immersed with eyes wide open

cleo mees: parramasala australian festival of south asian arts

Mavin Khoo, Devi in Absolution

Mavin Khoo, Devi in Absolution

Mavin Khoo, Devi in Absolution


devi in absolution

Devi in Absolution is personal. It opens with an introduction by the artist himself—a voice speaking pensively over closed curtains about the ideas behind his choreography. What are the different dimensions of the goddess Devi’s character? What ‘subtexts’ can he pull from the religious literature about her? And how might he dance them?

Curtain up and Khoo stomps in, the bells on his ankles jangling in time with the music. Bare-chested with a white skirt down to his knees, the palms and soles of hands and feet are painted red. Beneath a white marquee five musicians play. Sitars and percussion instruments back the lead vocalist, OS Arun, who coasts on single notes for long periods before launching into improvisations full of melodic loops and whirls.

I am immediately taken by the expressiveness in Khoo’s face and fingers. Hands fly to the face and then away, head bobbing to and fro from the top of the neck, eyes darting around playfully. Without a word he sets up problems and solves them, poses questions and answers them. It is as if he is having a conversation in sign language, communicating so rapidly that when I stop paying attention for a moment I lose track of what is being said.

There are aspects of Khoo’s movement that I assume are typical of his classical Bharata Natyam training: for example the straightening of fingers to a point that seems beyond straight, so that they arch over backwards. But Khoo’s movement is also laced with other techniques. He often turns his way across the stage, whipping round with the delicious intentionality of a dancer who knows how to spot. Later, when the dance escalates into a series of energised leaps I’m almost sure I can see a pas de chat, lifted straight from ballet.

Khoo’s work is a saga in two acts that spans a large number of shapes and stories. In its speed and variety it differs from the next show I see at the festival—Sharira by the Chandralekha Group.

Sharira, Chandralekha Group

Sharira, Chandralekha Group

Sharira, Chandralekha Group


The same excitement stirs in the foyer for this performance. Talk is mainly about the notoriety of the now deceased choreographer Chandralekha’s work. She caused a stir with the sexual charge of her performances, which were feminist in undertone and brought the Bharata Natyam practice out from its devotional context into a more sensual, bodily place.

Sharira is slow, gliding. Bodies are displayed luxuriously. The two dancers wear comfortable clothes and move through a series of postures. These hint at the martial arts influences in Chandralekha’s work, with many being quite intimate. I can see why there was uproar when the work was first performed. The duet opens with a woman lying on her stomach. She undulates on the floor, legs turned out, her back and buttocks rolling up and gently down again. She looks boldly into the audience. The shapes she makes are interesting on a two-dimensional level. I blur my vision now and again to get a better sense of her body as a graphic.

A man enters like a thunderclap.He runs in, batons a straight leg up to his forehead and slaps the leg loudly to create a cracking sound. For a while he performs up on two feet behind the woman, who ripples like a stingray on the floor with her legs and arms splayed. Later he is down on the floor with her. The focus between them is intense. As the piece progresses they climb into each other, exchange weight, swing each other around. They make knots with their limbs and pull into each other to tighten them.

The vocalists dance too in their setup on the far left of the stage. They perform loosely, with feeling, swaying in their seats and making gestures with their hands to access what they’re singing. The slow pace of this piece means I have ample time to take it in. I find myself relaxing into a viewing mode that does not look for narrative or climax.

the other journey

The Other Journey, CuriousWorks

The Other Journey, CuriousWorks

The Other Journey, CuriousWorks

The last performance I attend is The Other Journey. It invites a distinctly different viewing mode to both Sharira and Devi in Absolution. The facilitators of the evening have called it an “arts adventure,” a theatre event in which you are free to direct your own experience.

A small group of us (no more than 10 or 15) arrive at the bank of the Lennox River for a 7.30pm start. There are campfires burning, a boat moored nearby and straw mats laid out with pillows, blankets and incense burners. On the pylons beneath a nearby bridge I can see brightly coloured video projection. Positioned as I am at the end of a long, hot day, I am overcome by a sense of relief. There is nothing I would rather do at this point than take a boat ride or lie down next to a campfire. This environment promises rest.

We get to choose between a cinnamon stick and a dried chili. Chili takes you to the boat first, cinnamon to the mats and pillows. Chili for me. Before I board the boat a woman sets me up with a pair of headphones and an mp3 player. She is attentive and patient, takes the time to show me where the volume control is. I am surprised by her kindness. On the boat we are quiet. The headphones are isolating. At times we observe each other. At other times we close our eyes to listen to the stories.

Backed by an ambient music track, a voice describes traditional Hindu houses, which usually have a special room where you can take a quiet moment if you wish. The phrase is repeated: “take a quiet moment if you wish.” A different voice talks about moving to Australia, hearing thunder over dinner and thinking it was landmines. Again, a repeat in the audio drives the image home. There are reflections on diaspora and war, thoughts on air shelling and how that’s the worst way to kill a person—much worse than shooting them front-on. These recordings are about the plight of Tamil people during the Sri Lankan civil war and what it has been like for them to travel to and resettle in Australia. I cannot identify a conclusive message in the collection of stories—they are just that, a loose collection.

Disembarking the boat, we are led to the mats. Again, the woman bends down to help me hook up my headphones. She treats me so nicely—“let me sort you out.” As I pull the blanket over me I think about the audio content, about refugee policy and about being “treated nicely.” Maybe there’s something in it—some thinking behind the way we’re being treated tonight.

It is hard to be cerebral in this environment, hard to maintain distance. I feel immersed in it, and invited to relax after a week of performances that have challenged me to sit up straight and keep my eyes wide open—mainly because they have opened up a vast history of dance, aesthetics and politics about which I had little prior knowledge.

Parramasala, Australian Festival of South Asian Arts: Devi in Absolution, dancer Mavin Khoo (Malaysia), lead vocalist OS Arun (India), Riverside Theatre, Nov 1; The Chandralekha Group (India), Sharira, dancer Tishani Doshi, dancer/martial artist Shaji John, lighting designer Sadanand Menon, Riverside Theatre, Nov 2, 3; CuriousWorks, The Other Journey (Australia/Sri Lanka), created by Shakthi Sivanathan, Aimee Falzon, Parramatta River, Parramatta, Sydney, Oct 31-Nov 5; Parramasala, Oct 30-Nov 6, http://parramasala.com

RealTime issue #106 Dec-Jan 2011 pg. 10

© Cleo Mees; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

13 December 2011