There is a gentle wisdom about Janak Khendry. In his latest work, KAAL – Time, the seventy-two-year-old dancer and choreographer appears first as a benevolent Creator and then later as an omniscient journeyman moving through day and night. In both sections, Khendry exudes a timeless warmth and poise that a younger artist would be simply unable to pull off.
As part of Harbourfront Centre’s NextSteps Dance Series, Khendry’s world premiere KAAL – the Sanskrit word for Time — has been several years in the making. As an artist Khendry is clearly at a stage of life when rushing the creative process would disturb the crafting of the final product. There is a luxuriousness about the work that suggests that it was allowed to come in to being in its own … time.
KAAL — Time is a meditation on temporality and existence. Khendry draws on Vedic scripture to conceptualize his ideas about space, time, energy and being in two acts. The first act begins with the opening sequence on Pre-Creation – “It was the state of Absolute Zero … no being nor non-being, no night, no day, no life, no death” — and moves through the “Big Bang” and “OM the first sound of the universe” to the creation of the planets and elements. After the intermission the second act involves the day-night cycle, the seasons, an homage to the sun and “the final destruction” where all that comes into existence must go out of existence “even Time itself.”
Khendry’s dance dramas begin as ideas he carries around with him until he is ready to embark on extensive research, often looking to classical texts and mythology. The seeds of KAAL have been germinating for more than four years and it, like his other major works Ganga and Upanishad, did not come together overnight.
The stage was simply set with two computerized lighting trees at upper stage right and left, wafting dry ice and a three-sided projection screen suspended against the cyclorama framed in a daisy chain of lights. On the triangular screen — the shape symbolizing past, present and future – are projected the titles of each section and then either filmed or computer-generated images to accompany the action of the dancing. In the “Elements” section, for example, the images are of fire, waterfalls, sky. Wind moving through trees underscored the themes of each dance.
One of the pleasures of South Asian dance performance is the frequent presence of live musicians on stage with the dancers. The score for KAAL — Time however was pre-recorded due to its eclectic composition and orchestration. Creating a score for a piece about time is no small feat and composer Ashit Desai rose to the challenge by producing a composition that fuses classical South Indian roots with modern “new age” and world music traditions. The absence of live musicians, though regrettable, added to the timelessness of the setting, allowed for full use of the stage and signalled that KAAL — Time was not a concert of classical South Indian repertoire.
Khendry assembled a superbly trained ensemble of dancers who worked extremely hard to realize the choreographer’s vision. Guhendran Saravanapava, trained in bharatanatyam and nattuvangam and with international experience, sets the tone in “Pre-Creation” and his presence in later sections lends him the air of a guide. One also gets the impression that in Saravanapava, Khendry sees his younger self and has invested much in the dancer.
Saravanapava’s supple movement and clean lines do justice to Khendry’s choreography which, in this work, blends several South Asian dance styles — bharatanatyam, kathak and manipuri – with contemporary movements. Divya Divakaran and Sinthuja Jeyarajah also stood out for their beautiful hands, expressive faces and wonderful technique, alongside a very grounded and serene Harinnaya Rajasekhran.
In terms of costuming, in sections that deal with the primordial male and female, dancers wear diaphanous robes flowing from a high yoke or unflattering winged unitards. In other sections that more closely resemble traditional abhinnaya dancers were attired in saris and pleated trousers. In the section “Planets” the dancers wore embroidered silk sari blouses, pyjamas, fans and pallus in hues of rich burnt oranges, reds and golds for representing the Sun, Venus, Mars and Jupiter and cool white for the Moon. In one of the dances portraying the seasons, Kala Vageesan is radiant in daffodil yellow.
Transitions between sections could have been made smoother by shifting the action choreographically as opposed to relying on blackouts (though these helped to emphasize the titles and keep the projections from fading). When the curtains opened, the stage was harshly lit in electric blue but the effect eventually softened and warmed.
Dramaturgically KAAL — Time proceeds from one section to another at an unhurried pace with shifts in tempo and dance style. The work has a quality of calm progression, like a cosmological wheel turning endlessly. Khendry’s themes evolve from the dancing but are also cued by the images and titles on the screen so that the audience does not have to work very hard to deduce the meaning. Though punctuated by crisp dancing and memorable scenes such as the Sun as charioteer leading the planets across the sky, KAAL – Time overall is naïve. Khendry’s choreography could have embraced the abstract more fully (as he did in the opening sequence and the “Elements” section — here the movement was more organic). Otherwise, the dancers perform looking out into the audience and never fully dissolving into the action of the dance. While I appreciated the effort put into the work, its simplicity was uninspiring.