Wednesday, May 14, 2014

In a Word... Choreographer Hari Krishnan on Skin/Quicksand

The Blessing of Sexuality
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
Bessie (NYC) and Dora (TO) Award nominee Hari Krishnan is the artistic director of Toronto based company inDANCE and a professor in the department of dance at Wesleyan University (Connecticut). As an award winning dance-maker, Krishnan is frequently commissioned for his avant-garde, subversive and transgressive choreography to create work on soloists and companies around the world. He holds a Master's degree in Dance from York University and is currently completing his PhD in the dance department at Texas Woman’s University.  Krishnan's research areas include queering the dancing body, colonialism, post-colonialism and Indian dance, contemporary dance and hybridization, globalization and the arts of India, Bharatanatyam in Tamil cinema and the history of devadasi-courtesan dance traditions in South India. He is a regular contributor to academic conferences and scholarly publications on cultural history and dance.
CHARPO: I’d like to start by talking about background and training and where it has taken you. Your dance experience is varied and your work reflects the variety of styles you have gathered along the route. How do you maintain a purity in your choreography that speaks to all audiences and cannot simply be dismissed as “colourful ethnic dance” or “folklore” (and I am thinking, in this case, that the “folk” may be the Gay community)?

KRISHNAN: My dance training is extensive, varied and eclectic. To be brief, my Eastern psyche is informed by Asian cultures including India, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan and in the West, I love the contemporary dance scene in Europe and I am obsessively addicted to the avant-garde performance arts scene in New York City  - all these influences go into the complex mix of the global language that I use as a choreographer. 

Both my practice and scholarship come from an eclectic array of dance styles, sensibilities, scholarly discourses, academic research, living/working in a variety of different places/contexts/cultures which constantly alter and shape my worldview.

My sexuality is a blessing, which organically informs ‘the very emotional/physical presence in my work’- particularly in Skin. 

I don’t subscribe to the concept of ‘purity’ in art. Every artist has been influenced by someone and in turn will influence someone else. The idea of purity panders to a dangerous, limited worldview, which fosters fundamentalism, discrimination, separatist politics and a polarized world. I’d rather aspire to excellence in art making with an uncompromising work ethic and through nurturing a healthy curious, critical, inclusive worldview of art and politics. My choreography subverts cliché and stereotype, challenging hetero-normative archetypes and critically dismantling superficial labels like ‘colourful’, ‘ethnic’, ‘exotic’, ‘folk’  through welcoming a complex process of open ended, progressive collaborations and activism.

CHARPO: Where does it start for you? Movement? Music? Idea? Literature?

KRISHNAN: I don’t know. Sometimes it’s all of the above, however, most times I come into the studio and let the creative process evolve organically.

CHARPO: Now on Skin and Quicksand. I have looked at some of the reviews of your previous work and some seem to focus on “naughtiness” - I am wondering how you feel about that description.

KRISHNAN: I love it! To me, it’s a well-deserved compliment. I worked hard to earn that! There is a mischievous, quirky, subversive and satirical thread/subtext that binds my work, stemming from my own personality- I LOVE to laugh with and at myself!

CHARPO: I have always maintained that dance is one of the most profoundly sexual arts and you celebrate that - more so: you celebrate Gay sexuality. Can being niched be helpful or a hindrance. (I am thinking of Dave St. Pierre here, for instance.)

KRISHNAN: I am a huge fan of Dave St Pierre’ s work. I respect his unapologetic, radical, over-the-top, in-your-face and magically, poetic way of expressing the vulnerability of being human.

My works are about the beauty and ugliness of the dancing body and its soul. Fluid identity, gender, sensuality, sexuality and eroticism affect my work. While being gay is my own personal truth, it is not a political mandate for the genesis of my work.

‘Labels’ and ‘being niched’ are a hindrance. Practically speaking an artist also needs to make a living and if a presenter or curator boxes you in, it is very difficult to undo that damage and access the ‘so-called general/mainstream audience’ which then affects the box office and you don’t get programmed again.

