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Lights. A man and a woman in tight embrace, rolling and sliding on each other. It seems familiar, but I need clarification. I whisper to a friend, “Is this what I think it is?”

“I think so!”

Swift, precise, flowing movements follow. Boxes pushed around, clothes flung high up, men and women stripping completely, and then dressing up again.

We were watching Tavaszi áldozat – a contemporary perspective of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by Szegedi Kortárs Balett (Szeged Contemporary Dance Company) in the grand red-and-gold auditorium of the National Theatre of Szeged, Hungary.

For someone being trained in Bharatanatyam where there is a definite story being enacted, it was difficult to understand what all these movements really meant. I did not read the story of the Rite of Spring before watching the performance but vaguely understood from my friends that it is about a ritual to call the Spring where a virgin is sacrificed at the end, and that it was an allegory for the World Wars. Throughout the performance I was trying to connect movements to the story, trying to make sense of it in my head. And then there were scenes that had sexual connotations and nudity. I was lost. I needed to know the ‘purpose’ of contemporary dances, and whether the audience was supposed to feel as lost as I did. I felt uneasy that I did not understand what was being performed. It led to one of the most interesting discussions I ever had.

The contemporary dancer has a motivation for each movement. Every movement has a deep meaning for the dancer. These sets of movements have some story behind them. But it is not the intention of the dancer that the audience understands these the way he / she did. The audience goes to these performances with an open heart, or full of thoughts. They interpret these movements based on their mental and emotional disposition at that moment.

Having performed various Indian mythological stories for two decades, my audience has always been someone who is familiar with the stories or language of the lyric, if not for the highly codified hand gestures. But an unfamiliar viewer, without an explanation of the story and the gestures, would take home as much as I did after watching the Rite of Spring.

“Is this what contemporary dance does to the audience? Does each person in the audience take home a different story?” I ask a friend. “But we feel the same when you do things with your eyes and hands!”, she replies.

Just as a dancer needs years of training and immersion, so too the audience. One has to have trained eyes, but more importantly, a heart; heart, hrdaya. Sahrdayaa. The word says it all. A sahrdaya is sensitive, and someone who can experience the suggestions put forth by the kalaakaara (artist), evoking rasa (aesthetic pleasure). You either pull the audience with you to reach this state, or the audience reaches out to this state of being.

I always tried to find differences between contemporary and traditional dances. Are these different? Are these the same? Does it matter? In the end, ephemerality gives birth to permanence both for the sahrdayaa and the kalaakaara.

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