“I can’t portray emotions; maybe I can’t feel myself. I am not an actor.”
Still, the first time I saw Sandhya Suresh dancing, I was mesmerised by her presence on stage. Eyelids vanished into the eye-socket, revealing the optical globe in white and dark brown. Her skin tightened around her muscly and elegant body, as she became entirely present. On the one hand, she looked like a heroine – engaging every atom in her body to dance. On the other, she looked like a beautiful goddess, sharing the gifts of dance, precision, and virtue. Sandhya Suresh looked fiercely independent while abiding the strict codes of dancing in unison. It was a tough job to stand out from a group of four talented dancers moving in synchronicity with the same exact movement material, but Suresh’s piercing eyesight was incomparable to anyone else in Pallavi in Time.
It’s Tuesday afternoon, and I am meeting Sandhya Suresh at CHOWk’s dance studio on Emily Hill. Outside, the skies have opened up to a very long, massive storm. The rain is heavy and loud on the ceiling above our heads. But, it makes our interview somewhat cosier. We have never spoken to one another before, but I have seen her dancing several times in the last few years – always with admiration and respect. I first came across Suresh in the fall of 2016 dancing with CHOWK in Pallavi and Space and ever since I have looked forward to seeing her dancing again.
Suresh has been dancing for Raka Maitra with CHOWK for a couple of years. She tells me, “I approached Raka in 2013 to shadow her as a choreographer. ” From then onwards, she joined the company taking Odissi classes and had her first premiere with “The Blind Age”. In 2015 she cemented her roots with the company as a full-time dancer and company manager – running a busy schedule of dance and administration.
CHOWK is a loved dance company in Singapore. Working on the intersection where classical Indian dance meets contemporary dance. Helmed by Raka Maitra, the partnership grows from strength to strength despite the little support from the National Arts Council. It pains me to see the company operating with such little financial aid, but with a regular audience, often sold-out performances and raving reviews. “It was the war played out in sound – a sonic onslaught that the stoic dancers braved with their unrelentingly calm and assured moves.” Writes Lee Mun Wai in The StraitsTimes
In 2016, Suresh performed in The Second Sunrise for da:ns festival, based on poetry written by Rudramoorthy Cheran about the Sri Lankan Civil war. She confesses, “this process was difficult and painful for all of us. Just reading and researching, and having to constantly think about these things, and choosing the kind of emotions and images to inject into the piece, was a dark and emotional experience.” I remember this piece avidly. It invoked an emotional turmoil, which in part translated on stage as a profoundly moving piece of dance, inspired by Odissi.
Suresh is a humble and generous performer. Offstage, she is calm and likes to articulate her ideas with patience and care – never rushing into judgment. She says.” Dancing is a way of staying grounded through all the chaos happening around the world. It makes me cherish humanity a lot more.” She hates to be unprepared for performances, and she will never step on stage unless she is entirely sure of her technical abilities. But she is also vulnerable. “Even after years of performing, I’ve come to accept that I will always be nervous before I get on stage and that’s something I can’t control.”
Despite her spellbinding presence, she sees her practice as a surrender of the self. Emptying her mind completely, she declares that Odissi is a very stylistic art form. However, with endless possibilities within its various existing styles.
Suresh explores the subtle nuances of Odissi in her constant daily practice. She shares that, “with Odissi, every time I practice the same piece, I can discover something new. Embracing that, and allowing myself the ability to choose what works for me best is the challenge that I love.”
CHOWK’s work is widely appreciated in Singapore, both from contemporary dance audiences as well as from classical Indian dance fans. Suresh agrees that Raka’s choreography has been the link for many traditional Indian dance fans to venture into watching contemporary dance, and vice versa.
“I have no expectations with performances.” She has learned to trust the creative process and observe the piece unfold to the end. Suresh is soon to retake the stage, this time in a new commission from Esplanade with from: The Platform. A tasteful blend of theatre and dance, inspired by Peter Handke’s play: The hour we knew nothing of each other. In this brand new contemporary work, Raka draws from her memory of taking the train to school every day from the Howrah station in Calcutta and all the characters she’d notice and all the stories that would unfold on that platform. Working with a cast of twelve people, seven dancers, and five actors. The process behind this creation is one of experimentation and improvisation.
” A choreography emerges for a section, and then the process repeats itself for subsequent chapters. Upon running the piece, things change, choreography gets erased, replaced or completely changed.” It’s an adventure and something I am looking forward to seeing on stage.