Mythili Prakash- In Conversation
Ahead of the world premiere of Here and Now, at the prestigious Dance Umbrella season, Mythili Prakash shares the ideas and motivations behind the new work with Shivaangee Agrawal.
Here and Now, premieres on Friday 18 October at Fairfield Halls Croydon, as part of Dance Umbrella 2019.
What was the impetus for your piece, Here and Now?
Originally it was my fascination with the ambiguity of time; as we constantly ‘time travel’ through a memory or dream, we are physically in one time zone and emotionally in another; the relativity of time where one minute spent doing something painful is excruciatingly longer than one minute spent doing something enjoyable. So much of life is linked to how we experience the ambiguity of time, and yet the way we live life is entirely dictated by the certainty of time. One of my favourite childhood stories became the starting point of this piece: Narada asks Krishna about the meaning of Maya (illusion) and he responds that “it cannot be explained only experienced.” He sends Narada in search of water and in those few minutes that Krishna awaits his return, Narada experiences an entire lifetime of love, aspiration, catastrophe and grief.
I feel like your work is usually personally motivated. Is there a specific personal experience informing this piece?
There is the practical struggle to live in the moment, which is based on my current experience of being both a mother and artist. The creative mind is such that it never truly takes a break and ideas come when they do. But as soon as my daughter became old enough to talk, she would say to me, “Amma, look at me, listen to me,” reminding me to snap out of choreography-land and be with her. I’m so grateful for these reminders because being a parent is a unique and extraordinary gift to be cherished. Now that I’m touring heavily with Outwitting the Devil, my time with her is so limited and so precious but even still, try telling that to my choreographer-mind! The struggle is REAL.
It’s massively exciting that bharatanatyam has finally made its way into a festival that is all about contemporary dance. In what ways has your creative process for this piece been different from other works you’ve made?
There has been a certain freedom which has been both liberating and daunting. Usually after ideating concept I make a framework for the arc of the piece, and the composition and choreography is born out of that. But because this piece is based on the idea of time as an illusion I had to free myself from structures and patterns in some sense. A lot of the creative process was about playing with a train of thought and seeing where it took me, and then either committing to it or scrapping it completely (much to the annoyance of my music composer :-) )
Could you tell us a little bit about the music? Who are you working with and how has the collaboration taken place?
My music composers for this piece are my brother and vocalist Aditya Prakash, and my good friend and percussionist Sumesh Narayanan. A lot of the creative process was about finding ambiguity in elements that are usually constant, like sruti (pitch/drone) or kalapramanam (tempo). Aditya and I share a long history together (since the day he was born! :-) ) and this piece holds a lot of mutual references to our shared thoughts, philosophies and music etc. We’ve incorporated soundscape/sound design more than we have in the past collaborations, and more than is usually done in classical pieces.
Sumesh and I are working together for the first time. In addition to being a percussion whiz, he thinks very conceptually when it comes to music, which made the process very integrative. I am also very happy to be working with my close friend Sushma Somasekharan whose vocals add depth and texture to the piece.
Mythili Prakash Here and Now image credit: Jonathan Potter
You’ve been touring with Akram Khan Company’s Outwitting The Devil this year. What kind of effect has that experience had on you as a choreographer?
It has definitely influenced me. Things are still percolating so it’s difficult to say how exactly! In some ways, it has reinforced my belief in the power and magic of the classical. At the same time, it has fortified my search to find a voice as a classical Indian dance artist in today’s global world, without compromising integrity and authenticity. Akram’s guidance as a mentor in my dance journey has helped me re-investigate habits in my (classical) approach, including the relationship to music and rhythm, movement choices, and dramaturgy. There has been so much discovery and it’s tremendously exciting!
From the little snippets available online, it looks like your piece is once again toying with the boundary of classical and contemporary, familiar and unfamiliar. How easy or difficult has it been to get to the movement vocabulary in this piece?
To be honest this piece has evolved very organically. Bharatanatyam as a genre is fluid and dynamic - of course there are certain aesthetics that give it a distinctive character, but generally its identity has constantly evolved. So I don’t necessarily think of classical as antithetical to contemporary.
The original drafts of this piece included a lot more of the familiar/classical approach to content, lyric, and choreographic choices. Deconstruction happened naturally because the subject matter deals with the ambiguity of time. I tried to steer clear of the temptation to include elements of the form simply to make it recognizable and instead explore movement that serves the concept of the piece. Much came from improvisation, that developed over time and solidified into choreography.
I hear (insta tells me) that you’ve been working on this piece for more than two years. How does it feel for its world premiere to be around the corner?
Terrifying. This is the longest I’ve ever worked on a piece before premiering it and it’s been a different piece every 3 months; I have shown it to Akram five times, each time a completely different version from the last. It is a 45-minute piece and there are at least 50 minutes of choreography and music which at some point existed but are now stored away in my icloud. That’s a first for me! I suppose it is like submitting a proposal - before hitting send, you can’t stop pecking away at it. Here and Now is still changing every day and will continue to, until you see it at 7:30 pm on October 18th at Dance Umbrella 2019!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes, I am very excited about being part of Dance Umbrella and there are two people to be acknowledged. The first is Akram Khan, who nominated me for the commission; it is his belief in the power of the classical and in my abilities as a choreographer-performer that lead to this. And next Emma Gladstone, who programmed the piece into the festival and has been so wonderfully supportive of me throughout. I feel lucky to have my creative collaborators Sumesh, Aditya, Sushma and Guy Hoare who’s done the lighting design. And I’m grateful to have Mavin Khoo as my rehearsal director.