(pix courtesy Malaka Premasiri)
On April 1, the crowd at the Lionel Wendt gallery kept buzzing, ‘What do you think it meant?’ They had been captivated by Mesh Academy of Dance’s Deconstruct the Embody but were struggling to make head or tail of it. Different ideas floated amongst people: some believed the dance had a storyline about escape, others connected emotionally with the frustrated, screaming bodies, others yet remained gobsmacked and chuckled to themselves about the shock of the performance.
Deconstruct the Embody was a multimedia performance combining the choregraphy of Umeshi Rajeendra with photography by Malaka Premasiri. As an abstract, experimental piece, it was a much-needed addition to Sri Lanka’s artistic landscape. It thoroughly disrupted the audience’s expectation of neat storylines or clear messages and demanded instead that you connect with the tensions of lighting and movement. The audience entered the space of the Lionel Wendt gallery in a traditional sense and observed the photos strung up just like any art exhibition. They were told the dance may start at any point and to merely ‘follow the light’.
The performance itself was in several parts with each part’s choreography quite distinct from the other. One central motif ran through the whole show, namely a restrictive membrane of elastic fabric in which dancers were cocooned, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs or groups, but always moving and miming screaming from within. Dancers trapped in the membrane used variations of staccato, fluid and rigid movements, inciting thorough discomfort in the observer.
The light led the audience from one part of the gallery to another, forcing them to snap out of each act physically and emotionally and reconnect with a new choreography in a new place. The music chosen worked magnificently with the movements, except perhaps the final piece whose lyrics disrupted the steady abstraction that had held together the rest of the performance. Although the dancers themselves performed quite well, it was impossible to ignore the distinction of the principal dancer compared to the rest – but that is merely a credit to the principal, not a distraction from the performance as a whole.
Rajeendra and Premasiri’s creative process had involved some mere suggestions – an interest in the use of fabric, conscious gender ambiguity – and through some iterative feedback loops with each other, their final product became a consistent whole. Premasiri’s photography manages to capture both movement and stillness in its shots of dancers trapped in membranes. He plays with light and shadow, at times hiding the bodies trapped inside, foregrounding instead the amorphous whole, and at times highlighting segments of the bodies within. Rajeendra’s choreography produces this same dynamism in real time– bodies are in conversation with each other and aspects of the individual oscillate in tension and resonance with the whole.
One particularly striking dance involved three figures (outside of the membrane) whose movements began individually but then progressed to form one whole creature that moved as a unit. The three then detached yet again but continued to move slightly out of sync with each other, as though individual tides on an oceanic whole.
The audience was quite evidently captivated but the chatter of meaning and interpretation signals the need for more performances like Deconstruct the Embody that challenge our outdated expectations of messages, storylines and clear meaning. It is exciting to note that the Mesh Academy is training selected dancers to eventually form a company and is continuing to invite new students. I certainly look forward to upcoming productions and similar additions to the contemporary dance scene in Sri Lanka.
Published in Mirror Magazine of the Sunday Times