by Chan Sze-Wei
(745 words, 5-minute read)
Singapore-based Raka Maitra and her company Chowk are familiar names at the Esplanade’s Kalaa Utsavam and Raga programmes annually. The company is firmly based in classicial Odissi dance and the martial arts of chhau and kalari. But with them, tradition is not a formula. Walking into the Esplanade Theatre Studio to see from: The Platform, I realise that once again, I have no idea what to expect.
As the house opens, twelve figures stand scattered across the stage, frozen in mid-step. A minimalist (notably Western in harmonic) jingling rises, and the figures take up motion and hurry past each other in a strange suspended languor. They are a motley crew at the Calcutta railway station, bodies of different shapes, genders, castes: woman, man, student, architect, mother with child, flower vendor, sweeper, rag-and-bone man, journalist with a pencil behind his ear, a prostitute with a smouldering gaze. Just four of the cast, Maitra, Sandhya Suresh, Karishma Nair and Namaha Mazoomdar, are full time company dancers with Chowk. Onstage however, the twelve are a solid ensemble, a mass of cross-currents of finely orchestrated pedestrian gestures and animated encounters. I see no jagged discordances between dancers and actors, professionals and amateurs. In the constant flow of movement, stylised gestures and danced formations emerge and dissolve among varying configurations of bodies and characters. The characters’ gazes meet and they seem genuinely surprised to take each other in. Their eyes reach out into the theatre and meet mine, drawing me into the chaos of platform too.
Many of Chowk’s dance-theatre (or “between dance and theatre”, as dramaturg Sankar Venkateswaran puts it) works of the past few years have employed spoken text. from: The Platform is dance-theatre that eschews text, even narrative arc. Instead there is walking. Walking is the heart of this piece: over half an hour of the performers driving one foot in front of another before us in an endless stream from right to left, right to left, twelve performers making up a cast of hundreds. Each walk is a marvelous characterisation, a fleeting glimpse of human idiosyncrasy and an encounter long enough to tease our imaginations but not long enough to become pantomime.
I understand about ten minutes into the walking sequence that this is pretty much it, the material of the piece. The audacity of the direction makes me catch my breath. The creative team had laid its cards on the table in its inspiration from Peter Handke’s The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. I also thought of Ota Shogo’s Water Station – the iconic wordless play where a stream of people simply approach, touch the water and leave. Yet it’s entirely another thing to reference iconic devices and to then be able to carry them into a new creation.
Carry them they do. Walking, shuffling, stumbling, flirting, chasing, hopping. The performers’ bodies are the tracks, the train, the animals, the river. And now they are running, a patter of running lights, careening off stage with yells of desperation and abandon. (I was tangentially impressed that Maitra herself kept up running throughout, even after Venkateswaran bowed out. She has physical fitness to match the mental.)
I once saw it written of New York choreographer Mark Morris: “He doesn’t use many steps. He doesn’t need them.” I feel that this is true for Maitra. Unlike other contemporary choreographers working with classical or traditional forms, she does not contrive flashy vocabulary from other movement forms or call for pyrotechnic staging. She has spent years building her base and returns to universal themes and trusted collaborators such as Venkateswaran, to take risks, drill deep, and turn out astonishing work year after year. 2017 is a triumph for Chowk, even without being granted regular public funding by the National Arts Council.
I found it hard to imagine how on earth one could pull the brakes on the pounding momentum of this piece. When they did it was my only disappointment in the show. I was unimpressed when the ensemble finally lurched back into exhausted slow motion and then stopped on a dime at a piercing scream. I was horrified when the prostitute played by Liz Tan then picked herself up nonchalantly and blinked at the rest of the cast, while the lights dimmed. I couldn’t digest that all the activity had been without consequence.
It certainly wasn’t the breathless enchantment of the closing of Pallavi in Space that Chowk presented earlier this year. But after the foregoing, I felt prepared to leave something for next time.
This review is based on the performance of 25 November 2017. from: The Platform ran from 24 – 25 November 2017 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as an Esplanade commission for Kalaa Utsavam Indian Festival of Arts 2017.
Guest Contributor Chan Sze-Wei stepped into a dance class for a university P.E. requirement, and hasn’t stopped dancing since. Blending conceptual, interactive, improvisatory and cross-cultural approaches for theatres, public spaces, performance installation and film, her work is often intimate and sometimes invasively personal, reaching for social issues, identity and gender. Her work has been shown in Singapore, the UK, Indonesia, Laos, Taiwan, Croatia, Brazil and the USA.