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All together now

Avant-garde productions from Manipur and Spain symbolize the scope of the first Theatre Olympics in India

The 8th Theatre Olympics is on till 8 April, in 17 cities.
The 8th Theatre Olympics is on till 8 April, in 17 cities.

The stage lights up with the glow of fireflies and clicking sound of insects. Given that the performers belong to the Imphal-based group Nachom Arts Foundation, one expects traditional martial arts such as thang-ta or indigenous oral traditions such as anoirol to take centre stage. But the group steers clear of all conventions and forms, weaving together a performance based on sheer rawness of movement. In the piece, titled Nerves, the artists use their physicality as a medium to express the anguish, suppression and conflict that plagues Manipur’s indigenous communities.

This powerful work is driven not by a single creative force, but by a collective of artists, ranging from poets and philosophers to hip hop dancers, martial artists and musicians. “It is our collective energies that have led us to find a form in the formless, to create a new vocabulary that doesn’t subscribe to any genre," says Surjit Nongmeikapam Bon, who co-founded Nachom in 2009 and came up with the concept of Nerves in 2014.

After four years of adding to and developing the piece, the foundation will now stage the non-verbal performative work at Delhi’s LTG Auditorium on 28 February, as part of the 8th Theatre Olympics, which has been organized in India for the first time by the National School of Drama. The event was first established in Delphi, Greece, in 1993, as a platform for exchange between theatre practitioners from across the world. Since then, it has been held in Japan, Russia, Turkey, South Korea, China and Poland.

And this year, with 30 countries taking part, the Theatre Olympics is being held in 17 cities, such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Varanasi, Agartala, Jaipur, Jammu and Bhubaneswar. In all, audiences will be treated to 450 shows, 600 “ambience" performances and 250 youth forum shows, with about 25,000 participating artists from around the world. With the theme “Flag of Friendship", one will also get a glimpse of myriad theatre practices, from the traditional to the cutting-edge, through seminars, workshops, 60 “Living Legend" series, 50 masterclasses and symposia.

Non-verbal performances such as Nerves, and the power-packed Around The World In 80 Boxes, from Spain, form an integral part of the event.

Bon hopes that events such as these will give a voice to indigenous communities. “Their lives have been exhausted by the constant power struggles with the elite, in the course of which their rights have been sold and marketed for profit," he says. The group has extensively used props such as newspapers, bamboo poles, threads and shoes as symbols of this struggle. “Also, these props have helped non-contemporary dancers and artists to feel connected with the movements, to create their own vocabulary," he says.

Nerves, initially commissioned by the Prakriti Foundation in Chennai, was envisioned as a solo piece. However, as more and more collaborators joined in, the performance expanded to include seven artists and technicians, and has now grown to include 10.

“We have tried to understand the alignment of the body, and its relation to space. The piece is not about the beauty of the movement, but the organic way in which it can be used as a medium," says Bon, who was largely self-taught till the age of 24. He then enrolled for a three-year bachelor’s course at the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography, Bengaluru. After graduating, he returned to Imphal and began to explore his body as a canvas. “At that time, there was hardly any contemporary movements practice in the state, so I spent a lot of time doing research and listening to people, their ideas and expressions. That has laid the foundation for this collective," says Bon.

The collective has performed in forests, in the open area at the Goethe Institut, Delhi, an art gallery in Imphal, and parks. Even within a conventional stage setting, the technicians try and create an unconventional scenography.

Around The World In 80 Boxes, performed by the Markeliñe company from Spain, will be staged at Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium on 6 March, and in Kolkata on 8 March. This is the 20th year of the piece, which has evolved to take cognizance of the changing fabric of the world.

It looks at three workers of a package delivery enterprise who, bored of the daily routine, let their imagination loose one day and begin to travel the world by balloon, ship and camel—but in 80 boxes, and without ever leaving the warehouse.

“The piece uses mime and theatre, and was created after one and a half years of improvisation," says Jon Koldo Vazquez, one of the actors with the company. “It came about at a time when Nintendo games had begun to enter the market and the kids were getting addicted to them. We wanted to show that imagination distinguishes a man from a machine, and that very little is required to have fun with." For instance, a piece of cloth transforms into an Arabian dancer, a simple balloon into a hot-air balloon, and the box becomes a creative space, giving rise to novel experiences.

With changing times, however, the group has had to work on the context and the humour. “The piece was created at a time of no Internet. We only knew basic topics about various countries. Now, with so much information, we have to keep the content relevant. Also, humour needs to be used cleverly. The idea is not to laugh at someone, but to laugh with someone," says Vazquez.

Sample the variety

Regional theatre: A series of power-packed, vibrant performances in Mewati, Odia, Kashmiri, Kannada, Hindustani and Assamese form part of the Theatre Olympics.

Connecting the world on a stage: The event aims to build bridges between cultures and countries. So, there are performances such as ‘Punishment’, by the Azerbaijan State Theatre of Young Spectators, ‘Ticina’, by Il Teatro Nel Baule, Italy, and ‘Phantom’, by Hilt Black Light Theatre, Prague. The highlight of this international selection is ‘The Restaurant Of Many Orders’ by the Hiroshi Koike Bridge Project (HKBP), Japan.

Masters of their craft: There will also be plays by veterans such as Ratan Thiyyam, Alyque Padamsee, Raj Bisaria, Bansi Kaul, Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, Lillete Dubey, Usha Ganguly and Surya Mohan Kulshreshtha.

The 8th Theatre Olympics is on till 8 April, in 17 cities. For details, visit here.

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