Some questions came up at the opening performances at IGNITE! on October 9, and then traversed and lingered during the program last night at the same venue, OddBird. Questions around collaborative creations—of course, but also around gender, race and appropriation of social issues, or even an appropriation of the concept of resistance.
Last night’s program comprised of a film screening and two short performances. During this screening of Director/Choreographer Stephen Page’s debut feature film SPEAR, some of those same questions came up, carrying some interesting and some troubling connotations.
The film was Page’s effort (2015) to bring Bangarra Dance Theatre’s work under the same name, to the film medium. The narrative revolved around a man named Djali—played by Hunter Page-Lochard. This young man stood on the streets of Sydney and visualized himself as going back to his aboriginal roots, while trying to understand what his real existence in his urban, modern world meant. He saw his own reflection in other lost and restless aboriginal souls—torn between their urban existences (upside down realities, smeared with white dust, wings chopped off) and their irresistible roots to the wilderness, which they continuously, secretly desired for.
A section of the movie touched a chord—a soul caught in the urban mayhem, touching himself up with thick coats of white dust all over, went out in the forest, shed the dust off and smeared himself with the red sand. This could be looked at as him looking for a way-out towards something that he could relate to with more honesty than what his everyday life allowed him to. Yet, viewing it more literally, it remained a question whether the politics of space could be represented in such a fashion so devoid of complexity. Whether, really, say an n-th generation urban descendant of the aboriginal race, in spite of the violent discrimination that existed in some form or other in his life, could have such a strong desire to find his root in the forest! It verged on the complicated debate around exoticism.
The dancers who took part in the film were the dancers from the Bangarra Dance Theater—an indigenous Australian contemporary dance company, although not all the dancers belong to the Australian aboriginal race. The accompanying scores were by David Page, who is also the composer and music director of the company. The music combined traditional and contemporary music. There were smooth and interesting musical shifts between these two forms. But the shift between the choreography and the ideology was not as smooth.
Running over 84 minutes, the dancers performed Western contemporary/jazz moves with hints of tribal movements fused into the choreography. One is inclined to indulge into a subversive reading of this choice of movements, which after a point did become repetitive—giving the audience a feeling of lack of respite from the continuous intensity. Also, there was a lack of enough thoughts around physical representation of such complex emotions around pain, humiliation and loss of space. It was one thing to take the help of real spaces like city, forest, prison or real objects like cars, alcohol bottles, branches with leaves and use them successfully to represent certain things which the audience has real connections to. But it is another thing for dancers or choreographers to figure out an honest way to use the abstract language of the body to tell stories. Just a contextual, apparent reference to the tribal bodies did not feel enough to create the connection.
Other than the young male dancers, there were indeed couple of other male bodies used in the piece. Bodies that belonged to aboriginal old men with magnificent tummies decorated with old injuries, deep-set eyes speaking of the much talked about tribal old men’s ‘mysterious, natural wisdom’, or whatever that is we think they have!
The strong omnipresence of a certain kind of maleness with its male quest could be read as a certain chauvinistic, choreographic choice—the women dancers being always on the periphery as healers, mothers, lovers or muses.
In fact, one is tempted to take the risk of calling it commercial, or even pornographic—the kind that involves body, its nakedness in representing human connections but end up appropriating both the body and the connection. For example, the vast, sunny-blue landscape of the ocean, six dancers on a terrace celebrating freedom, wearing tight blue pants—streaks of blue on their chest—it could make a wonderful advertisement for Denim Jeans! But could it be called dance? At that context? At that moment?
There were beautiful moments too—many, in fact—photographic, poetic and humourous. The one moment that stood out was the little choreographic game between Djali and one of the old little men on an escalator.
But in spite of all the beauty in it, one is tempted to ask, what was that the film was really talking about? It was not just about apartheid, alcoholism and alienation. It was about claiming the space.
Lastly, how do we—an Indian audience largely consisting of art practitioners—read this Australian film, which has more political connotations than artistic? Tribal/aboriginal dance is not such a matter of traditional grace and “unperspired naturalness” (as Ananya Chatterjea puts it) in the Indian context any more—given the present socio-political vibes in this so-called nation. There are always problematic stories behind an exotic curation of aboriginal ways.
The funny thing about this economic and cultural neo-colonization process with India playing multiple interesting roles in it is, whatever way we read and attempt to contextualize this film, the interpretation could backfire on us in strange, insanely unexpected ways. Like an instinctive reaction once the movie got over—”This film must have had more dance than a Bollywood movie!”