>SLOKA by The Chandralekha Group

>reviewed by malcolm tay

>date: 20 jun 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the victoria theatre
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


In a traditional Bharatanatyam performance, the Sloka is the ninth and concluding section of a solo performance that can last up till three hours, which is sung in Sanskrit and interpreted by the hand gestures of an experienced female dancer. Unlike its original meaning, however, Chandralekha's full-length creation of the same name was performed by four women and two men, an exploration into "how femininity and sexuality resides within the body."

Her re-interpretation of this ancient temple dance rejects the literalism of its hand gestures, the linear narrative structures and its customary ornamentation, while incorporating other schools of movement like martial arts and yoga into her choreography. To be hailed as India's Martha Graham is indeed a challenge to live up to, and one should have followed Graham's career closely in order to properly assess the internationally acclaimed Chandralekha in the same light.

But when judged independently SLOKA was an enchanting, almost mystical foray into the luminous bodies that define what femininity and sexuality is. What transpired on stage was therefore a dance that not only tested the human patience, but also the extent to which the entire human body can communicate through movement and gesture - a reflection of the choreographer's constant fascination with the body and its secrets, potential and energy.

>>'a reflection of the choreographer's constant fascination with the body and its secrets, potential and energy'

Chandralekha's works remain recognisably Indian yet minimalist in its presentation. The stage was bare apart from one suspended rectangle of bright red fabric. Six musicians, trained in the Dhrupad style of Hindustani classical music and Carnatic style of singing, sat on a platform to the left with their instruments. Gone were the traditional embellishments of luxuriant fabrics, flowers and burnished jewellery, comfortably replaced by plainly designed costumes and saris of solid colours. According to Chandralekha herself, this simplicity was not a passing trend, but essential for her to use the body as the sole resource.

In the long, opening solo of "ritualised erotica", a lone woman interlocked and untwined her hands and arms into various shapes as she sat high on her tailbone, with her legs spread wide apart. One might have needed a certain amount of knowledge of classical Indian dance to realise that many of her intricate, hieroglyphic hand gestures (or otherwise known as mudras) were characteristic of Bharatanatyam - a flat palm under a raised thumb was a symbol of Siva, while two hands with carefully splayed fingers joined at the wrist symbolised beauty or purity. The pace of this lengthy solo was perhaps indicative of the sustained breathing techniques of yoga, which may have caused some to fidget restlessly in their seats.

Still, this process of "awakening the potential of the female body" felt like a soothing, yet stark exercise of feminine strength. After eventually standing centrestage with her legs apart in a deep demi-plié, what followed the opening solo seemed like an assertion of female power. With the two male dancers entering on either side, their bodies turned inwards "to appear to emerge from her." The men seemed to move in relation to the woman, crouched to the floor in most cases and flanking her at other times. By turning her back towards the audience, the still and silent female dancer then transformed herself into a higher being, towering above the men and demanding for their devotion. The men, who crawled underneath her legs and pushed their upper bodies into a yogic cobra position while under her, reinforced this image. She was later carried off by the two men in a manner that was indeed reminiscent, according to the programme, of a goddess "carried by her devotees to be immersed in the waters, marking her return from the descent to the earth."

Such was the intensity of these phrases that they left a lasting impression. In the words of the choreographer before the performance began, femininity existed "deep down in the bodies of men, waiting to be evoked, waiting to be invoked." This somewhat prepared the audience for the passionate duets between the two male dancers as they caressed and embraced each other, one capably lifting the other by the waist or over the shoulders. Some have interpreted this as homosexual in nature but regardless, the dexterity and control of these two men made the dance itself the paramount thing. Shaji R. John and V. A. Sunny were not even dancers, but skilled exponents of Keralese martial art of Kalarippayattu. Yet, these two performers moved with a kind of grace worthy of dancers, which perhaps showed how martial arts and dance have much in common. Interestingly enough, the men and women never danced together despite sharing the same stage. The women, driven by the rhythmic stamping of their feet, covered the stage with their geometrical patterns, while the men seemed totally absorbed in the tranquility of their subtle mating ritual. This distancing of the sexes only made the reversal of gender roles more apparent, thus highlighting their quest for spiritual and mental unity: the women were searching for their lost femininity, while the men were exploring within themselves for their own femininity.

Without some familiarity in any of the three disciplines employed in the choreography, compounded with the painfully slow pace of certain phrases, Chandralekha's latest work could have been a mystifying experience that threatened to drive some members of the audience away. But at the same time, SLOKA may be valued for its austerity, its clean and sculptural lines and modern treatment of traditional forms.