Margaret Jenkins Dance Company traveled to Kolkata, India in January 2007 to perform A Slipping Glimpse, an evening length work created in collaboration with the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company, which first premiered in San Francisco in May of 2006. While abroad, Director Margaret Jenkins documented daily the sights, sounds and insights born of traveling–and sharing art–in that exotic culture. She shares here some of the rewards and challenges of restaging the piece, originally performed in-the-round at Yerba Buena’s intimate Forum, for the proscenium stage, a house of 2500, and a whole new kind of audience. What follows is an excerpt of the original article. For the complete version, please visit our article archive at dancersgroup.org.
From the moment we de-planed, that smell that is so unique to India, musty, heavy, perhaps burnt, enveloped us all. I find it comforting, others overwhelming. Tanusree was waiting with arms outstretched, swathed in color, surrounded by familiar faces from my trip in 2003–all there to welcome us (a tradition now gone in the U.S.) and to help us gather and load what felt like tons of suitcases. Hugs, excitement, disbelief abound. After 25 hours in planes and airports, we were here to perform the work for the people and country that had inspired its launch.
Little sleep–that curious anticipatory feeling of wondering will the shower work, will the coffee pot boil the water, will the computer log on–the things we think we need to feel grounded. One soon learns to surrender to another way of feeling and thinking and living and seeing and hearing. The new noises: men and women outside my window in the river pounding the clothes toward cleanliness, the daily Muslim calls to prayer that welcomed us every morning at 4am from the mosques nearby and the mosquitoes delighted with their new tenant.
The Theater. Prepared for a dusty old auditorium under the dome we had passed from the airport, we found instead a lush but old, tired, huge red wood and brick theater. I knew it was expansive, had seen the specs, but there’s nothing quite like walking into a 2,500-seat house rich with history and color to stay the heart and provoke the mind. To go from the intimacy of YBCA to the vastness of this lush cavern–well, a challenge definitely awaits us.
Time to see the set. We were driven through the thick traffic and contradictions that are Kolkata, through what I remembered as the extraordinary color against the poverty, the dilapidated buildings of the long ago British architecture up against the rickshaws and shopkeepers and flower stalls. A turn here and there, around corners like the Tenderloin, through back alleys, open markets and unpaved streets to a door that looked like it had been run into by a truck.
The door opened and revealed a small sweet looking man, crouched over the 7-foot platform, meticulously crafting and painting its steel legs with black grease. In the corner, a welding machine from some other time, one of those intricately man-made machines one would love to take home– so beautiful in its architecture and construction–was cutting the platforms. Another man was firing the pipes that connect the platforms.
In the corner of the yard, a group of men are working on the soft dirt with conversations amongst them in that slow and quiet way, while I’m thinking this scene is like no other one could see anywhere else: no high tech shop, no minions of high paid laborers, just a few small wiry men calmly building with eloquence and concern the platforms on which we (the dancers) would place our trust. As I watched Alex (Alexander Nichols, who had designed the original set and adapted it so brilliantly for the proscenium in Kolkata) talk to the men, I knew we were both thinking, “8 of these will be done in 5 days?” Tanusree was translating and everyone else was nodding yes, no matter what the question. I asked Alex, “So, do you think we’ll be ok? Can we dance on these?” He smiled and said, “They’re sturdier than the ones in San Francisco.”
First rehearsals: a wonderful and large old badminton court. The Shankar dancers, two of whom are new, came forward with confidence and joy equal to their counterparts and although we have a lot to do, we got through the first day with excitement and ease. Tanusree was present the entire time translating and suggesting and interpreting. And in that way that dancing can make community and can define but defy differences, everyone was made to feel at home–home in the body of work, home in their own bodies, home in this new land.
Sometimes it feels like of course we are here doing what we do, other times it seems we are somewhere like nowhere, nowhere else where everything that one has come to know and trust and count on is no longer–surrendering into another form of continuity, letting all that one thinks one needs to get through the day be transformed BY the day.
