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Inspired by literature and stories, Singapore dancer-choreographer Raka Maitra creates contemporary dance by drawing from her vocabulary in classical odissi dance, in defiance of the dichotomy between classical and contemporary.
We speak to this artist and avid reader about dance after COVID-19 in the first of this series of interviews, Re:moving, which mulls over the issues of art-making, loss, loneliness and more, in the words of noted choreographers from Asia, and around the world.
Cover photo by Tan Ngiap Heng
I am a person who needs structure and routine. I spend my mornings listening to music and improvising my dance routine, which is hard, since I live in an apartment where it’s impossible to do anything without a phone call from my neighbours. Then from 2pm onwards, I start my work for The Substation (as Co-Artistic Director). The days get packed with meetings, planning, and trying to devise substitutes for cancelled events.
When life was normal, I tried to reach the Chowk studio by 10am every day. Mornings are kept for my own practice and training my full-time dancers. We have a classical routine that we practice before rehearsals, or I teach them a traditional odissi piece choreographed by Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra—that’s the style of odissi that we practice at Chowk. After dance, I head to The Substation at 2pm and I start my admin work. If I finish by 6pm (which is not very often since I meet most artists or attend events after 6pm), I head back to the studio to watch classes at Chowk, which are conducted by Sandhya Suresh and Caroline Chin. This is a normal weekday for me.
The most important thing for dance is space. We need sprung floors, and we need a space that’s creatively conducive. There is a close connection between the physical environment and artistic work. So being stuck in an apartment, not being able to dance is like a nightmare as we find ourselves constantly trying to negotiate new ways of moving quietly by keeping the music low, not stamping too loud or making noise—suddenly you realise how intolerant we all are.
Yes, these are terrifying times. There are people sick and dying alone, the streets are empty, the people who are out are all masked, and there is a kind of fear and suspicion in everyone’s eyes. What we are experiencing now is not really "loneliness" but a sense of drowning or this sense of losing control of our lives. When I hear the word “new normal” or that life “will never be the same again”, it scares me. I know humanity has seen this before and we will see it again but we just need to get past this.
There was an article in The Straits Times a couple of months ago which said, “It’s a war not just an economic crisis…”. The socioeconomic shift is going to be massive and prolonged, and getting the economy going without replicating the inequalities in society will be tough. The socioeconomic crisis has impacted every level of society and art is a small part of that—we were suddenly hit by the fact that we are not ‘essential’, and our spaces and theatres will be the last to open. It’s humbling when you are faced by the fact that art is not an ‘essential service’ and all we can do is wait.
My initial thought when the pandemic hit us was that this is merely temporary, and one positive thing we are getting now is the luxury of time to rethink our practice, read, and do whatever we didn’t have the time to do before. But I never thought we would need to rethink the way art is done without real human interactions, without a real audience and all the things that make us alive and gives us a purpose. So far, this rethinking has only gone as far as a substitution of the real audience with virtual audiences and interactions. Initially, I was not sure whether I wanted to get on board with digital platforms, but I gradually had to come to terms with the fact that this is what we need to do now—if not for me, then for the younger artists who are all waiting and looking for an outlet.
I have been reading The Plague again by Albert Camus which was published in 1947. It makes us realise that this war with an ‘invisible enemy’ is not new to humanity, as is reflected in the novel: the “Plague was an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come”.
At Chowk, our works have always been influenced by the times we are in, so now we are thinking of a response to the current times and the obvious choice I think would be The Plague by Camus. The story operates on symbolic, allegorical, and literal levels. The threat is experienced on multiple levels but the answer to it lies on the spectrum of humanity. The insistence on placing individual moral responsibility at the heart of all public choices—this cuts sharply across the comfortable habits of our times. We are also trying to find ways to complete projects that we started working on within the limitations we have.
Raka Maitra is a Singapore dancer and choreographer, recognised for bridging classical Indian dance with contemporary dance and her expansion of new vocabularies and contexts of odissi. A disciple of legendary odissi dancer Madhavi Mudgal, Maitra is the founder and Artistic Director of Chowk Productions. The company was founded in 2007 and is based in Singapore, comprising four members, Sandhya Suresh, Caroline Chin and Sharanyaa De Laure. In 2020, she also became Co-Artistic Director of the independent arts venue, The Substation.