Academic journal article TheatreForum

Safe Savage: Maori and Malayali Martial Dance Theatre

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Safe Savage: Maori and Malayali Martial Dance Theatre

Article excerpt

During the 1997 Edinburgh Festival, I saw my first live war dance-of a kind! It was performed by Maori performance artist Mika as part of his Mika and the Uhuras, which ran in the Assembly Theatre from 3 August to 1 September. Mika was wearing a lycra outfit that exposed the cleft of his buttocks, and he was flanked by two drag queens in stilettos and bikinis. The three men's skin-tight costumes accentuated their muscularity, which became even more vivid during the show's final haka (postural dance). They slapped their pecs and inner thighs vigorously, clawed and slashed at the air, and arrested punches mid flight by clasping their own forearms. Despite the lamé and heavy mascara, their taut gestures and twisting torsos radiated potential masculine violence.

I ran away with that circus, and in 2000 Mika and I formed a dance company-called Torotoro Maori Dance Crew-to create a new mode of performance merging tu taua (Maori martial disciplines) with hip hop and burlesque. [Photo 2] Mika's cabaret combined hyper-masculine martial movement and drag to express his identity as both a queer and an indigenous man. Our work with Torotoro, who are not a gay grouping, led to a broader exploration of how male sensuality can be expressed by martial performance. This is the topic I am currently pursuing, academically as well as artistically.

In 2004, on sabbatical from Torotoro, I took a solo trip to Kerala in South India. There, at the Mudra Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, I encountered Samudra Performing Arts when I attended a performance of their Jalam in the Sanskriti Bhavan on 17 December 2004. Like Torotoro, Samudra combine movements from their indigenous martial arts with native and foreign dance practices to create performances that they frequently present on proscenium stages abroad. Both companies' limited resources lead them to tour without a stage set or detailed lighting designs. According to local circumstances, they may perform on black studio stages with rudimentary lights, or in outdoor arenas before floodlit architectural facades. The consistent shared aspect of Torotoro and Samudra's theatres is the spectacular effect of their fusion of martial and dance movement. It is on this that my research is focused. Comparing the companies' work, I identify an emergent genre I call "martial dance theatre."1

Samudra was founded in 1998 by its principal artists, Madhu Gopinath and Vakkom Sajeev. They became practitioners of kalaripayattu (Malayali martial art) when they were colleagues working under Gujarati choreographer Daksha Sheth. Kalaripayattu gives Samudra's dance its explosive dynamics and aerial acrobatics, whilst their schooling in bharatanatyam (South Indian classical dance) gives their work its sculptural and rhythmical precision. I was smitten at first sight with the spectacle of Samudra's lithe agility, committed kicks and dives, and surprising spins and leaps.

This essay explores the spectacular exploitation of indigenous martial practices in the dance theatre of Torotoro from New Zealand and Samudra from Kerala. Both companies live in former British colonies. This imperial history has implications for their performances in the UK. Borrowing language from the Roman era, I ask whether these presentations might best be described as "tributes" or "triumphs." That is, might we view these performances as familiar ethnic displays tailored to satisfy Western expectations, or as unique moments signalling a new global role for the cultures of the Maori, the indigenous New Zealanders, and the Malayali, the speakers of Malayalam, Kerala's native language. Over the years, this issue has gained gravity for me, becoming a question informing my actions as the companies' principal "white" collaborator.2 It was especially paramount when I coproduced the presentation of each company at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and their subsequent collaborative performances in New Zealand and India.3 The images accompanying this text show Torotoro and Samudra on stage together in their first co-created performance, Pranavam, premiered this year, 2009. …

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