Govind Pillai and Raina Peterson (Karma Dance) have been working on a new show, We’ve Been Here Before, a work that explores themes of isolation and pandemic life, approaching them through metaphors and traditional-contemporary expressions of Indian classical dance. A preview into the development of this work was live streamed as part of Take Over! (a collaboration between Melbourne Fringe and Arts Centre Melbourne) on August 8, 2020. The live stream showing was a mix of pre-recorded clips and live performance, offering glimpses into the choreography as well as the thoughts and experiences that inspired it. The choreography in this show was set to tracks by sound designer Mohini Sharma.
In addition to attending the Take Over! live stream, I also had the privilege of a phone chat with Govind and Raina the following week. I was excited to learn about the development of this work and gain deeper insight into the artists’ individual approach and perspectives, as well as learn some fascinating tidbits about Indian classical dance.
Where This Work Began
Govind and Raina both had a big 2019 and were artistically exhausted by late last year. The focus for both artists this year was going to be individual projects and touring prior works, but the pandemic shut some of those plans down, especially with touring no longer being an option. Then this opportunity came up with the Arts Centre, and the idea for We’ve Been Here Before was conceived. It began with social media engagement, drawing from people’s responses to a prompt around what it means to be in isolation.
Raina spoke about the therapeutic nature of creating this work, how it has been healing being able to process what it feels like to live in a pandemic. “Everything is so shit, but we’re taking it and making art out of it,” they said.
Hands in a Void
The first work in the Take Over! showing was a beautiful abstract piece called Hands in a Void that focused entirely on Govind and Raina’s hands, presenting the hands as self-contained organisms with independent life and expression (Raina described it as puppetry). The choreography was built of classical Indian hand mudras, carefully illuminated, and Govind and Raina’s anonymous hands interacting delicately with each other in a dark space. The lighting and filters used in this video created a mysterious ‘photographic negative’ aesthetic. Govind shed light on the thinking behind this creative decision, explaining that in this piece, “most is nothing, and a little is something”.
An intriguing aspect of this piece was how in-tune Raina and Govind’s hands were in the interactions with each other, but despite coming close several times, never actually touched. Raina said that at one point during rehearsal, their hand did touch Govind’s hand, but “it didn’t feel right”, despite there being a high level of comfort between the two in ordinary circumstances. And so it was decided that the hands would not touch. Both Raina and Govind spoke about the process of coming to this decision, significantly inspired by a “hyper awareness about our hands in this time”. Raina said about their hands that right now, “they’re the most dangerous part of my body apart from my mouth.” Govind went further and made reference to a time when Govind’s own two hands touched each other, and that it took a moment to realize that that wasn’t problematic, it was okay because it was Govind’s own hands, which are allowed to touch each other.
The next piece in the live stream was Raina’s Eyeball Solo, where they demonstrated impressive isolation skills, dancing with their eyeballs alone. This is a level of detailing that is seen more commonly in Indian classical dance as compared to other dance forms. High levels of strength and control in the eyes is used to augment/enhance other movements in the body. The original idea for this piece was to have a sort of conversation between Raina’s eyeball and Govind’s body, to have a large projection of their eyeball alongside Govind on stage, with the giant eyeball leading the movements of Govind’s body. Govind quoted a principle from an ancient Indian dance text (the Natya Shastra), “Yatho hasta, tatho drishti” (where the hands go, the eyes go), and explained how this piece turned that around to play with the opposite idea, “Yatho drishti, tatho hasta” (where the eyes go, the hands go).
Raina also connected this piece with a more personal perspective, the immediate context of living through this pandemic. They spoke of how their “sense of embodiment has been affected,” of how they feel like they’ve been “reduced to a pair of eyeballs,” “enclosed in a small space” with a “limited way of looking at the world.” They spoke about how in this time, when we are all restricted to screens and printed words, there’s a sense in which “the body is diminishing, and the eyeball growing supreme.” Govind added another angle, that of a theme of surveillance, and the “multi-generational anxiety around surveillance and persecution of the queer community”. This already-confronting piece was compounded in its intensity when viewed from all these angles.
Govind then performed a solo piece, Homesick, in Govind’s living room. This was the first piece in the live stream which zoomed out of an isolated focus and had choreography involving the full body. This was also the first piece which had such a clearly defined backdrop, and such an unusual one for classical Indian dance. I did wonder, initially, whether the background (a living room) would distract from the work, but Govind’s mesmerising performance captured all my attention, causing the backdrop to all but disappear for me. In hindsight, this was particularly fitting for a work built on the theme of being “home, yet homesick”.
Homesick was an emotionally charged series of vignettes performed with incredible physical skill and intuitive conviction. Govind’s body was a perfect blend of precision and fluidity as Govind travelled through snippets of scenes and visuals that conveyed the ideas and impact of homesickness in various forms. Every part of Govind’s body seemed to come alive, perfectly expressive and fully in sync with every other part, facilitating a powerful flow of emotional energy that moved me almost to tears, in defiance of all technological barriers.
Govind shared Govind’s initial doubts around whether it would be possible to create emotional intimacy with the audience in this medium, and shared that there had also been a sense of consciousness about the space (not being a formal stage). On the flip side though, Govind also shared that there was a sense of control that Govind enjoyed, knowing that the audience experience was going to be the same for everyone. “I’m going to go into the camera and they’re ALL going to get my story,” Govind said, “because there’s only one way you can see this.” There’s no “gradient” as there would be in a live performance where people are seated at different heights, angles and distances in relation to the stage. In this medium, there’s equality, a sameness in “experience, detail, texture”.
