More than a meditation on the Pallavi (a category of movement in Odissi), this performance of Pallavi through Abstractions moved me to reflect on performance during our current time. As I sat back and watched the opening credits fade away to reveal the stage, what struck me immediately was the simplicity of the mise en scène – three dancers, all dressed in black tops and tights, on a clean stage devoid of any set pieces. This bare-bones stage picture places the dancers’ movements as the central focus in this piece.
And indeed, for the first half of the work, the dancers perform in slow, deliberate movements that are arresting to watch. The movement revolves a lot around the unmistakable Tribhanga, where the bends of the body form an “S”-shaped position. The continued, even incessant, appearance of the Tribhanga throughout the piece emphasises its centrality in Odissi. It reads like a statement about pure aesthetic beauty, encapsulating much of what the piece celebrates.
Pallavi through Abstractions is by no means an easy piece to perform, lest you be deceived by the slow and repetitive movements. In a face-to-face live performance of the work, all three dancers would be on stage performing in unison for almost the entire 44 minutes – a feat of not only physical but also mental endurance and focus. Although this piece is a video-recorded version, the intensity of the dancers’ performance is still palpable, the result of well-timed camerawork allowing the audience behind a screen to see close-ups of faces dripping with perspiration, and muscles executing controlled and precise movement.
If I had one quibble about the camera, it would be that it perhaps cuts too frequently, especially near the start of the performance where the movement is slower. This gives me too little time to take in the picture from one angle before cutting to another, which can be slightly disorienting. Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate the opportunity that the camera gives us to get closer to the dancers than is usually possible face-to-face; it helps me to experience some of the visceral nature of movement that you get from being in the same physical space as the performers. It is an experience I sorely miss.
Although the overarching aesthetic design is one of minimalism, there is variety enough in the different sections of the piece to keep my interest and curiosity piqued. In a very quiet section, the dancers perform deep forward bends of the upper body simultaneously with deep knee bends, legs and feet rotated out to the side (the chowk, not dissimilar to a deep second position plié in ballet). This repetitive movement, together with the quiet meditative music that accompanies it, reminds me of prayer or spiritual reflection. The next section uses lighting to create a contrasting stage picture of a fragmented mosaic-like pattern projected on the floor, while the dancers are lit with harsh lighting from directly above them, such that their faces are partially in shadow. The high camera angle makes the dancers appear small within the overwhelming stage picture. As I contemplate this image, I wonder if this reflects us all in some way, our insignificance within the larger scheme of things. It is a humbling thought.
In the penultimate section, the dancers progress into longer travelling movements for the first time. Most of the movement prior to this was on-the-spot or barely travelling. Here, they move across the space, upper bodies upright, maintaining utter calm and composure while their legs take them across the stage, to a pulsating clapping rhythm. I am reminded of the metaphor of a duck swimming – calm on the surface but paddling with all its might underwater. Is this a metaphor for what we are going through now, and in the future? What might we be moving forward to?
As I ponder these questions, the piece comes to a meditative close, the claps fading out. The three dancers form a line across the stage, legs moving slowly and deliberately, as the light fades out into complete darkness. I am left with this final image in my head, an image of solemnity, peace and contemplation.
Chowk Productions present Pallavi through Abstractions with Kalaa Utsavam, viewable online from 20-29 November. Tickets are on sale at SISTIC.
Jocelyn Chng is a freelance educator, practitioner and writer in dance and theatre, and has written for various platforms since 2013, including The Flying Inkpot and Centre 42. She holds a double Masters in Theatre Studies/Research, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education (Dance Teaching). At the heart of her practice, both teaching and personal, lies a curiosity about personal and cultural histories; writing about performance allows her to engage with this curiosity. She sees performance criticism as crucial to the development of the performance landscape in Singapore, and a valuable opportunity to contribute to ongoing discussions about performance and society.