The call to prayer greeted me again at 4am. It’s kind of quieting, reliable somehow. The beating of the clothes begins, first the colors and then the whites. At 4am the clothes-lines for drying are empty, a lone washer beating the linens; by 9am when we leave to rehearse the lines are full–no ground visible.
As we rehearse, children gather at the windows with their teachers. We are rehearsing in a less congested wealthier area of Kolkata, children well-dressed with an equal number of caregivers –contrast this to where we are staying on the other side of town, where people bathe in the polluted water and the leather factory burns its refuse, producing the intense smell. Some of the dancers are wearing masks wherever we go. And the inevitable contradiction: down the road is the marble elegant Sheraton.
Tired jetlagged bodies push themselves into rehearsal and Indian time, and sections of the work inspired or “induced” by India seem more poignant here. What in rehearsal we call the traffic sections from our Cochin experience resonate more here; the sections based on the 9 emotional states that we have learned one must transgress in many classical Indian dance forms feel rich with new meaning; and the contradictions so present in every inch of the streets is revealed in the layering of the dance: a quiet sensual duet on a box while the violence of the movement on the stage persists. And the rendering of Paul’s music feels more of this culture than when played in the US. (Paul Dresher and his ensemble had played live in San Francisco, but in Kolkata we have the taped score.) MJDC dancers and TSDC dancers intermingle at rehearsal and, through gesture and words, find out about each other–to share being in their home, to let where we are affect what we are doing–to give oneself over to the migratory patterns of the hawks, the various rhythms of the day.
1/17/07 Dress Rehearsal
It moves easily, the dancers making the adaptations to the proscenium, the large space an invitation to explode. We are told there will be no audience for the dress. Fine. But I look out into the audience, there are many cameras, and in the front row are a group of people dressed eloquently and with care. I am introduced: they are the Prince and Princess of Cambodia, unable to come on opening. After we finish the dress, many pictures are taken; they ask us to come to Cambodia.
1/18/07 Performance Time
As hundreds upon hundreds begin to gather outside around the fountain, up the stairs and along the edges of the terra cotta, I look out on the sea of color (mostly sarees), the dimly-lighted lanterns and the smog filled air–and feel both a kind of relief or perhaps calm (we are actually doing what we came to do) with both wonder and wondering about how this evening will unfold. And it seems consistent with our time here that the dancers are seen through a mist of pollution–their golden coats the frame that we follow. We knew that we had entered a special landscape, a place of “other” where the work would be witnessed with new eyes, where new meanings would unfold.
In the theater the dancers walk up the 6-foot platform, and as Michael’s text quiets the heart and fills the mind, it seems I begin to breathe. (Michael Palmer’s text, poet and artistic associate, opens the work and is heard at different times throughout the evening.)
They all dance beautifully of course, and afterwards everyone says they felt good about their dancing, their time on stage. The dancers one by one, even those who usually don’t give voice to their feelings, talked about these days, this experience, this altered state that being into India can stimulate. I think often about the enormity of the talent of these dancers–their profound and essential contributions to the work, how little they are compensated at the height of their expertise and how they endure and soar regardless.
We went to a party held for us after the performance in conjunction with the American Chamber of Commerce folks: the room was packed with people from American Express, other businesses of Kolkata, dancers–and the guests were effusive. One man said, “You make me feel good about being alive, proud to be a human being–and I often don’t these days.” It was heartening to have these conversations, as the audience response had been polite but soft–hard to read. We asked about this. Answers could be: The newness of the form, how the work built its arcs, the vocabulary of the dancers, a dance whose thrust had multiple meanings, the music. But it seemed by our discussions with dancers who were there and others’ friends that people had been touched, taken to a new place.
Recently Tanusree writes about still being under the spell of A Slipping Glimpse and somehow I feel I am as well, awaiting the lessons to reveal themselves that I know were learned, as well as trying to leave room–as I negotiate my San Francisco life–for all the memories and sensations that will no doubt bombard and comfort me over time. The capacity of art to transform and affect change feels palpable now, the human heart forever poised to embrace something new.