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Sasha Waltz in charmed spaces

Calcutta reveals its secret life only to those who have the eyes to discover it, and this is what Sasha Waltz, the celebrated choreographer from Germany, has come to find out during her recent visit to the city. She flew back on Monday.

Waltz has held performances here on two previous occasions, but this time she was here to locate which particular old palace in north Calcutta would be suitable for her site-specific piece which will be performed exclusively in this city in mid-January.

This will be part of the “Year of Germany in India” (2011-2012), and although the touring German pavilion or business mela will bypass this city, Waltz has chosen to work in Calcutta alone for its “unique atmosphere”. She will perform along with Padmini Chettur from Chennai. On last Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning, Waltz, Chettur and a team from Max Mueller Bhavan scoured bustling Chitpur, Pathuriaghata and Sovabazar. The programme is being sponsored by the Goethe-Institut and Max Mueller Bhavan, Calcutta.

On the first day they began with Jalan house on the Hooghly embankment in Salkia. From there to Nakhoda Masjid in Chitpur and Jhagra Kothi in Armenian Street, followed by trips to Jorasanko Rajbati of the Roy family, the house of Khelat Ghosh with its colossal columns, the house of Jadunath Mullik with its magical courtyard on the opposite side, and lastly Prasad, the palace constructed by Jatindra Mohan Tagore, facing the fantastic remains of Tagore Castle.

On the second day of their recce, the first stop was at the Madan Mohan Tala temple. Then there were Basubati in Bagbazar in fascinating decay, Sovabazar Rajbati, and the impossible drugstore of Butto Kristo Paul. That night Waltz witnessed a tantric ritual as part of her research to create a piece in celebration of the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring next year. “These rituals are still alive here although so ancient,” she remarked.

On the third day, it was a boat trip down the Hooghly up to Dakshineswar and back. Waltz had seen photographic images of this hidden face of Calcutta that were taken by some young Germans, but being confronted by these “incredible palaces” she felt she could “feel the history of Calcutta”.

Her choreography often involves architecture, and she finds “city development fascinating”. She likes to observe “certain mutations — even ugly ones.” She has also visited Salt Lake, which is so different, and has been taking in all the information to get the “bigger picture”. She said it was sad that the sprawling buildings were disintegrating, but she has a “fascination for decay”.

Waltz began her training in dance from five, and after school she went to the Netherlands for further training, followed by a stint in New York. Thereafter, she formed her company Sash Waltz & Guests, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. She says her choreography is both “physical and theatrical — almost narration and abstract”. She deals a lot with music of different periods so that there is an interaction between living and deceased composers.

Dialogue is the crux of her project, and so Waltz had proposed not to come with a finished product. It is her endeavour to take it out of the context of theatre and to place it in an urban surrounding resulting in an “interaction between architecture and the dancers reading the walls with their body”.

She chose to work with Padmini Chettur, who was trained in Bharatanatyam from childhood, because she has had a long relationship with her, and she is a contemporary dancer who has “not thrown her language away”. “She has an Indian sense of the body,” stressed Waltz.

Chettur says she is “frightened of collaboration”. She had given up dance till college, but Chandralekha brought her back to it in 1990, and she started working on her own from 1994. She works mostly with Bharatanatyam dancers and she has “never been interested in Western techniques”. “It is a way of looking at a body and working different strategies. I am really working through restriction and reduction,” she explains.

“We will keep our two moments in time quite separate. After a few days we cross over and find a meeting point. It will be architecturally graphic, defined by lines and structure,” says Chettur. Calcutta’s charmed spaces can work wonders.