A petty tax collector in a Rabindranath Tagore short story titled “Kshudita Pashan” (“Hungry Stones”) looses his mind as he is possessed by an abandoned pleasure dome built 250 years earlier by a Muslim ruler of Gujarat. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that in a somewhat similar manner, Dialoge 2013 — Kolkata (organized by the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan), choreographed by Sasha Waltz of Berlin, was house-haunted. Performed on January 12, 13 and 14, it was dominated by the shabby splendour of the stately home, Jorasanko Rajbati, the most austere in this north Calcutta neighbourhood.
She had chosen to conjure up the dreamlife of that vast and sprawling dwelling that was once like a bustling township abuzz with people going about their daily business, and where household deities were regularly worshipped in that arched recess at the extreme end of the courtyard, around which the rooms are constructed. This can be a test of integrity for a choreographer from the West, for it is so easy to be lured by the exoticism of this raw material out of which Waltz had crafted a piece that was structured around the physical space of the building. It was the story of what probably went on behind its walls as she imagined it, and instead of being factual, she had sought to project a poetic recreation of it.
This had pushed the building to another dimension beyond its actual location, and charged it with a magic that lay dormant in the rooms and corridors and courtyard that had fallen asleep, the palace having long fallen into disuse. In an essay on her work, Dorita Hannah writes: “Sasha Waltz is an artist who talks to architecture and demands it speaks back.” Being the daughter of an architect and a gallerist, she was on familiar ground. She has in works like Dialoge 99/11 in the Berlin Jewish Museum, inside out staged in the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, and Dialoge 06 — Radiale Systeme, produced to open the new building, explored to the fullest the possibilities of interdisciplinary practice and the dialogue between the body and the building, “illustrating how architecture, as event-space, is always in motion”.
In her film, Architectural Dialogues, “They (the dancers) are ‘talking to architecture’ by pushing the boundaries of where the body belongs in space”, to quote the ArchDaily website. In an interview, Waltz says: “When I enter into specific spaces I get inspired to ‘listen’ to the walls of the building. I am always interested in how space defines the choreography. As a starting point it is always better to base it on existing architecture rather than an imagined stage set. Working in real architecture inspires me to use space in an unexpected way.”
In Calcutta she did just that. It was as if Waltz was in touch with the spirit of the palace, connecting with the past, but, at the same time, embracing the chaotic street on which the palace stands. What comes to mind is Gaston Bachelard on the poetics of space. “Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others, stimulating one another.”
Awhile after the performance began in the courtyard, where the dancers of Sasha Waltz & Guests bunched together like the frieze in a temple, and a swaying underwater plant thereafter (picture), the doors of the first-floor rooms opened, each with a revelation of its own. Two children were being put to sleep in one. In the next one, a man in a dhoti danced in a rather idiosyncratic manner, while in another, a couple made love. In yet another, a woman danced in a reverie. The Indian dancers, with choreographer Padmini Chettur from Chennai, who was trained by Chandralekha, met the ones in Waltz’s company in a room where, as the only concession to Indian classical styles, both groups performed hasta mudras. All the while, both the performers and the viewers could have been daydreaming. The architecture lost its stasis as viewers (at times too many) pursued the dancers on both floors.
The enchantment of these performances was enhanced by the gloaming in the rooms produced by the simplest of devices and the projections created by video artist Tapio Snellman. The four soloists of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra interfaced with the performers, but it was in those passages of silence that their dynamism and vitality found most vivid expression. From time to time, the illusion would be shattered by the jangle of a passing tram, or, as it happened once, the full blast of cacophony from a street puja that threatened to kill the show.
If one had to find a flaw, it was in the attempt to connect with the Indian dancers, who seemed to have been foisted on an otherwise seamless performance. Nonetheless, the body and the building bonded together.