Last year, inDANCE had a bad experience performing in the CanAsian International Dance Festival. The artistic director ‘expected’ my company to stay within the confines of my marginalized ‘ethnic-culture-specific box’ and give her only a ‘traditional’ work (from her ill-informed perspective), because by ‘expecting’ that, she negated her own intention, as is evident from the following quote in her own artistic statement - “CanAsian International Dance Festival…featuring extraordinary dance artists from Canada and around the world…ask you to be open to different aesthetics, to the synthesis of new and ancient, and to a pluralistic array of sources.”

This, despite the fact that CanAsian Dance used most of the ‘contemporary’ dance clips from a previous work of inDANCE’s in their promo for the 2013 CanAsian Dance Festival.

In addition, judging from the audience’s applause on both nights and the great Toronto Star review we got, I think inDANCE cleaned up at the festival!

CHARPO:  Now this may be the toughest question for a choreographer: describe the two works we will see in Toronto.

KRISHNAN: Brendan Healy the artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times invited inDANCE to be part of their 2013/14 season. From my perspective, in light of Toronto being the host city of World Pride 2014, I thought it befitting to premiere a new work honouring our gay visitors from around the world.  

Hence, the evening opens with our world premiere of Skin featuring Paul Charbonneau, Gerry King, Jelani Ade-Lam, Sze-Yang Ade-Lam and Roney Lewis


they will be joined by Peter Hessel, Ryan Lee, Matthew Montgomery and Matt Owen in our updated remount of Quicksand which premiered in 2011 at the Fleck Dance Theatre.

Skin started to emerge as a tactile story experienced by ‘gay-Greek-Gods’ indulging their five senses, in a manner of speaking!  While researching the Queering of dance from multiple global perspectives with my students at Wesleyan University, I accumulated this cache of materials pregnant with the promise of a solid gay themed work. I worked with dancers who emphatically identified as gay and that dominated their intention. 

I found commonalities in the ‘rites of passage’ experiences in their personal lives and mine evolving as crucial components of our art making process.  To start creating Skin, as a gay man of South Asian origin, I limited myself to three significant moments/events in our gay life journey, from the many that we explored, which hooked me because they were unique and visually feasible to manifest through dance.

For instance, when I went to visit my boyfriend Rex for the first time in New York City in the 90s, he took me to Jones Beach and Fire Island. I was scandalized by the surreal goings-on! As a voyeur, I was riveted not just with the easily available, anonymous, rampant sex but the power dynamics of race used in negotiating that very short ‘marriage’ of the moment…a kind of beach-blanket political-tango! Amongst the gorgeous gifted dancers that work with me, I am blessed to have a truly global and two-spirited married-in-real-life couple. I’ve dreamed of creating an intimate duet for them. In Skin, I got to cherish that with, what I hope is a genuine moment of their honesty, that I get to share with the audience. What’s a gay sexual journey without addressing the ubiquitous vanity in all of us?! Get ready to meet my Narcissus…enough said!

Quicksand has been specially adapted for this remount. It is a deeply personal response to the established trope of what defines ‘tradition’. The work is a contemporary reading of the clichéd, ubiquitous depiction of nine archetypal emotions popular in Indian classical dance- Navarasa (love, revulsion, compassion, valour, humour, fear, wonder, anger and peace). Dancing on the quicksand of “tradition”, the work questions and challenges the notions of reality, art, identity, sexuality, culture, and heritage in the life of today’s global citizen.

A masterful, epic, contemporary world music score accompanies both works.

CHARPO: Finally: in the long term, what kind of audience do you want coming to your work?

KRISHNAN: Anyone with an eye for art, a soul for exploring and a gut for adventure!

I strive to make inDANCE speak with an inimitable global voice. 

With open arms, we welcome anyone with an open mind.

May 21 - 24

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