SJD - Material Men. Photo Chris Nash

Artsdepot, North London. October 17, 2017. This is perhaps the third time I am watching Rachid Ouramdane’s TORDRE (Wrought) [i], the piece he created with and for Annie Hanauer and Lora Juodkaite in 2014, and my reactions remain near-identical through each viewing, though that particular word, “viewing”, feels a little feeble, a little too detached. We are about halfway into the piece. Juodkaite has been spinning, spinning slowly at first, with one arm tucked behind her head and the other stretched straight ahead, parallel to the floor; gradually speeding up, till she is spiralling relentlessly – though just as serenely – across the stage, flexing and torqueing arms and head, shoulder blades and upper back with the same unnerving grace while Stéphane Graillot’s lighting creates a sharp, two-dimensional simulacrum on the floor, the dancer’s double as though seen through water. Spinning, for a minute or perhaps two or ten — time has taken on an elastic quality. Sylvain Giraudeau’s slightly concave, pale grey wall delimiting the stage space heightens the impression of an asteroid moving through ever-varying orbits. The movement accelerates, and the gyrations are beginning to blur my vision when Annie Hanauer walks across and stops Juodkaite by holding her in an unforced embrace for the shortest of spans. Hanauer then releases Juodkaite, who resumes the revolutions around the stage as though she had never stopped. The sequence is repeated, once, twice; each time, the jolt experienced as Juodkaite halts is an electric thing, but never violent, for Hanauer’s calm, her care to not dispel the invisible bubble around Juodkaite is suffused with empathy and tenderness, a tenderness that lingers long after the piece moves into other segments. So compelling is this encounter between stillness and velocity, awareness and inwardness I don’t notice anymore that one of the arms with which Hanauer anchors Juodkaite is a prosthesis.

TORDRE is a piece that unfolds as alternating solos punctuated and augmented by brief duets such as the sequence above. Each solo sequence underlines the remarkable skills of the two performers and the distinct balances or “normalcies” they have established within the extra-ordinariness that they deal with, on and off stage. The duets, in studied contrast, counterpoint also how unremarkable these perceived and perceivable differences become within the shared matrix of the performance itself, and all the other emotions and abilities that that demands. For if our eyes are instantly drawn to Annie Hanauer’s prosthetic lower left arm as the two danseuses step onstage to the opening beats of a famous soundtrack, Ouramdane’s choreography and Hanauer’s control ensure that it soon becomes “just” another aspect of her dancer-self, like the expressiveness of her back or the astounding stillness she can achieve in little time. And we learn later – through a soft, meditative monologue delivered live during one of the spinning solos – that Lora Juodkaite began to gyrate as a child as a way of coping with the physical and social environment around her, that the spinning was her axis in a highly destabilising world of human interactions. All through these interspersed segments of TORDRE, notions of limitations and faculties, and visible and invisible differences between individuals are being revaluated, re-wrought, twisted (or perhaps straightened).

Over the years, my admiration for Rachid’s clarity, for his unblinking choreographer’s gaze while making portraits, has only grown

The Unbearable Otherness of Being

We meet again about a week later, Rachid Ouramdane and I, in Mulhouse for a series of events – round tables, workshops, discussions, demonstrations – organised by the Centre Chorégraphique National (CCN)/ Les Ballets du Rhin[ii] around the challenges faced by ballets in the 21st century. Entire battalions of dance professionals – senior choreographers, dramaturges, dancers, former dancers now transitioned to dance writing and curating, festival directors, government art policy officials, regional political representatives, heads of amateur dance associations – have converged to deliberate over questions central to ballet, and, specifically, to ballets of opera houses. It is, we realise with wry and sudden insight, another – wholly unintentional – kind of Othering altogether: although the reflections and debates are fascinating, and instructive in so many ways, we are at a certain remove from these concerns. Distanced, for once, not by virtue of ethnicity, gender, dis/ability, or kinetics but by the enormous, inherent differences between the ballet/opera apparatus and contemporary dance companies, even companies as ‘established’ as Rachid’s (CCN2 de Grenoble). There are other kinds of distances too: for British choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh[iii], who is visiting the CCN du Rhin, this level of attendance, and involvement, for discourses around dance, is a novel experience. And though the sessions may all too often seem lengthy, voluble and convoluted (especially since all of it is in French, and her amateur interpreters are those of us not currently speaking at a given session), Shobana rejoices that there is so much impassioned participation and reflection from the authorities, practitioners and civil society.

