despite pro-child legislation on the books, but seldom implemented.  

Against this backdrop, I was deeply moved when the Nobel Prize for Peace 2014 went to Indian Kailash Satyarthi and Pakistani Malala Yousafzai "for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education."

Right on cue, this book appeared from two creative individuals I admire. They bring to life aspects of invisible India. Of runaway children who sniff glue over little bonfires at despair-edged railway platforms to quell their hunger.  Of child ragpickers who sift through our consumer waste.  Of children destined to a cycle of poverty by an accident of birth; born to read, but forced to labour. Indian publishers often consider their stories unmarketable or unfit for urban child readers.

In Freedom Run, Subhadra Sen Gupta and Tapas Guha create an irresistible narrative for Pratham through vivid, colourful comicbook frames. The central figures are three pre-teen boys who knot carpets for a living for a brutal, mercenary loom owner in a village in the Mirzapur or Bhadohi districts of Uttar Pradesh. They earn little or nothing because their fathers are in debt. Their workshed, like their young lives, lacks light. Suddenly, a window of opportunity beckons. Will they be able to make the break?

As with her popular history and adventure books, Freedom Run is Subhadra at the top of her writerly game. As an editor, I admire her impeccable plotlines, her humour, her deeply-researched evocation of place and time. As a writer, I am in awe of her fluidity across genres, her zest for life on the page, and her unforgettable characters including those in Let’s Go Time Travelling, Bishnu the Dhobi Singer and Ashoka: the Great and Compassionate King among her 25+ books. As a reader, I admire her total sync with young minds.

This book is as much Tapas’s masterwork as it is hers (as with their collaboration on Satyajit Ray’s popular Feluda series). Besides a perfect choice of typeface, his brilliance surfaces repeatedly, through alternate visual perspectives, though action that spills over frames. Such as two boys in anguished conversation through the warp of the loom. Or the fear on a young face as the furious owner raises his cane to strike. Or the wraparound joy framing a boy who sights his big brother and a glimpse of freedom. Or the threatening adult silhouettes against a wall as the three children sneak out at dawn. Or the drama-packed frames of the chase through Varanasi that tease both the eye and the mind ~ and charm the reader.

The comic-book style for proficient readers is perfect for this essential story of our time. Perhaps this book will lead to a generation less ignorant of child labour or a little-known India. A sign of a more egalitarian world? Or similar treatment for other burning issues?

Freedom Run’ reaffirms that Subhadra Sen Gupta was the right choice for the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar 2014.

Story/ Content: ****
Illustration: *****
Language: ****
Design: *****


Originally published on GoodBooks at: