Muscle Memory Workshop with Dr. Anita Ratnam

Dr. Anita Ratnam

Muscle Memory Workshop with Dr. Anita Ratnam

On the second day of World Dance Day in Delhi hosted by Natya Vriksha, Dr. Anita Ratnam convened a dance workshop titled Muscle Memory. More than just writing about it, this was a session that I was privileged to be a part of. When a layman talks about muscle memory, what comes to mind is the foam memory that mattresses have these days. Some time after you have stopped pressing on the mattress, it retains the imprint of the touch or its memory. Our muscles too retain the memory of our everyday movements.

Upper half and lower half
Anita started by explaining that the stage “has a central spot, which should not be in the front of the stage, since it disturbs the focus of the audience. We are going to be doing exercises that are walks, weight shifts and also opposite movements. Can we think upper half and lower half?” Slowly, starting with simple weight shifts, she demonstrated how the bottom half of the body naturally took on a four-beat rhythm. By making participants do some pedestrian movement with the upper half at the same time, she demonstrated how it was difficult, and how the body tries to match its entire rhythm, even if the movement is not a dance movement. “Theatre people have words, dancers have only musicians and movements,” she said. “The energy of the movement transfers only when we concentrate on the centre of the body. The engine is in the centre. When we tie our dance saris, we tie up the entire centre. We use our extremities a lot. We now have techniques to use our bodies, which are the instrument to learn, to perform, to share.”

She then made participants do a classical walk, ‘kulluku nadai’, with pedestrian movements on the upper half. Later, they reversed it – a natural walk and classical movements with the top half. She had dancers do classical movements with their hands while folding or even dragging their legs – entirely incongruous movements, to observe how the body tries to match one to the other. The exercises demonstrated how the body learns to move in a rhythm as a unit. Over the years, the entire body has learnt to move in a particular manner. Here, dancers segregated the upper and lower halves of the body to unlearn that rhythm, and it was difficult.

Dancing to a count
Next, Anita made participants perform a simple movement to the count of 50 – very, very slowly,to some unfamiliar music. “At the end of the movement, you are aware of every micro-second,” she said. “In Indian dance, we are not counting. We have the instruments – the bol or the chull – to do it. But in western dance, we are dancing to a count. In ensemble work, there is a constant counting. There is a count on which a new person or a new movement comes in. Your heart and your pulse are constantly giving a rhythm to a count. You are relying completely on what your muscles are telling you.” Geeta asked her, “When you talk of count, how do different dancers’ count match in pace?” Anita replied, “Practice is so intense that they work 8 hours a day and they know each other’s breaths.” She also said that unlike us, they don’t follow music. “When (pioneering American composer) John Cage was doing music, there was no rhythm. In fact, there is no music in the initial stages. The composer comes in when the choreography is half set. In the western system, the early part is mostly silent, and the music gradually builds up in the final moments. They have to arrive at a certain point or hit a mark at a certain count. They have to do a lot of partnering – lifting, twirling – and the partner has to be there at the right time and angle, and this is all done to count in almost silence in the rehearsals.” Rajiv asked her at that point, “In an interview with (American dancer and choreographer Merce) Cunningham, he said the music sometimes comes at the first stage performance. Choreography is independent of the music. Cunningham would complete the choreography and then tell Cage to do the music for that duration.” In the silence, the count is the rhythm, and you become aware of every particle of your muscle moving.

Anita replied, “Cage comes after the Graham school. Martha Graham left classical Indian dance and created her own style. She had a powerful torso and terrific left leg lifts. She used an image from nature, a she-wolf who has lost a battle with another she-wolf, and indicates that she is ready to die (illustrating posture). There are contraction movements in the abdomen of the dancer on the floor, and the neck is tilted, given up to be bitten. We don’t train to get our core strong in classical dance. But to get our movements correct, we have to have a very strong core.”

At this point, Anita had everyone do the Dead Bug position, a simple technique she learnt from Pilates. In this position, the entire spine is touching the floor, with no tuck, the arms and legs are raised, and the legs are at a 90 degree angle, with the breathing natural. The aim is to strengthen the core. “The same principle of tucking your seat as in the Dead Bug position should be applied when you stand. As we dress up for dance, we do the opposite – we jut our seat out. As you try and pull your seat in, your core becomes strong, and the balance becomes better.” When you tuck the bottom in, said Anita, it supports the back and helps your core do the work, not the lower back. When you use that small adjustment, she said, all adavus become easier, demonstrating it with the Kudittu Mettu Adavu. Rajiv interjected, “Girija told Geeta that they were told to tie elastic on their backs to prevent it from going back.” Anita added, “They had a native intelligence of physiognomy. Also, considering the urban lifestyle, where you are running to catch buses, sitting in planes etc, our bodies are no longer responding to the poetry in classical dance.” .As children, we were taught exercises in school to hold our back muscles in, in order to reduce pain in the abdomen. Holding your seat muscles in gives strength to your abdominal muscles. But then again, it is difficult to unlearn the posture that we have gotten used to over many years.

New choreography from old
In the next exercise, Anita made the dancers pair up. As one did a classical nritta movement, the other used one hand like a broad paintbrush to trace the trajectory of the other's movements. The tracing follows the shape of the shoulders, head, arms, neck etc. Next, the dancer becomes the painter and the painter becomes the dancer - they start mirroring each other, adding foot movements, and it comes closer to the choreography of an abstract movement. New patterns are created. Anita played some Iranian music, to which the participants did this exercise. She made them change the pace, slow and fast, the directions, etc. The entire exercise, on one hand taught the dancers to create new movements out of the repertoire that they have learnt, and on the other hand, they are enjoying partnering.

After this, Anita made dancers do the Butoh walk or the dark dance, which is Japanese. Here, the first requirement is for the dancer to look downwards at a 45 deree angle so that you are doing the movement outward, but you are looking inward, blocking the audience out. Butoh was a Japanese artist, and this was his response after the second World War, when Japan was in ruin and destruction. All that ugliness, death, destruction brought out this dark response in the artist. Their faces were painted white, and they would smear ash on their bodies. They were emaciated and grotesque with their ribs showing, and they would do a slow walk. It was an exploration of abhinaya in a different way. In the workshop, participants were told to tuck their seat in, bend their knees, take slow steps and with the hands, create tension as if they were pushing a stone or a wall of water, hold the core, and bring the whole foot to rest at the same time. "The feeling that you get is very intense and internalised. It gives you a lot of body torso control," said Anita. It is a dark dance, she explained, and can be used to show grief, loss and destruction.

Trusting the partner
The next exercise was for an ensemble crew, where the dancers do cluster work. The dancers cluster together, face different directions, look up slightly, then exhale and expand. Then they inhale and contract, and start falling back, touching the person behind them, leaning on them and gradually trusting them for support. It was not easy - a few dancers also fell when the dancer behind them could not support them. Rajiv Chandran asked if this required trust, and Anita said, "A lot of it."

"The trust grows as the ensemble gets to know each other. Look around and see who is around you, activate your core and trust each other. On one hand, it is promoting vulnerability and flexibility, and on the other, the dancers become like a family, not being awkward with each other," said Anita.

Image, gesture, sound
Following that was an exercise that had a lot of relevance in abstract choreography. Anita asked the dancers to sit down and put an object in front of them that was valuable to them. She asked them to associate three memories with that object. For each memory, there was a word to summarise that memory - hence, three words. "Now, do a gesture for each word without saying the word. From all the three gestures, now cut it down to one word. Make a sound - not a word - that is closest to that one word, and finally, do a gesture to describe that sound," Anita instructed. This was an exercise in imagery, since classical dancers privilege the text over the dancing body and its movement. Here, we have reached a movement which is more important than the object or the word we started with. During this exercise, Anita also demonstrated how a gesture done within the limits of the shoulders is not very visible. The gesture should always be extended beyond the shoulders, she said. For example, a dancer who started with a bangle given to her by her mother on her wedding ended up with the word 'blessing', the sound 'mmmm', and the gesture of lowering herself. Again, Anita, further explaining the concept, said, "A conch could denote spiral, ocean, froth, white, birth, death, celebration.
The associations that you make between a word and a gesture can take you from one place to somewhere else, and this journey is interesting."

Discussing image further, Anita said that Indian society is culturally very rich and filled with images. "So we can use the traditional classical technique that we learn and extend it into contemporary or abstract work," said Anita. "Here we can give an example of a poor woman from a slum feeding her child and holding it to her left breast, and her husband is pulling her hair to beat her on the right side. On the one hand, she is trying not to disturb the child, which is feeding, but at the same time, warding off the attack on the right which her husband is making. So she is making an adjustment of movement, which again can be explained by sthiram and sukham. A flower vendor who is tying flowers to make a garland is just moving her/his hands without giving much thought to it - how tight to tie or how much to tie. That movement comes naturally, even as she/he is talking or doing something else. Here, we see a lot of wisdom, like in autopilot. Your muscles have to be worked. You can't dance in your mind - your body has to execute.
You have to do the riyaaz. The classical dancers do not do it as much as the non-classical dancers. Non-classical dancers have to have a very fit body and dance with a lot of rigour." Later, she added, "The image is as important as the word. There's a viral video called Helping Hands. It is hilarious but true. The live arts cannot be consumed. The potency is in the body on the stage. There are no retakes. In the Jungle Book, that boy is performing against a blue screen, imagining Baloo, the bear, Shere Khan and Kaa the snake. Are we coming to the stage that we are going to have virtual audiences? Chennai is coming to that. Our cities are hell, with pollution and congestion, and nobody is going to fight it between that time slot of 6.30 to 8.30 unless you have something special to offer to them."

Anita said, "When Rukmini Devi did dance ensembles on stage, she had a way in which everybody would run on to the stage. In Bharatnatyam, we do not run. But Rukmini Devi found a way from ballet to run on to the stage. The dancers were so slim, they would weigh just 50kg, that they could run bending forward. The technique for this comes from modern dance and ballet. It's as if a string is attached to your front in the upper half, and it is being pulled, a technique that was affected by Mexican-American dancer Jose Limon. The run is on the front part of the foot, so Attai would make the dancers for Ramayana run like that on stage, with knees bent, soundless. Attai changed this technique so that they fell from the wings, clustering and running. Chandralekha wanted to have them move sideways and come on the stage. This is important today since there are different kinds of spaces and rhythms. It is easy to do a classical entry, but the running gets you into a rhythm."

Next, Anita taught the dancers a phrase from Padme in seven beats, two mukhdas. Padme, Anita’s first mentoring project as artistic director, was choreographed by Kalpana Raghuraman. It was done by Bangalore-based dancers who were a part of the choreography also. According to Anita, this was a culmination into a contemporary phase to sum up all that the dancers had learnt that day. The participants really enjoyed the insights the workshop brought them. Anita further talked to them and told them to be “like blotting paper”. “Absorb as much as our daily life has to offer to us in your dance. See senior dancers perform and take something from them. Expand yourself. Fight burnout and physical ailments. In the Padme group, there were two dancers who were MBAs and doing jobs and they gave up their jobs for two years just to dance." Geeta added, "Watching dancers is very important. The students these days do not translate into audience or rasikas, Take risks, create unique spaces and don't be clones."

Anita added, "I believe in cross-training - Pilates, tai chi, yoga taught me these techniques, and also that of looking 45 degrees down. Our body needs more respect and corporeality. It is capable of storing and remembering images - neurological, physiological, psychological images - the body absorbs all. I want the classical dancers to break the conditioning."

"We privilege the text and we make movements from words. Then we have a memory. Image has to be different from the word so that that image can create yet another word. We can play with the image, text, word, gesture in any which way, changing their priorities."