Artist residencies Twirling, running, hopping and falling on the ground

Since its inception in 2009, the Gati Summer Dance Residency has become a crucible for early career works by Indian, and widely, South Asian choreographers. It has initiated a critical discourse in dance practice while giving participants access to mentorship, space and the resources to create a short choreographic work. The pieces that have emerged from the residency have informed and impacted the subcontinent’s dance ecology in subtle but tangible ways.     

Beginnings

My earliest memories of the Gati Summer Dance Residency (GSDR) are set in a cramped, well-lit basement studio in Nizamuddin, New Delhi. It was 2009, and the residents and mentors had gathered for a work-in-progress sharing. In the midst of a heated discussion, we noticed a few cockroaches furtively crawling along the walls. Soon, they were a veritable deluge, oozing out from the drain under the dance floor. But issues of greater enormity were at hand – ones that refused to be derailed by a flash mob of cockroaches.

Now in its seventh edition, the residency unfolds in Gati’s glossy studios in Khirki, distanced by time and reality from that summer of overflowing drains. Designed as a critical space to support the practice of dance making, between 2009 and 2015 it has afforded 31 artists the opportunity to conceive and develop a short choreographic work. Over ten weeks, the residents have consistent access to rehearsal space, financial assistance, production support and dedicated attention from a range of mentors. They are exposed to choreographic methodologies, dance theory and other ideas from dance making and allied disciplines. The residency is process-oriented, attempting to give dancers the tools to understand and formulate their practice. It ends with a work-in-progress showing of the pieces that evolved over ten weeks.

As a dancer with a voyeuristic appetite for the choreographic processes of others, I am awed by the artists who choose to have their work and ideas laid bare, taken apart, and questioned relentlessly. There is the possibility of being completely shattered, as one of them pointed out to me in 2011. What makes a Gati resident? They are often early career artists eager to explore dance making. They have some experience of working with companies and older choreographers. They are alert to the possibility of a rupture from practice as they have inhabited it, of tectonic shifts in its nature and motivations. With the residency becoming a rite of passage for young choreographers in the subcontinent, this rupture attains great significance.

A residency for South Asian choreographers

Let’s turn back the clock to understand it. The rupture is to do with the way contemporary dance training is usually imparted in South Asia. With their focus on technique, training programmes lend divergent meanings to the word ‘choreography’, blurring the difference between an arrangement of steps and a critical practice. As for the classical dancer, there is a strong urge to find new meanings within an established practice. Instinctively cut from their moorings, the dancer is pitched forward into the black hole of the ‘contemporary’, holding on to ideas that may or may not be central to their form.

After its first run in 2009, the addition of an intensive residential week gave dancers the space to interact with each other and work closely with mentors who opened up ways of beginning a creative process. A history of contemporary dance, put together by guest speakers, is another important strand. During the first week, choreographer Padmini Chettur, an early-stage GSDR mentor since 2013, finds that she must help the residents achieve clarity about their starting points. She nudges them into discovering what their “intellectual quest” – the verbalised ideas that they bring into the residency – means in terms of a dance practice. In doing so, she must often divest residents of the notion that “contemporary dance is about twirling, running, hopping and falling on the ground”.

This understanding is carried over to the morning class in subsequent weeks, where the focus is on body conditioning and awareness techniques that bolster a line of bodily inquiry. The classes are facilitated by visiting mentors and also by the residents. With different training backgrounds and choreographic preoccupations to contend with, the emphasis is not on learning a form, but on understanding and questioning what it does to the body. By this time, the residents are beginning to structure their work and share it with peers. The mentors who come in at this stage inform the residents’ notion of structure and work with them to create a soundscape for the piece.

Mentoring

Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, a resident in 2011, found an objective, neutral audience in multiple mentors. It gave him a keen sense of what the work communicated early on in the creative process. This allayed the uncertainty of having to wait for the performance to gauge the audience’s response. After 2011, Shivaswamy regularly returned to teach at the residency, and this year, he spent three weeks as a peer mentor. Comparing experiences, he says, “Different mentors come at the right time, catering to all the needs of a dance maker. The residency was always process-oriented, but with the final ‘performance’ becoming a work-in-progress presentation, the impetus to continue working on one’s ideas post the residency is greater.”

What do you do with a work once you have created it? Each year, six new choreographic works from GSDR enter the dance ecosystem in the country. In past years, works made at GSDR have been developed further, programmed at dance festivals and have travelled as part of tours organised by the residents. As Shivaswamy puts it – if there is more work, there are consequently greater opportunities for people to curate it. However, in many cases, the evolution of the residency works never comes full circle.

Chettur locates this fragmented efficacy in the absence of rigour. “To my mind, it’s at least five years of working with a company before you can call yourself a dancer and five years of thinking quietly before you call yourself a choreographer. But let’s note that there is a void in the contemporary dance story of this country. There aren’t many choreographers of my generation willing and able to employ dancers. People train in dance. But what are they going to do? Whom do they work with?” she says. 

To understand what the residency does for dance practice, it is essential to define ‘contemporary dance’ as it is popularly understood in India. It is, to a great extent, “twirling, running, hopping and falling”, an uncomfortable synthesis of contemporary techniques, modern dance, classical dance, whimsy and Bollywood. The residency is merely a blimp on the radar of contemporary dance; yet, it is critical thinking 101. It is an introduction to informed explorations of form, to process-oriented practice, and new ways of seeing.