The Post Natyam Collective’s bold trans-national works of theatre blend dance, multimedia and music in unexpected ways. Often, live classical Indian dance is complemented by gallery installations, scholarly papers and film pieces. In the company’s landmark 2008 performance SUNOH! Tell Me, Sister, for example—in which the conflicted histories of Indian women brushed up against contemporary accounts of domestic violence and the age-old struggle between tradition and paving one’s own path—performance elements and technology played fast and loose. Live dance sequences alternated with Skype sessions between members of the group, in which they candidly dished about their own lives and struggles. A breathtaking intimacy was the result.
Because Post Natyam operates at the intersection of so many ideas, nations and identities, the world evoked in their work is a rich melting-pot wherein art forms are constantly in flux. This group’s artistic signature can be read as equal parts scholarship and vigorous theatricality, equal parts critical theory and punch-to-the-gut emotional impact.
It’s something of a formidable task to maintain such an identity, given one crucial factor audiences may not be aware of at first glance: Post Natyam is a collective that is spread across the world. Cynthia Ling Lee is based in Santa Monica, Calif.; Shyamala Moorty lives in Long Beach, Calif.; and Sandra Chatterjee divides her time between India and Germany. (Another founding member, the Kansas City–based Anjali Tata, is currently on hiatus.)
But given the efficiency of multimedia technologies and an evolving definition of performance and its possibilities, Post Natyam has become a shining example of how we can envision collaboration in an increasingly dispersed, global (and largely underfunded) artistic context.
Moorty notes that the long-distance aspect began shortly after the collective did, back in 2004. “We would make solos in separate locations and stitch them together when we were able to gather in the same place,” she recalls. Chatterjee, speaking from Germany, agrees that the collective’s capacity to collaborate long distance is crucial, “as our relationship to each other is based on long-term involvement in each other’s professional and personal lives.”
Lee, the collective’s newest member, joined in early 2007, attracted by the ensemble’s insistent focus on collaboration. In fact, the fusion of several individual voices, as opposed to the emphasis on the ideas of a single artistic director, has been the driving force in forging the group’s cohesive identity.
In keeping with that approach, leadership of the group rotates on a project-by-project basis, and external collaborators frequently join in the mix. In the making of SUNOH! Tell Me, Sister, Lee led the creative process, Moorty conducted outreach with a community group in Los Angeles, and Lee and Chatterjee together generated several scholarly papers. The performance, which debuted in late 2008 as a work in progress, culminated in a show that toured in 2011–12 in its complete form throughout the U.S. Versions of it were also performed in Taiwan and India.
Lee says the collective openly encourages members of the group to “borrow, steal, appropriate and translate each other’s material, adapting it for our own contexts, so that things might manifest themselves in multiple ways—for instance, as a scholarly paper, a modular live performance, an artbook or a workshop.” She characterizes the process as “consensual collaboration.” This free invitation for creative recycling, and the de-emphasis on ownership, is open to changing circumstances and logistical challenges—which goes a long way toward making a sustainable, long-distance artistic collaboration in a variety of media possible.
But respect for one’s collaborators is paramount. According to Moorty, “Each of us asks permission to use each other’s work and keeps the originator in the loop of what has happened or how it has transformed.”
It is technology—in the form of conference calls, video sharing and blogging—that enables the collaboration to not only be maintained but flourish.
In most theatrical enterprises, scheduling time to meet can present a challenge in and of itself, even when the collaborators share the same zip code. But the long-distance process necessitates more focus, Chatterjee believes. She notes that Post Natyam’s process usually entails one person “giving an assignment, with all of us responding by putting choreographic responses on the blog in the form of video, audio, writing or photos.” She adds that the long-distance nature of the work has forced members to generate “more of a shared process of creating material rather than something like a joint performance.”
Video projections have become more prominent in the work, which has led to “a greater emphasis on choreographing body parts through close-ups, as well as a new and fresh emphasis on abhinaya,” or facial expressions, which are important in classical Indian dance, Chatterjee adds.
Because live performances have primarily been led by Lee and Moorty, Chatterjee herself is fairly removed from the actual audience: “I only hear about it from a distance, or see comments on the blog.” Meanwhile, audiences are also confronted with elements created by members who aren’t present, via video projection or film.
And then there’s the invisible audience of the collective’s blog, which has become a virtual venue for performance, critique and shared feedback. Aside from raw numbers, Post Natyam has no real idea of who is watching the work, how often they tune in to it, or just how they are engaging with it.
Perhaps surprisingly, the addition of technology to the mix is in keeping with traditional South Asian notions of the thin veil between performer and audience. Lee notes that rasa theory, a South Asian framework that emphasizes co-creation between artist and viewer, is crucial to the collective’s work—and is readily apparent on Post Natyam’s blog. As the blog privileges a transparent artistic process over product, “it holds incredible potential to explode the traditional separation between art-maker, audience and collaborator,” she reasons. Feedback from blog comments, in fact, has sometimes influenced the work significantly.
In some ways, this kind of multidisciplinary, Internet-based proliferation of art is a modern-day form of natya, a South Asian art form that traditionally integrated music, dance and theatre, and from which the troupe takes its name.
Post Natyam is currently at work on Subversive Gestures, a work inspired by a seminal performance piece by West Coast choreographer Joe Goode, which will have tentacular offshoots in scholarly writings by Lee and Chatterjee and a performance solo by Lee. In the future, the collective hopes to helm a new media initiative called “Blogging Choreography,” which would invite guest artists and audiences into an interactive exchange about contemporary South Asian dance. The idea, says Lee, is to “build a grassroots online network of exchange for contemporary South Asian dance artists—who, like us, tend to be geographically and artistically isolated.”
Nirmala Nataraj is a self-described “writer, editor and rabble-rouser” who lives in San Francisco.