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Moving out of the box

‘Boxed’, a digital series, encourages dancers of Indian origin to explore the space they have been confined to during the pandemic

A still from Tara Pandeya’s performance, which is part of the online series ‘Boxed’.
A still from Tara Pandeya’s performance, which is part of the online series ‘Boxed’.

A 2-minute clip takes you into the cluttered basement of California-based artist Tara Pandeya, who specializes in Kathak and Central Asian dance forms. The camera zooms in on a suitcase from which Pandeya, an artist for Montreal-based entertainment company Cirque du Soleil, emerges suddenly. She uses the limited space around the object for a beautifully choreographed piece, disappearing back into the suitcase at the end of the clip.

This performance is part of the online series Boxed, choreographies commissioned for the digital platform by Chennai-based artist Anita Ratnam to encourage dancers from India or of Indian origin, from four continents,to explore the spaces they have been confined to during the covid-19 pandemic.

The six editions of the series since the third week of April have seen kitchen slabs, dinner tables, staircases, hospitals and bathtubs emerging as new performance spaces. Chennai-based dancer R. Vishwesh, who usually performs in free spaces, found the idea of performing on a dinner table challenging. “But it gave me an idea of how to control myself," he says in the clip.

In another clip, Surjit Nongmeikapam (aka Bonbon), founder and artistic director of the Imphal-based Nachom Arts Foundation, moves across the staircase in his house. “For some months, my life has just been about going up and down the stairs. During the pandemic, everyone’s idea of ‘normal life’ is different. This was my perspective," he says. The clip shows him challenging the way he walks. In some parts, Nongmeikapam can be seen dragging himself, in another part he is rolling and crawling across the stairs. “Our body has the possibility for adjustment. It’s a metaphor for finding a new axis of life," he says.

The idea for Boxed came to Ratnam during the early days of the nationwide lockdown. “What does a dancing body want to do? It wants to move in a rehearsal studio, on stage, in dance class—all of which is in preparation for the stage," says Ratnam. Suddenly, however, there was no going out—dancers had to practise and perform in the same spaces where they slept, brushed and went about their daily routine. Ratnam wondered if this could lead to a new approach to their practice.

“Having worked in television in New York in the 1980s, I was familiar with the saying that even God doesn’t get more than 7 minutes on TV. But now our attention spans have shrunk even further, to 2 minutes," she says.

Ratnam discussed the possibility of commissioning 2-minute choreography pieces, shot by two phone cameras within confined spaces, with her London-based friend and dancer Chitra Sundaram. “She came on board as a consultant. And by the third week of April, we got the idea together," says Ratnam. Instead of an open audition, she reached out to a set of 10 dancers—aged 20-39—for the first edition of Boxed and held extensive discussions about the choice of location, camera angles, etc. Classical dancers were encouraged to go beyond myth and narrative and think about abstraction. Artists were encouraged to wear regular clothes, not dress up or wear jewellery. The idea was to surrender to the natural state of being.

Today, Boxed has grown to include diverse styles. “It started as choreography homework—not something that would get you a gig or that you could enter for an award. But this is a dancer’s response to here and now, to the pandemic and to what it means to be boxed in," says Ratnam, “For instance, the most important thing to a dancer is breath and this pandemic is attacking that." The exercise has also evolved into dance for the camera, for it requires dancers to go beyond set notions of the stage and think about film-making and editing too.

Ratnam is looking to produce two more series, to end with a total of eight—the last edition is on the weekend of 27-28 June. She would have collaborated with 40 artists by then. For the final edition, she has received an extremely moving submission from Pranamya Suri, a doctor of physical medication and rehabilitation at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center. “She is a front-line worker. In the clip, she dances and cries in the same hospital room where she recently lost several patients," says Ratnam.

She has also started receiving several short films made by dancers during the lockdown, such as one on female foeticide; Indian contemporary dancer-choreographerAstad Deboo’s tribute to migrant workers; or the young son of an instructor at Kalakshetra in Chennai dancing on a carpet of flowers in a deserted campus. “We have films by a transgender artist. In another one, a Bharatanatyam dancer is using her technique to work with pottery. We need such diverse voices," says Ratnam.

It’s interesting to see performances by Cirque du Soleil dancers and spoken word artists juxtaposed against those by Bharatanatyam, Kathak and hip hop dancers. “We tend to pigeonhole people. But I hope that through Boxed we just let dance live and breathe. Let the body speak without layers of costume, jewellery and lights," says Ratnam.

Boxed can be viewed on Anita Ratnam’s Instagram page @anitaratnam.

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