Apsaras Arts Dance Companypresents their new work, Amara– Dancing Stories of Banteay Srei, as part of Esplanade’s Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts, taking place online from 20 to 29 November 2020.
Cocooned in a cloak of familiarity, I chat casually with Aravinth Kumarasamy, Artistic Director of Apsaras Arts Dance Company, via Zoom on a Thursday afternoon. We are in different continents and time zones, and have not spoken or seen each other in five years. The coolness of the screen dissipates as Aravinth, also known as Aravinth Anna (meaning ‘elder brother’ in Tamil, widely used as a term of endearment in Indian dance circles), begins to delve into the subject of his latest work.
I immediately recall the time he sat us, company dancers, down and presented us with a thick stack of papers. These detailed his findings for the then-upcoming production, Anjasa – Unravel the Wonders of Buddhist Monuments of Asia (2015). I believe it was the first time he had done that with us, or at least, with me in the mix. It left an indelible impression on me — I caught a glimpse into the volume of research work that often goes unnoticed, even by the performers ourselves.
Storyboarding for a dance production demands a high level of rigour in excavating what is most relevant and noteworthy. It is no easy feat to gather and process this much information, string together various narratives into a larger, more cogent one, pre-visualising the unfolding of it in your mind’s eye and translating it into the stylised movement system of Bharatanatyam. Five years after having left the company and the vibrant Indian dance scene of Singapore, and struggling to ease into a life of temporary domesticity in a Brisbane suburb, I reminisce and reflect on my past experiences. I now have a greater appreciation for the gravity of work borne by Aravinth Anna and our late founders, the inimitable Mr and Mrs Sathyalingam, fondly remembered as Maama and Maami.
Prior to Anjasa, Aravinth Anna had already begun his journey of bringing the stories and structures of stone and marble, to life. Nirmanika – The Beauty of Architecture (2011) was also presented during Kalaa Utsavam, and it seemed to mark the beginning of his forays into the relationship between contemporary Indian classical dance forms and the architectural marvels situated in and outside of India. Multiple tours of Nirmanika were succeeded by a production of the grandest scale, showing the history of the company: Angkor – An Untold Story (2013). Travelling back in time to heed the wisdom of scriptures and listening to the whispers between sculptures of various kinds, the work revealed a multiplicity of narratives steeped in Hindu mythology and set in stone on the pediments, lintels and reliefs of ancient Khmer temples such as Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Banteay Srei.
I have had the privilege of dancing with fellow part-time performing artists in these productions. We performed in all kinds of spaces — from bare-boned, intimate, black box theatres, to larger stages with commanding proscenium arches and intimidating multi-tiered platforms. Across all these, we had live audiences. This time, for Amara, this vital energy between live performer and audience will no longer rely on the physical present. Like many other dance festivals all over the world, Kalaa Utsavam is going digital too.
The pandemic has turned the world of live performances on its head, drastically altering the rules of engagement on many fronts. “Is it possible to sculpt intimacy in a digital landscape?” I ask myself.
Aravinth Anna eagerly informs me that Amara is a “full-fledged digital work produced with digital capabilities.” He seems mildly excited. I am not entirely sure what he means, but he has come prepared and clicks “share screen”. In seeing video clips from an earlier digital presentation, I am pleasantly surprised to see just how the camera work and special effects create a sense of drama. Close-up angles taken from multiple roving cameras were still able to create a sense of intimacy.
The cameras have morphed into choreographers, directing the audience’s attention. Bharatanatyam connoisseurs look forward to appreciating the performers’ ability to emote and act convincingly; perhaps, these cameras may grant the aesthetes an opportunity for greater emotional involvement.
In the realm of Bharatanatyam-based presentations, working with film is fairly novel. I have my reservations about rampant digitalisation, but when it comes to Amara, I would much rather savour it as it comes to a screen near me. When probed if there will be a lot of special effects in Amara, Aravinth Anna is quick to quip, “No. Otherwise it will be too gimmicky.” He did not seem too impressed with that question but I am relieved. I do concur.
Aspiring to pioneer in the genre of Bharatanatyam-based dance films, Apsaras Arts is taking bold steps to raise the social profile of the performance tradition. They are reaching out to wider audiences through unconventional approaches and through painstaking efforts to professionalize practitioners of Bharatanatyam. Currently, Apsaras Arts is a repertory company with full-time dancers on a payroll and in regular training mode.
Filmed against a green screen, Amara takes viewers on a private tour of the temple grounds of Banteay Srei. Dancers assuming the personas of life-sized sculptures of sacred women, referred to as Yoginis, and whose origins seem to be shrouded in mysticism, will serve as crucial mediums of communication. Like personal tour guides, they unearth lesser known stories from Hindu epics and legends.
Who were these mysterious women of Khmer society in times of antiquity? Did they possess spiritual power? Banteay Srei is also known as the Citadel of Women.
According to art historian Soumya E James, “Durga at Banteay Srei is portrayed in one of her most powerful depictions in Khmer Art.” I cannot help but muse if this temple complex celebrates the power of the feminine presence, beyond just the stone depictions.
Musing between the physical and metaphysical, I shift to wondering if we will still be able to feel the immediacy of a live dance recital. In the pre-recorded digital work, the Yoginis will seemingly address us individually rather than collectively through the screen. Perhaps we will find intimacy, but a different immediacy?
Coming back to something concrete, I ask about the work’s movement vocabulary. I am told it was the Natyashastra, the earliest Indian treatise on dance and drama, which guided the making of Amara. In fact, it is suggested by academics that close reference to this manuscript is needed to make sense of Southeast Asian dance images where possible, as many of their prototypes do originate from Indian traditions of architecture, sculpture, theatre, music and dance. As such, in the words of Aravinth Anna, the shared historical links do make it relatively easier to “cross-pollinate… As for movement vocabulary, the dancers will move and pose in ways that closely resemble the carvings on the reliefs.”
Indeed, this was something I encountered while dancing in the production of Angkor. In one segment, we adapted the use of the mudras (hand gestures) to replicate the movements of the celestial dancers – the apsaras. There was also a lyrical quality to our dancing, a certain softness that was deliberate and unpunctuated by dramatic pauses. A sense of never ending fluidity was emphasized to capture the ethereal grace of these heavenly nymphs. This was a marked shift from the angular and lines-centric presentation of dance sequences that I was used to delivering.
The art and architecture of Angkorean Khmer society reveal the influence of Hindu world views, ranging from cosmology to dramaturgy. The Khmer artisans would translate these concepts for their contexts, and the sculptors’ mastery can be seen in the merging of local sensibilities with Hindu culture. Amara seems to pay homage to the permeability between cultures, as it now respectfully attempts to reimagine Khmer elements of beauty and its sensitivities to Hindu mythology, within the form of Bharatanatyam.
The attention paid to these nuances signals to me that the merging and juxtaposition of hand gestures and body postures can be expected in Amara as well, which in turn begs the question: “What else then?” I have a feeling this cross-cultural creation will increase the intrigue.
Amara – Dancing the Stories of Banteay Srei will premiere at Kalaa Utsavam on 20th November 2020 and remain available for viewing till 29th November 2020. Tickets are on sale at SISTIC.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay.