Last night I got a free ticket to watch Daksha Seth's company at the Kennedy Center. I was reluctant to go. I had watched their troupe before and it was not my cup of tea. Their work always struck me as a vulgar mix of acrobatics and indian martial arts carefully packed in a design conscious manner to appeal to the western palette. For those unfamiliar with the indian dance world, Indian contemporary dance is a very recent phenomenon. Indian dancers are struggling to find a meaningful voice and identity within the larger contemporary dance world. And that is a worthy struggle and one which should be pursued with vision, courage and passion. But Indians artists should not delude themselves as to where they are in this process. Or more importantly attempt to hoodwink their audience.
Daksha always manages to use intelligent light design, set design and a zen-like aesthetics to package her dance offerings. But the movement vocabulary remained static and predictable. When you strip it down to the core - what is the defining aspects of Seth's work? Aerial acrobatics mixed in with karma sutra-like movements? Is shock factor the main thrust of Seth's work? Is her work largely a rebellious response to Indian modesty and love for ornamentation and color? Does something become indian contemporary dance merely because it is from India or performed by Indians? Or are there certain emotional, physical and spiritual markers that set indian contemporary dance apart from other contemporary dance forms? What is that singular thread that holds indian arts forms together and that merit inclusion in the Maximum Indian festival at the Kennedy Center? Or is there no such thread? Seth would probably argue that these are precisely the questions that her performance seeks to provoke. Yes, a clever answer but an evasive one.
The point is that the show did not have a conceptual underpinning. This was painfully apparent at various points and in particular when Seth twirled around in a gaudy golden outfit in the middle of the piece. If it was designed as a purely abstract piece it would have been fine. But the attempt to link the entire performance to the motif of the snake struck me as an after thought. An afterthought that diluted the virtuostic display of aerial dance and martial arts. A weak concept does not elevate the show into a higher intellectual realm. It only adds more noise. These shortcuts are dangerous not just for Seth and her company of dancers. But also in developing a meaningful response to the larger question of how indian contemporary artists are responding to India's evolving identity, politics and arts.