'Not the India of nostalgia and romance': Inside Chalking, a new contemporary dance performance
Premiering this weekend in Toronto, the production crosses continents, languages and dance styles
At first there's just a bare stage in an empty theatre. The ticking begins as soon as a dancer walks onto the blank canvas, marking time atop a minimalist score with languid movements. As minutes pass, four more dancers enter the space — marking and moving — and a sense of urgency builds.
Chalking is a hypnotic and entrancing contemporary dance performance. Composed by Padmini Chettur, one of India's leading dancers and choreographers, it was commissioned by the Toronto-based arts organization Anandam. Chalking premieres this weekend in Toronto, staging first in the downtown core of the city as part of ArtworxTO's Year of Public Art.
The choreography of the piece is the only common language between the five dancers who perform in it, says Brandy Leary, artistic director of Anandam and one of the dancers. Leary's own career in dance and theatre has seen her exploring Western approaches to dance and circus, as well as Indian dance and martial arts practices. Her Chalking collaborators, meanwhile, come from two different styles of Indian classical dance traditions and Western postmodernist-contemporary dance influenced by somatic research.
"How do we dance together, when we're really looking at what the body is doing in space? We're not trying to create a fusion. We're not trying to create a mimicry," says Leary of the process of creating Chalking. "Slowly, slowly, over the years, realizing just how complex the work is … That is so, so rigorous, and sometimes unforgiving in what it allows you to see about your body, and your habits. Because [Chettur] is not at all interested in what counts as a visual form."
The process to create Chalking started in 2019. The crew of dancers, Chettur and music composer Maarten Visser worked together during rehearsals in Toronto, in Chennai, India and over Zoom during the pandemic. Over that passage of time, Chettur was charting out very specific scores for the dancers to work through, says Leary.
"There's not a huge amount of room for improvisation," she adds, laughing. "It's just this interesting assembly of dancers… who have been asked to work probably harder than we ever worked in our entire lives, asking these very simple questions of how do we dance together. Like it sounds like such a simple, simple, simple question … It's this mystical kind of vague magical thing — but the question of: What is a body doing? How are our bodies working together? What is being present like? How to even describe it?"
Leary had long been interested in approaching contemporary dance from outside of a Eurocentric lens, and had been following Chettur's choreographic explorations. Chettur, meanwhile, had at first been a member of the troupe of Chandralekha — a radical choreographer whose work dealt with deconstructing Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance.
Chettur broke away from Chandralekha's work in 2001, and formed her own practice that employs minimalism and visually interprets philosophical concepts of time and space — seeking inspiration from a range of subjects such as insect movements and astronomy to physiotherapy and sport.
When Leary first travelled to Chennai to meet her in 2018, they embarked on "an intense relationship that has woven through a number of concerns around ethical as well as aesthetic and sociopolitical problems embedded in the contemporary dance world," Chettur tells us by email. Chettur was in Milan, Italy, earlier this week to perform at the Pirelli Museum's summer festival, before her arrival in Toronto for the premiere of Chalking.
"How to think through identity, the Eurocentric [lens], how to think about power … but also how to humanize working conditions. And, of course, [Leary] came with the invitation for me to make work in Toronto."
In a way, Chettur was following on a path that her own teacher Chandralekha had set out on in the early 90s. At the time, Chandralekha had started touring Canada, and the conversations on new directions in Indian dance began in earnest, says Chettur.
"I was on those tours," she adds. "So I think Brandy is continuing this dialogue for a new generation of Indian dancers in Toronto, but also expanding this definition of the 'other,' in terms of artistic alignment. And rightly so. The divisions of bodies in the most obvious racial, nationalist ways must give way for a more nuanced thinking that is rooted in humanity. That is also where Chandra[lekha] ends her discourse — a quest to humanize."
In the program notes, Chalking is described as deconstructing a body's rotational possibilities — turning, spinning — into a vocabulary of tension and resistance, inscribing absence at the very heart of the body's presence with others.
It has to be seen as a work that will give an audience a new set of references rather than drawing upon existing cliches, says Chettur.
"That is its radicality," she says. "The work will neither entertain, nor narrate. It is a response from an India that is sophisticated and complex, not the India of nostalgia and romance!"
Aware of the intensity of Chettur's previous choreographic works, such as Pushed (2006) and Beautiful Thing (2009), Leary was well aware of the rigour they demanded. Performing Chalking is equally taxing, she says.
"It's honestly the most naked I've ever felt on stage fully clothed. There is no space to hide in [Chettur's] work. Any of your doubts, your insecurities, your unresolved things about dancing come screaming out of your subconscious because it is so minimal. So, I spent the first year just trying to figure out how to walk [onstage]."
It's honestly the most naked I've ever felt on stage fully clothed. There is no space to hide.- Brandy Leary, dancer
Chalking is made up of two dance phrases, each made up of a series of gestures. The five dancers perform those gestures forward and backward, remixing them in time. This constant drawing and retracing of movement inspires the title.
"Oh my goodness, the intensity to learn these, and then learn them in retrograde and then be able to pick them up at any moment in time… It becomes mesmerizing. But as a dancer, you can't actually go towards that. The attention had to keep accumulating," says Leary. "[It's] just an incredible tool to have — to know that one can still be grounded in a body when it feels like everything else is spinning around … We can still share this sense of how to be together when it feels like everything else is kind of falling apart."
As for the audience watching Chalking, they will learn to be in a state of attentiveness, says Chettur.
"They must consider dance as an act of moving space, rather than an act of being seen. It must be much larger than the individual ego," she says. "I hope that time will change for the audience — that small details become apparent."
Eight free outdoor performances of Chalking will take place starting this weekend: at the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair July 15, 16 and 17; at Scarborough's Albert Campbell Square July 22 and 23; and at SummerWorks August 4 and 5.
- The text has been updated to reflect that Brandy Leary and Padmini Chettur met in Chennai in 2018, not 1998.Jul 18, 2022 10:54 AM ET