Kiana Manian, Class of 2021 We often throw around catchphrases like ‘the language of dance’, but
Ria Purandare, Class of 2019
“Say, What?” is a contemporary dance piece choreographed by Avantika Bahl, and performed by Vishal Sarvaiya and the choreographer herself. The duo was invited by the Centre for Performing Arts and the Office of Student Life to perform the piece at Ashoka University on the 7th of November.
“Say, What?” focused on the interaction between two people who slipped in and out of the use of codified language. The piece was performed in silence — only interjected by the sounds of the performers’ feet, a dancer’s inadvertent coughing, and the hum of the AC in the MPH. The piece began with the use of sign language — small movements that one wouldn’t usually consider dance. The performance area was surrounded by white masking on three sides. Therefore, even when the gestures of the stationary dancers were minute, the shadows cast on the background enhanced their intensity, and helped occupy the entire space.
The size of their movements eventually increased, leading them to use not only their whole bodies, but also all the available space. The use of repetitive movements gradually built up the pace and intensity of the piece, with Avantika and Vishal falling into synchronous movements, only to return to their individual steps. The interaction between the dancers varied constantly in terms of eye contact, physical contact and weight sharing. It included what appeared to be a game of goldspot, and also one section where only their palms (the dancers having thrown their legs behind their heads) conversed with one another.
Avantika Bahl, having trained at and worked with The Danceworx in Delhi for 7 years, went to the London Contemporary Dance School to train further. The inspiration for this piece came to Avantika in London, she said in an interview after her performance, where she met and soon befriended a hearing-impaired dancer. Her relationship with them pushed her to pursue an interest she had had for a while — to learn sign language. On noticing the similarities between sign language and dance, she asked her sign language teacher to put her in touch with a deaf dancer. This was how she met Vishal in Mumbai, with whom she collaborated to start creating this piece in April 2016.
There is a deaf world and a hearing world, says Vishal. He describes “Say, What?” as an attempt to create a third world, one which exists outside either of the first two. Vishal, who first started dancing at his deaf school in Mumbai at the age of six, eventually went on to dance with renowned Indian choreographer Shiamak Davar. Initially, he simply followed the body movements of others, until he eventually understood what rhythm was — something that was crucial for him to get to where he is today as a dancer.
Avantika’s desire to work with someone who had a different relationship with sound, and Vishal’s internal rhythm, made them a solid team. Vishal and Avantika also talked about the bodily awareness they developed which helped them to detect the other’s presence, not just in front of them but also on their sides and behind them. This made such a piece, one without music, counts or a definite rhythm, possible.
Avantika’s choreography touched on questions of language and communication — be it sign language, dance or theatrical movements. It highlighted the significance of sound in our lives, but also the ability to do without it. “Say, What?” opened up a world of meaning-making, while reinterpreting and demystifying gesture and movement used in the process of conversation. It was at once a humbling and an enlightening experience to watch them communicate on a personal, yet universal level.