And, between the events, there is time to speak to them both about my ongoing tussles with Otherness. I start by asking Rachid about the challenges in tackling portraits and individual narratives, a steadfast presence through much of his work in the last decade, from Loin (2008) – which documented memories from the Algerian and Vietnam wars, many those of his kin – to TORDRE, and to his current work-in-progress that delves into the experiences of both child refugees, recently arrived in France, and children from immigrant families, who have seldom known another home. Ordinary Witnesses (2009) staged the accounts of survivors of genocide, torture and political imprisonment through a montage of dance and audio-visual footage while Sfumato (2012) featured testimonies by victims of climate change, those who had lost their homes, loved ones, and – sometimes – entire villages overnight from the ramifications of global warming. Over the years, my admiration for Rachid’s clarity, for his unblinking choreographer’s gaze while making portraits, has only grown — and I have noticed how scrupulous he is never to mistake himself for the protagonist nor attempt to “own” the stories of others, but instead, to focus on being the truest conduit possible of their experience. So, how does he ensure, after making the work, that it – along with its protagonists – is not engulfed by all the seemingly inescapable hoopla around auto/biography, sometimes both from venues and the media? (This isn’t just an academic query: I am still wracked by how the accounts that several Bangladeshi citizens – activists, artists and researchers, among others – entrusted us with were subsumed by the mythologizing DESH and, subsequently, Chotto Desh have been subject to[iv].)

Rachid prefaces his answer by telling me how his consciousness of “othering” labels preceded the portraits, how his awareness of the pitfalls in exploring personal narratives was triggered by Loin. “When I began to probe these biographic – or intimate – aspects, I found myself completely besieged by issues that hadn’t felt like mine at all and that I’d never confronted. For the very first time, I was being viewed through the prisms of foreigner, immigrant, legacy and all that those imply. For the very first time, I heard myself referred to as a French-Algerian choreographer, while I neither spoke Arabic nor had ever set foot in Algeria. I often think of what the psychoanalyst Claude Rabant said: that identity is not what you are, but that which is left once you are no more. In other words, how others perceive you shapes a good deal in you.”

“And, all of a sudden, as a choreographer, I was made aware of my ethnicity, and that is when I realised that seemingly open-minded people had mental blocks about certain things. I believe it stems from not just a lack of awareness, but from a lack of exchange, of real cohabitation, and from resulting behaviour patterns that reveal a great deal about the implicit hierarchies in our Eurocentric societies. And when it comes to art, those hierarchies come to the fore; definitions of contemporaneity are predicated by European positions. And suddenly, there I was, being asked to be part of an Arab dance platform. It felt unreal. And I thought, we have to find new frames of reference.”

identity is not what you are, but that which is left once you are no more.

I, meanwhile, am rather intrigued that before Loin he never faced any labelling connected to his roots, but Rachid reminds me that he had been a part of the conceptual dance movement – sometimes rather reductively called “non-danse” in France – that shot to prominence in the late 90s and early 2000s. While non-dance could have been accused of many things, it was, in its own way, a blessedly neutral – and perhaps level – playing field. It is markedly different for Shobana, who rues that the lenses of ethnicity have never totally disappeared. While “the boxes have got much looser,” as she describes it, they are still very much around. She remembers how one of the reviews on her first work, New Cities, Ancient Lands – made nearly thirty years ago – had grimly summarised ‘out go temple arms, in come chainsaw arms’. “So, I understood the kind of investment there was in the exotic, oriental arms that people obviously hold dear, and how, when you do not supply it, they feel you are not ‘authentic’ enough. And while people may not couch it in such blatant terms today, it can still exert a subliminal pull.”

Last year, while in an interview on Material Men Redux, Shobana’s searing duet that highlights the scale and intergenerational impact of indentured labour (the exploitative system of servitude that replaced slavery in the British empire), she tells me, “One of the questions asked by the local radio journalist was ‘Is it very colourful?’ It may sound perfectly innocent and it was asked in a perfectly pleasant way, so you cannot get angry. But I know exactly why it was used. Is indentured labour colourful? I mean, it was painful, exploitative and tragic. So, you realise that actually these categories do not completely disappear. There are subliminal associations that seem to rise when people use the word Indian: colourful, rhythms, hand gestures, ancient, spiritual… You feel you’ve got to fight all these things before you begin to talk about indentured labour.”

That rings all too loud a bell. Memories come flooding back of R&D sessions on a specific production where a core creative collaborator had announced in tones of an epiphany, “So Bangladesh and Pakistan, actually, were like a rebellious teenager with his father.” I was torn between incredulity, outrage and – like Shobana – the inability to express any of these reactions because of the good intentions behind that horrific analogy. And yet, I wondered, would anyone be just as indulgent if the same colleague were to declare: “Oh, so Stalin’s occupation of Poland was like a loving but strict father dealing with his teenage son’s quixotic dreams!” How do they then respond, I ask Shobana and Rachid, how can they channel attention away from the ditzy clichés and back to the reality of the work?