Govind’s solo was followed by a second solo from Raina, this one with a completely different style and feel to the preceding piece. Raina’s solo, which they described as “structured improv”, was also a series of visual vignettes, but theirs were made of abstractions from the worlds of insentient objects and personal introspection, rather than interpersonal interactions or social experiences. Still emotionally charged, though, and powerful in the raw, spirited performance of their chosen themes. I was most struck by Raina’s apparent sense of enjoying their own body while they danced, and the evident unity between their mind and their physical experience.
This piece began with the physicalization of time, depicted through Raina’s body as a ticking clock, then transforming into a warped pendulum and other visuals that conveyed “a sense of time going out of the window.” A changed perception of time is certainly an experience many of us can relate to this year. “The whole situation is so rage-inducing,” Raina said. This piece sought to capture not only the frustration and rage at the present situation, but also the idea that emotions co-exist and co-express, and are often mistaken for each other. For instance, Raina said, “what we think of as anger is often anxiety, physiologically. And a pure expression of rage is actually energy release.”
The final piece in the Take Over! live stream was Together, Apart – a piece which Govind and Raina choreographed and filmed separately, but when bringing both interpretations together, realized that Mohini Sharma’s track had spoken to both artists in similar ways. Both Raina and Govind drew a sense of hiding at the start of the track, choosing a sort of invisibility in an unconventional manner, before a later reveal. Both artists were “hiding behind ourselves”, as Govind pointed out, possibly as a metaphor for how “we are turning into statistics”.
Govind chose to hide behind Govind’s feet, while Raina chose to hide behind their long (knee length), loosened hair. Both forms of expression may be considered highly atypical in classical Indian dance: long hair is customarily worn in a side doughnut bun, not loose as Raina wore it; and while there is a sanctity associated with feet, there is also “an aversion to the underside of feet”, which is what Govind led with in Govind’s part of the choreography.
Raina spoke of their hair choice with a sense of exhilaration and freedom, describing their hair as “an extra limb” that is “really expressive, really fun to dance with”. They also said they “like the excess of it”, and like “having a lot of body hair” in general, describing it as feeling “complete”. They spoke of the general associations of long, loose hair with “wildness”, “being outside of social and cultural norms”, “decadence and wanton sexuality”, and in the context of classical Indian symbolism, rivers and the Lord Shiva. They also spoke of how associations of long hair with femininity can induce dysphoria, which has sometimes caused them to consider shaving their head. Govind pushed back on the idea of Raina’s long hair being in any way an expression of “wildness” – Govind spoke warmly of Raina’s nurturing personality, even referencing their pet rabbit, and the fact that their long hair is “a visual reminder that they have taken care of and grown and maintained their hair over time”, calling it “such a statement of refinement!”
In the conversation about Govind’s choice around the underside of feet, Govind spoke of the sort of things that inform decisions around body and adornment. Govind said, tongue in cheek, about the use of alta (a red dye used to paint dancers’ hands and feet) that “I never usually paint the underside of my feet because no one will see and I’m lazy. I always stop at the top half. But this time, I did the opposite… because no one will see. I applied the same sort of personality to my altification ritual.” There are, of course, many factors that go into decisions around adornment, but this was a sweet, lighthearted acknowledgement of relatable humanity underneath all the technique and tradition.
Contemporary Takes on Classical Dance
Raina and Govind have been performing together for close to a decade, and this was not the first time the two classical dancers have made unorthodox performance choices. In the duo’s first full length show together (In Plain Sanskrit, 2015) for example, Govind mentioned the choice of clothing was “pure white, with no zari, and no jewellery apart from maybe an earring”. Audience feedback about these choices included someone saying, “you’re classical dancers, this is not tradition!” to which Govind responds, “the tradition is evolving. What we see as traditional is fundamentally not traditional.” Govind mentioned that there was an original tradition of minimalism before the present tradition of elaborate adornment became the norm. If present tradition was to be adhered to, “I’d be half-naked and Raina would look like an umbrella!” Govind added with a laugh. “But what is traditional anyway? We’re respecting tradition by taking away added crap and returning to minimalism.”
Raina then spoke about the impact of colonialism on classical Indian dance, how there used to be more “sensuality and eroticism… before people bought into ideas of respectability and Victorian values… to prove to British people how civilised we were”. They spoke about erasure, about how the present list of taught mudras is incomplete because not all mudras continued to be taught after colonialism began. Both Govind and Raina spoke about dance being more than just an expression of religious ideas, of how many things in classical Indian dance were sexual or even just banal. How commonality was incorporated into dance, and how dance was created out of things that people could see and interact with.
Raina playfully suggests that the duo’s contemporary takes on classical dance could almost be a dance form in itself, “GovindRainaNatyam”, they say with a laugh. The two dancers have come up with personalized ‘signature’ mudras, such as the jellyfish, a delightfully graceful “gestural meme” and in-joke inspired by classical Indian hand mudras. Seeing the jellyfish was a personal highlight for me, a gorgeous reminder of dynamism and living vitality even in very traditionally-solid art forms. “If someone can create this costume and this hairstyle,” Govind said, “someone can also create a jellyfish. It’s time.”