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A Thinking Body——A Lecture by Padmini Chettur

Lecture / Asia Hundreds

Padmini's creation since Beautiful Things

A photo of Beautiful Thing 1
Image no. pc4 Beautiful Thing 1 (2009) Photo: Jirka Jansch

Beautiful Thing 1 was a piece with six dancers. For me it was a fun work because all of us had all of this baggage of meaning, politics, image, which we let go of somehow, reminding myself also of Chandra's words, "Meaning will come somehow." I allowed myself the luxury to go back to making a purely structural work. One of the things that I wanted with this work was to somehow subvert this idea of what a dancer represents in performance, and so I built into the piece also a kind of a text, where the dancers would speak about themselves, just very simple kind of text, almost introducing themselves to the public. Because over the years of touring with dancers, I realised that people abroad often had an idea that Indian dancers were a sort of a very specific kind of people, and that we live specific kinds of very ritualistic lives. And I wanted to somehow just bring the idea of the dancer away from this superhuman imaginary into a normalcy. That was one of the ideas with Beautiful Thing 1, but it was also, as you can see, a complex piece, very well produced but it was the beginning of what was referred to as a lack of generosity in my work. I simply was not giving dance audiences what they wanted, and I often heard from presenters "Well, I like the work but my audience won't be able to handle it"!

Post Beautiful Thing 1, though I had just started to work with a Brussels based manager (At the advice of friends who felt I needed a presence in Europe in a more pragmatic way), invitations began to dwindle. I couldn't afford to maintain the company anymore, so all things considered I decided to come back to making a solo, which would be the second Beautiful thing. The Belgian manager left at this point saying my work was unsellable, and that no one was interested in solos!

There was at this time in the transition between Beautiful Thing 1 and Beautiful Thing 2, an idea of somehow rescuing Padmini Chettur from the European festival context and reclaiming her in Asia. And so with Beautiful Thing 2, I started to work with a producer who probably some of you know, Tang Fu Kuen, and it was his firm belief that there had to be a complete Asian co-production to launch a new phase of my career, back into the West but somehow with a different angle. And Beautiful Thing 2, which premiered in the Singapore Arts Festival 2011 on a big stage, was very simply nine lines of movement on a stage, and my question very simply was, "What does it mean to displace space as a body moves through it? And how does one actually divide a macro-idea of movement very minutely to actually create a certain quality of transitioning through a line of space?" And I'm just going to show one line of this, but I'll also keep talking through it.

Some of the early conversations and choices around the work were, of course, big stage versus small, and of course, as a performer who's been really working on the idea of space, these ideas around possibly charging space, the large stage is a very seductive proposition. That was one of the ideas to which I agreed, to the large stage, and it also gave a lot of possibility to the lighting designer. The Singapore Arts Festival was quite specific in that moment that a 'spectacle' was required. I think we did that. Somehow, we created a grand spectacle that was quite completely out of context, that ended up contradicting the politics of the work, that would prove highly unsustainable, and that was understandably received very badly by an unprepared audience and further by the ocean of festival presenters towards whom the work was optimistically targeted! I found myself abandoned by Fu Kuen too at this point. He later went on to say that I was making harder and harder work.....Here I naively still thought that was the function of an artist!

I think for me this was a moment when I really started to think a lot about these ideas of packaging work. For who and why are we creating these kinds of productions? And how does it actually... how does it really address the artistic needs of the work? As well, I started to really have to think around economic choices. Somehow it became more and more apparent, that all of these years, I was sustained and functioning in a falsely inflated economy that had at first been supported by Europe, and was now replaced by a similar capitalist model, only this time in Asia! It started to occur to me that I had to introspect, to start again from scratch, and to strip the work down completely of these frills.

A photo of Beautiful Thing 2
Image no. pc5 Beautiful Thing 2 (2011) Photo: SAF

The predominant response, of course, to Beautiful Thing 2 was, "It's too much. It's too radical. It's too slow. It's too long." And, of course, "It's too difficult to watch." And some of the comments that often came to me, had been coming over the years was, "Well, in actual fact, it's not really dance any more." But perhaps it fulfils or belongs more in a family of the visual arts simply because the performance existed as a proposition, and it wasn't giving resolution or a big climax at the end. It wasn't allowing this moment when people stand on the seats. It was doing none of that. It was somehow framed in a certain way, but somewhere maybe I could propose the material of the work differently, in a different context, one which allowed for less of the problematic expectations of the 'performance' market.