There are subliminal associations that seem to rise when people use the word Indian: colourful, rhythms, hand gestures, ancient, spiritual… You feel you’ve got to fight all these things before you begin…

For Shobana, it’s a constant endeavour to correct misconceptions, to “reveal herself”. “Sometimes, I am still introduced as a Bharatanatyam dancer. First of all, I am not a Bharatanatyam dancer: I haven’t danced in twenty-five years, so I could not call myself one. I am a choreographer, and I do what lots of choreographers do; they may have had a base language they trained in, then they create based on their concept, and more importantly, on their dancers’ capacities and where the dancers’ language can lead them. If by fusing, one means an easy placing of one essence next to another, I don’t really do this fusing of Western contemporary and Indian classical dances, and do not see my ethnicity as a key to understanding my work.”

To begin with, Rachid responds, he is keen on emphasising the difference between the private and the personal. “I am not interested in staging the private life of a person; but rather in the realm of feelings, of memory, that which refracts the experience of many through the eyes of one… And I invite the viewer to gaze at something seemingly known through new eyes. I don’t have tools and methods but I firmly believe that the starting point lies in our commonality, not our differences. But I make it very clear I am speaking about my own viewpoint, my experience. I am careful not to transform that into a generalised truth, or suggest solutions through the piece.”

It is tricky, he admits, to find the right balance and sometimes, he just lets the theatres follow their own policy re marketing and advance information. But he remains committed to not letting the performance be reduced to any one obvious element. “It’s an issue that we face all too often with TORDRE, where the stereotyping revolves not so much around ethnicity or culture but the ‘inclusive’ nature of the piece, the definitions of dis/ability. The TORDRE team is constantly showered with proposals from theatres to speak in hospitals, or attend discussions about art and handicap — all of which are excellent ideas but should actually be outreach operations on any show, because these are important, urgent subjects; not just this one because it has performers who can immediately be poster girls for integration.” That, he warns, would reinforce the notion that it is the only thrust of the work. It would reference only the differences, instead of celebrating – as TORDRE so quietly does – the elision of those differences and the existence of many normalities.

“I am not interested in staging the private life of a person; but rather in the realm of feelings, of memory, that which refracts the experience of many through the eyes of on…”

One always, always thinks of audiences, he tells me. Work does not get made in a bubble, nor for a viewer existing as an abstraction. And, of course, theatres and programmers are driven by a need to make the work ‘identifiable’ or ‘understandable’ in anticipation. In an ideal world, he also adds, he would love for the work to speak directly to the viewer, with little prior conditioning or ‘tutoring’. He is wistful for silence – around the work, for an unmediated encounter with the performance, and terribly conscious of the danger that “if we keep talking about an issue, that’s all that will happen: talk without change.”

Shobana agrees. The Otherness, she points out, can become an entity in its own right. “I think people help that Otherness by constantly flagging it. I suppose the political argument would be that in order to integrate Otherness – to reach the stage where it stops being the Other – you need to give it a distinct identity. But it becomes a Catch-22 situation and snowballs into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. You can never feel you acquire the anonymity – or neutrality – that other choreographers have. Neutrality seems to me a very powerful thing: it doesn’t mean invisibility, it evens the field and that is the kind of empowerment I would like.”

Neutrality, then. And the next day, when – at the concluding, plenary session – we are each asked how we imagine a ballet company in the 21st century, Rachid submits that it would be “one where I can see the world as it is around me, the world of today.” Rich and glorious, messy and painful but one where a child – of any colour or religion or race – can see shades of his or her own story in the one unspooling on stage. And one where s/he could see themselves on stage as well. That kind of playing field.

Karthika Naïr

[i] Programmed here in London as part of Dance Umbrella 2017.

[ii] CCNs are cultural organisations founded in France (during the early 1980s, an initiative born of Jack Lang’s tenure as Minister for Culture) with the express intention of promoting dance across the country. There are now nineteen of them, each headed by a choreographer, covering the gamut of movement languages from classical/ballet companies to contemporary, hip-hop and conceptual or cross-arts and experimental.

[iii] Shobana Jeyasingh’s conversation with BBC journalist Nikki Bedi as part of Dance Umbrella’s My Dance DNA series will be will be re-released on Dance Umbrella YouTube in January and February 2018.