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'We Thought We Knew What We Were Doing': Dance as an existential struggle

Photo by Bohumil Kostohryz

Dance is an art form that deals with time and space; patterns of body movements which may be the basic building blocks or the starting point in the journey to create a piece of dance. With the help of light, sound and costumes these strung together patterns and sequences can evoke meanings as well as transcendental exchanges of energy between the audience and the performance.

Bound by the concept of time, while performing, there are promises to keep: promises to be at a certain point in space when meeting another dancer for a duet or trio or to be in a certain light or to keep a certain rhythm or to meet a point in the music and so on.

Aspiring to create a sense of perfection, dancers rehearse a lot to make this ‘time bound’ activity seamless; to have it all in the body so we remember it so well that you can ‘perform’ it.

Being brought up in Kerala, south India, I had chances to stare at the torrential downpour of rain. I used to think of water drips just after the rain as some embodiment of time ticking - perhaps because I was bored when forced to sit inside when it rains.

I had ambitions to create a dance work called Liquid, based on the sound of water drops bit it didn't get commissioned/ funded, so I abandoned the idea.

In 2017, I created a work called Fly From, a solo for dance artist, Subhash Viman Gorania, commissioned by the Morph Dance Company. It had water drops falling from a height onto a drum which had a mic underneath it to capture the sound of water drops hitting the skin of the drum. This created a continuous soundscape and this idea was inspired by those childhood experiences of staring at the rain. I used a garden watering apparatus to achieve this on stage. I have used this idea several times in my work.

Figuring out how to accurately drop the drips onto the drum. Fly From photo by Sean Goldthorpe.

Fly From photo by Sean Goldthorpe.

For the Interarts 2019 festival at The Place, London, I created a durational work called Impulses of Distraction which discussed the self enclosing of the body in public spaces while living through the crisis of attention. It amplified the idea that we also have a right to silence and that there is a ‘crisis of attention’.

The performer was fully encapsulated in white paper wearing a wire mesh fencing mask. They stood under a blood red colour liquid dripping on them from above for about five hours.

Impulses of Distraction photo by Rocio Chacon

In 2007, dance artist Frey Faust, who is the founder of The Axis Syllabus, created a work called Living River. It had paint slowly dripping from a bag suspended in the ceiling onto the performers.

I know Frey Faust from working together in a piece by Vedanza Luxembourg.

Frey and Emanuela Iacopini, who is the director of VEDANZA, decided to recreate Living River and they invited me to collaborate. I was happy to be messy again.

We premiered the work with a new name at the Theatre National Luxembourg at the end of February 2023. We called it: We Thought We Knew What We Were Doing.

The idea was to create a piece and know it well. Then perform under the obstruction of wet and slippery paint of different colour and viscosity falling from the ceiling.

Unlike Frey’s earlier performances of Living River, we had motors and pumps chucking out large amounts of paint and water, making life hell on stage. A bit like life itself where all does not work out according to plan!

I enjoyed every minute of it.

There were five of us: Frey Faust, Emanuela Iacopini, Yuko Kominami, Ileana Orofino and me. Live music was by Tomas Tello, a Peruvian multi instrumentalist. Lighting was by Karl Hambug. Costume by Anne Marie Herckes.

The creation time was tricky as we all had different ideas and methods of working. Normally there would be a ‘workshoping’ period to arrive at a common understanding. We didn’t have that luxury but somehow we came up with a piece of dance and rehearsed it several times to know it.

We knew it was going to be destroyed on stage by the wet and slippery paint. I was slightly scared. I didn't want to injure myself as I had other performing commitments, like all of us.

We all slipped and fell a lot; the audience laughed and were breathing with us, for us. I swallowed a lot of paint in the process! There were some small injuries, but overall it was one crazy and fun experience which I hope to repeat. In fact, we have a show coming up in Portugal!

Through photos by the amazing Bohumil Kostohryz you can see how the piece developed on stage below...

Photo from We Thought We Knew What We Were Doing
At the start we looked clean like this...
By this point, there were small drips here and there making the stage a bit slippery

Ileana Orofino, Emmanuela Iacopini (artistic director of Vedanza) and Yuko Kominami are busy seeking out danger

Mess developing - by now it is so slippery but we continued with the lifts and jumps, slipping and falling in the process. Frey Faust is a fearless mover.
Yuko Kominami and I are painting the floor with our bodies
Then we started tearing the floor! Yuko was especially good at this!
Yuko and I are painting each other
Tomas Tello, the musician. During a radio interview in Luxembourg, Frey Faust referred to Tomas Tello as the Picasso of music!
Interruption! More paint...

The bloodbath at the end

In the future, I will surely be making more works with things falling. In my scientific mind, gravity is the engine of time. Dance is time related and so for me everything links up. (a side thought)

In conclusion, I have expressed in the first paragraph that seeking perfection and progressing through the performance by making pre-planned appointments on stage is what we do. But in this work/ case, we have destroyed all ideas of perfection and the idea of progressing through the dance by making the performing environment so slippery with paint.

This obstacle makes the stage experience an existential struggle. I guess that created a ‘third thing’ for the audience to watch. ‘First thing’ being the dance we created originally and the ‘second thing’ being the obstacle which is the paint!



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