Together with listening to some of the critique around the work—and also because after the premiere I found myself actually completely out of work because nobody was daring to invite the piece—I took a couple of years to really think more about this proposition of creating work that was more material than performance, and there I began to enter the curatorial spaces of people who are working in galleries and museums.

The first project I did was a revisiting of Beautiful Thing 2, (at the invitation of Clarkhouse initiative, Mumbai). But it was performed in an empty textile mill that had been emptied out, and all we had, sorry Jan, was six tube lights and a mud floor. The work was proposed as a 5 hour exhibition that went seamlessly between moving and discourse. The form suited the work brilliantly and was the beginning of a very different phase of work, where I also said to myself, "I no longer want to be co-produced by anybody." And I remain like that till today, independently producing my own work.

I think for me actually the next phase of my work very much feeds into the performance, which I think a lot of you saw (Philosophical enactment 1&2). This morning I was having a conversation with Jan Maertens who said, "But why dance in a museum? Why dance in a gallery?" I think for me personally it gave a lot of freedom in terms of thinking about duration and possibilities for the audience to either enter or leave. With this in mind, I made a three-hour work for either a museum or a gallery, titled Wall Dancing. In many ways the work was a response to the very critics of my work who found the combination of length and slowness difficult to endure. So, people could leave when they got bored, at the same time, the three hours allowed me to go deeper into a space I wanted to enter. A space where the beginnings and endings are blurred into a longer idea of endlessness, a place where we once again deal with a place of the body that lies in between image and enactment, performer and commodity. Every five minutes a chapter would begin and end allowing for the audience as well to choose how long to stay with the work, allowing also choices for people to move, choose other perspectives, and often by the end of the three hours, the extreme slowness of the piece would have entered the now reclining bodies of the last remaining! The work also came with a price list, so you could buy a section of the choreography. Nobody did, oddly enough. But the point I wanted to make was around the economy of the visual arts vs performance. It takes a lot of arguing to convince a gallerist that performance comes with a fee, that we have to function economically differently from a sculptor or painter. Ultimately, the irony is, that we have no 'price list'!

A photo of Walldancing
Image no. pc6 Wall Dancing (2012) Photo: SAF

After this I'm not going to talk a lot, but I went onto working more in the context of the visual arts, in medium of film, with curators in museums, and I continue to do that alongside the performative work. I do accept commissions for specific projects, but I've been really careful about who I work with, and I've found a lot more generosity and space for radicality in unexpected places, with curators who have spent years doing their own research, and who come to me with no expectations other than what I can fulfil. But I wanted to just end very simply before I can take questions, to say that somewhere everything I've talked about today, surrounding the framing and producing of the work, was somehow dealing with this singular problem, that this the Padmini Chettur choreographic proposition remains a challenge, not because it is bad or lacks rigour or authenticity, but perhaps because it refuses to be easily boxed and slotted. It belongs to no recognisable family, and doesn't come with an orientalist manual. It threatens to push into a well-guarded conceptual space which could make it 'western', yet it remains strongly rooted in an aesthetic specificity that in 'Indian'. How can we solve this problem? And I think in a way it sums up the real dilemma of being an artist whose work ultimately isn't easily accessible. I think often, but through the lecture today I think it also becomes clear how actually the forces of market affect artistic production in so many ways— aesthetic choices, choices of spaces—and often it's not a two-way dialogue. It remains quite one-directional. The lesson I have truly learnt is to actually always question, to be suspicious of success. What exactly is being subverted when our work is usurped in the global soup of the arts? To whose strings do we become puppets? And to know that at any moment this magical carpet can be pulled out from under our feet, and we must remain dancing, not just standing.

To end—some of you might ask, why this particular lecture now? It's part history, a history that might seem irrelevant to the young dancer going out to conquer the world! But also in part what might seem a slightly cynical narrative about survival and integrity more than anything else. When I teach in India these days, I am struck at how history is disregarded, perhaps it is a contemporary strategy to avoid what is referred to as 'the burden of the past', perhaps we need a new set of references that doesn't look backwards. The irony is that in the deliberate overlooking of old stories lies the danger of repetition. I see in India for instance young Bharatanatyam dancers struggling to find 'contemporary' solutions without any understanding that the work was already substantially and radically achieved five decades ago. On a larger scale, Asian choreographers are often treading a very tricky line that on the one side leaves one to fall into a pit of neo-orientalism, and on the other the space of the 'derivative'. How aware are we of the larger politics that mould us? How complicit? How can we become aware if nobody calls out 'the Emperor is wearing no clothes'.

[Accompanied text]

Listening to Padmini Chettur: Embodied Subversion by Helly Minarti