Where Kapila Palihawadana sees movement, Manjunan Gnanaratnam hears sound. It is a rainy day, and Kapila, the founder of the nATANDA modern dance ensemble, has agreed to meet at the Goethe just before rehearsals. We are discussing the symbolism in his choreography when Manjunan walks in. It is the composer’s last day in Sri Lanka, (he will be flying back to the U.S) and it marks the end of a somewhat momentous trip, the first he has made to Sri Lanka in 28 years. But the real reason Manjunan is back is sitting in front of me. For him, Kapila’s nATANDA is the answer to a personal quest – a longing to see Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ‘Ceylon’ performed by a modern dance company in Sri Lanka.
Last week, in a brief showing of a work in progress, the 12 member company performed for ten minutes to ‘Ceylon’ and to Manjunan’ s composition ‘Ceylon II’. Much of it seemed inexplicable, hinting always at something profound just beyond one’s comprehension.
Though it is subtle, Kapila says he seeds each performance with symbols – for instance a delicate finger motion mimics the movements of tea pluckers. He traces this to a black and white picture of tea pluckers in Victor Ivan’s ‘Paradise in Tears’ that drew him in. When Manjunan looked at it, he saw in the placement of the women an octave in a piano key board. Today, the two men are poring over yet another picture. You can almost hear them translating it into sound and motion right in front of you.
This collaboration has been many years in the making. “I discovered ‘Ceylon’ somewhere in the mid-nineties, it’s such an obscure piece,” says Manjunan identifying the German composer as one of his formative influences. Released in the mid 70s, the track is distinguished by its use of bell-like tones and hand drums. Composed during Stockhausen’s visit to Manjunan’s hometown of Kandy, the track resonated with him on many levels. An interdisclipinary artist who has composed for modern, post modern, contemporary dance and performance art, Manjunan wanted to see Stockhausen’s creation brought to life in the place it was written in. “That was my desire for 10 to 13 years,” he says. Explaining that he would keep googling ‘modern dance’ and ‘Sri Lanka’ at regular intermissions, he says that at first his search proved futile.
This is in part because he believes modern dance cannot be equated simply with non-traditional dance. “You can take a Bharatanatyam movement and put it to a piece of music by Moby – the rhythms fit, it makes sense, but that is not modern dance,” he says. Explaining that modern dance first developed in America and Europe in the early part of the last century, he says it may be rooted in the classical style but that it must transcend it. “Now we’re into the post modern period and beyond the post modern period and you can still see elements of ballet in it,” he says speaking of Kapila’s style, “but you can also see explorations above it.” When in 2006, Google finally directed Manjunan to Kapila, it seemed the time was finally right.
“I like his vocabulary, I liked his instrument, I liked what he was doing, but most of all I liked that his modernality wasn’t contrived,” says Manjunan. “It was something that was very Sri Lankan, very powerful, very strong.” The two exchanged several emails and eventually met in New York last year, where Kapila began toying with the choreography for the piece. “For me, it has a lot of religious elements,” says Kapila, explaining that both ‘Ceylon’ itself and Manjunan’s personal philosophy have inspired him to consider extending the performance to include Manjunan’s own compositions. Manjunan envisions the music being created live by a quintet of electronic musicians. He has already identified possible colleagues from the U.S who will hopefully accompany him back in August for the final performance.
“Parts 2, 3, 4, and 5 will be my compositions,” he says, explaining that he expects these to change and develop in response to Kapila’s choreography. The first of the compositions has already become a very collaborative process that has embraced the whole ensemble. “Somehow the last few years the numbers have become very important,” says Manjunan reflectively. “It’s my return here after 28 years, I was 21 when I left – at one point it seemed numbers had just started jumping at me.” Kapila felt the same. So the two decided at the first workshop, that each dancer would be given a group of numbers depending on when they joined the company, along with significant numbers like 83. “I asked them to say the numbers, in a random order in all three languages and then juxtaposed them.”
Manjunan imagines another piece that will be primarily piano based, where the sound of the instrument piano “will come out of the silence and disappear.” The final performance is expected to take 75 minutes.
It’s in keeping with Stockhausen’s own composition, which is very sparse, and contemplative. For those who are familiar with the work of avant garde composers, the fact that silence is as present as the sound of any instrument will not come as a surprise. Manjunan himself says it’s a vital part of the soundscape, but for Kapila it is the most liberating of all. “When you talk about silence, it helps for you to breathe, to imagine,” says Kapila, “when you have so many sounds it distracts. If you’re a really good dancer, the silence is the best thing.”
I can’t help suspecting that modern dance is something of an acquired taste. Manjunan is frank about how his work would be considered obscure, and not just in Sri Lanka. Luckily, both men do not appear to be approaching this as commercial project, instead it seems to be something of a joyous adventure - a chance to let their passion for their art lead the way.