Across, Not Over

“With Across, Not Over, Vikram Iyengar and Preethi Athreya have cleared a space for a kathak-trained body to discover another, equally rigorous way of expressing itself.
As an experiment, it was immensely stimulating; as a performance, gripping.”
Shanta Gokhale, Mumbai Mirror, April 2015
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Throughout my training and performance career in Kathak, I have constantly found new challenges to work with from within, and in relation to, the form, and have returned in various ways to the question: how can Kathak engage in a dialogue rather than be a monologue?
My perception of what constitutes Kathak and how it is possible to work with it as impulse and material, has evolved and changed radically. I have become far more interested in the aesthetic and artistic sensibilities, readings and principles that create and constantly inform this specific externalisation of the dancing body. It is fundamentally this exploration that excites and inspires me.
However, my perceptions are necessarily coloured by the point of view of an insider. This project with contemporary dancer Preethi Athreya stemmed from a need for an outside-in approach, and addresses many of my personal concerns with how Kathak is performed and perceived today.

Across, not Over engages with the fragmentation of the body in an essentially sensorial way. The work draws out the miniscule details of movement to re-present them in a newly-assembled poetics. It presents a grammar for the body that allows the vulnerability of the dancer to rise to the surface. The exploration questions and re-frames notions of classicism and beauty by presenting the dancing body as an image of itself.
The work is a result of a dialogue between two classically-trained dancers from two very different forms of dance. Preethi Athreya’s background in bharatanatyam and subsequent body of choreographic work within the contemporary genre meets very personal concerns of the performer Vikram Iyengar and his deep and continuing relationship with the kathak form.

My work with dance is to reclaim the body from a society that is sold on commodifying it – through dance, through culture and through the large machinery of capitalist consumption. Today, we have to act from our bodies for it is the only space in which we may carry our democracies.
Choreographer, Preethi Athreya

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Soil proves to be another prominent feature in Preethi Athreya’s Across, not Over as bold rectangular panels created seemingly from sand border the arena in which Vikram Iyengar would perform. Connotations of ritual, heritage, nature, faith, home and foreign lands come to mind. Iyengar is a picture of serenity before the work begins. Across, not Over seems to be a meditation on spirituality and the dancing body, from the point of view of a male Kathak dancer. Iyengar’s slow, precise intensity is powerful to witness throughout the piece, however, it was a pleasure to experience his classical skill in full force towards the end. Voice recordings suggest that “nobody has the patience of watching slow dance” and “subtle movements”, but I pose the question, if dancers and choreographers are as engaging as Athreya and Iyengar, how could they not?
– Sanam Sitaraman, JOMBA! 2016 newsletter, Durban

Across, not Over was supported by the India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore (IFA) under their Arts Practice programme in 2014. Below is an excerpt from Vikram Iyengar’s report to IFA.

For me / us, the exploration engaged with the following questions: what is a Kathak trained body? What does it enable, what traces does it leave on one’s everyday (non-performative) physicality? What mental space does it tend towards? Where can the individual (the owner/inhabitant of this body) meet these traces, and what can one work towards meeting outside them? This then becomes the content, and also becomes the form of the piece. Indeed, the form is the content, it does not serve to indicate a content. Therefore both become extremely personal expressions deeply connected to and emerging from the concerns of the body/individual in performance.

ignite1Most work with and from Kathak – traditional, new, experimental – has been preoccupied with what the Kathak body can do with and within the Kathak form, and how the form can be extended and even challenged. The focus has not been the Kathak trained body per se in isolation, connected to but distinct from the Kathak form. A body with a full understanding of, but not in service to, Kathak. There is no sublimation of self here – something that is an unwritten expectation in classical dance, the form is paramount and the performer submits / surrenders to it. The critical self here is very deliberately present – and that is a statement. What does Kathak mean to me?

Across, not Over doesn’t try and prove me as a Kathak dancer, it doesn’t attempt to underline any virtuosic skill that the body has been trained in. In fact, it does quite the opposite – it presents a vulnerable body, shorn of the armour of form, tenderly (and sometimes tentatively) dwelling on and discovering flints from that armour that it thought it knew, but had never taken off and taken apart. I don’t need to live up to what is expected from a Kathak dancer, I don’t need to ‘deliver’. That I can is either taken for granted, or ceases to matter. The piece is a refusal to deliver Kathak as per expectations, but not a refusal of Kathak itself. Indeed, I read it and experience it as quite the opposite: it is an open-hearted embrace of the form interpreting it with a sense of detail, empathy and gentle irony that I have rarely encountered in all my years of working with Kathak. It’s me, my body, my Kathak trained body fully focussed and absorbed in the very real and immediate mechanics of what it is doing, of what it is discovering for itself and for its own sensorial delight. And that immediacy, that personal pleasure is incredibly moving, poignant and wondrous to watch, contemplate and absorb. It coerces the viewer to engage, to enter the space created and inhabited by the performer, rather than expect the performer to proceed towards the space occupied by the viewer. And this it does without any apology.

Performance History

Across, not Over premiered at SPACES, Chennai in October 2014. It has subsequently travelled to various centres in India and three international festivals. Each time, the sand installation inspired from the original venue (SPACES) is recreated in a different architectural space. Each venue becomes a different conversation between the body, movement and space.

October 2014: Premiere in SPACES, Chennai
January 2015: IGNITE Festival of Contemporary Dance, Delhi. Venue – back lawns of the Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Delhi
February 2015: Attakalari Biennial, Banglarore. Venue – Studio theatre at Alliance Francaise, Bangalore
March 2015: Sitara Studio, Mumbai – an old film and television studio
February 2016: [Trans]Asia Portaits, Vienna. Venue – main gallery of 21er Haus, museum for contemporary art
May 2016: Alchemy, Southbank Centre, London. Venue – terrace courtyard of the Weston Roof Pavilion, Royal Festival Hall
August 2016: JOMBA!, Durban. Venue – cafe area of the Kwazulu Natal Society of Arts
February 2017: Remembering Veenapani festival, Adishakti, Auroville. Venue – amphitheatre