A dim pool of light. One can slowly identify a crouching female figure facing the audience. Her palms are placed firmly on the floor. She seems to be feeling out the vibrations created on the dance floor, and not listening to the notes of a Japanese bamboo flute.
Another female figure is now visible, also seated on the floor looking to the first dancer at right angles. The two dancers do not seem to communicate. Each is lost in her own world of reflection. The meditative far eastern music matches the austere setting on stage – white costumes on a black background. The notes heard on the flute fade away.
Scenes change. The female dancers leave their strong masculine attitudes to create more sensuous moments. More male dancers join. A most lyrical pas de deux emerge, in which a male and female dancer reach out to each other most tenderly, creating the most intimate poses, without being kitsch or suggestive. This piece performed by Malith Upendra and Dakshika Bandara is very much the highlight of the evening.
From the opening sequence of ‘Signspeak’, the most recent production of the nATANDA Dance Theatre of Sri Lanka the dancers venture to establish a new dance language. They place their palms on the surface of the floor while standing or sitting as if feeling out vibrations which their ears cannot hear. As if in anger, they move about on the dancing space at times slapping the floor with their palms in a kind of disappointment. In this latest creation the choreographer Kapila Palihawadana is exploring new terrains. He uses sign language as a seed to develop gestures, poses and movement.
Sign language is not used as a medium to communicate with those impaired in hearing and speaking. The letters of the sign alphabet are used to create a novel set of “Mudras” – gestures like in Bharata Natyam. This results in unusual poses and movements, not seen in nATANDA productions before.
The interaction between the dancers is often subtle. One asks the question, if it is not a hint of the lack of communication between communities – those who are classed as “deaf and blind” and the more fortunate majority. According to the choreographer, the movements on stage transpose many situations experienced when communicating with those impaired in speaking and hearing. Narrative fragments could be identified from time to time, but trying to read each sequence as a real life situation would be tedious. The absence of narration is compensated by the moods created and the juxtaposition of movements. One often needs much patience to scan dance movements not experienced before.
The music chosen for this production is most descriptive. It establishes a mood for each “piece”. At times it accompanies the dynamics on stage, at times it seems to be redundant and at times it completely fades out. The very absence of music to accompany the dance is intentional. When the music stops, the dancers move to a kind of “inner music” they create for themselves. One asks the question, do the so called “deaf and dumb” ever dance, if they cannot hear music? How do their bodies react to rhythm and melody?
The students from the School for the Deaf and Blind, Rathmalana take the stage. They are not introduced as dancers who are impaired in hearing and speaking, but blend into the evening’s uninterrupted dance sequences. A great degree of training to concentrate on one’s own body and “feeling for the other dancing bodies” was invested for this rather short piece. The product of a three months workshop conducted by the dancers of the nATANDA ensemble, may not have been just another workshop to engage young people without a dancing background and put them on show. The choreographer Kapila Palihawadana saya that sorrow, anger, aggression, resilience and hope, the five basic sentiments or “ragas” of Signspeaks evolved out of the three months of training.
Young and upcoming dancers from Hillwood College Kandy, St. Joseph’s Girls School, Nugegoda and Yoshida Foundation Sapugaskanda and the Oversees School of Colombo were seen on separate evenings, giving variety to the strict agenda of “Signspeak”. For most dancers it was the very first appearance on stage – an opportunity to be on a single show with the professional dancers of the nATANDA ensemble. The engagement on stage was varied, at times lacking coordination in group scenes. The choreography for these students had been selected to match the skills and limitations of each group.
A voice next to me whispered during ovations of a very enthusiastic audience - “Isn’t Kapila romanticizing disability on the stage?” After seeing productions where the wheel chair becomes a part of the disabled body or the asymmetric body or the jerky movement of a disabled person is part of the choreography both in Sri Lanka and abroad, I was not irritated by this naive question. Contemporary Dance is a product of years of battle to bring out new modes of dance expression on stage, challenging cherished notions and conceptions on dance through decades. It has moved out far out from the narrative dance or dance drama, which is believed to have been created to entertain using only the well trained and aesthetically beautiful body. An important feature of Contemporary Dance is to discover one’s own body and taking care of another person’s body, taking to account the limitations of age and ability.
Those impaired by birth or disabled by man made war, accident or traumatized in a Tsunami too have a niche on the Dance Platform today - to venture out to seek the boundaries the body is able to perform. To what extent then disability is “romanticized” on stage, when differently abled persons dance, remains a question to be answered, after coming to terms with this vital aspect of Contemporary Dance. Judging by the full houses on four consecutive days at the auditorium of The British School, I am now convinced that nATANDA, the only ensemble in Sri Lanka that takes contemporary dance seriously, after hours of practice succeeded in creating a novel experience on stage.