|(Richard Tremblay as Arjuna in Kathakali Dance Drama, courtesy R.Tremblay)|
"Anyway, so I went to the Himalayas and that's where I met my guru Tat Wale Baba. He lived on the banks of the Ganga river....in the same place where the world famous guru, Mahesh Yogi first met the Beatles. So my guru had his small ashram there; and he and Mahesh Yogi were very well acquainted with another as they had the same teacher. They came from a very small family so-to-speak. But they went two separate ways. Tat Wale Baba was living in a cave. And Mahesh Yogi went the world over, to Holland and the US where he established many ashrams. So the two of them chose two very different paths. I chose to follow Tat Wale Baba. He was living in a cave. That appealed to me..." (Richard Tremblay on studying yoga in the Himalayas with Tat Wale Baba)
|(Yogi Tat Wale Baba)|
Richard Tremblay is a dancer/choreographer with a varied cultural background and a rich history from which he weaves his own personal understanding of the importance of a yoga in the life of a choreographer. Richard Tremblay is credited with being the first Canadian to have trained in a form of dance-theatre known as Kathakali, and then choreographed new, cross-cultural works using traditional Kathakali conventions. For those of you who know little about Kathakali, the sidebar this month features Into the Dreams of Heroes, an article by photographer Stuart Freedman, whose shots of life at Kerala Kalamandalam are featured in this entry.
|(Richard Tremblay, courtesy Tremblay)|
He is currently working in collaboration with Bruno Paquet, a percussion composer, and with Jean-Guy Lecat, a long-time associate of Peter Brook. In its productions and creation workshops, Kalashas has collaborated with the Montreal organizations Usine C, Danse Cité, Agora de la danse and Tangente, as well as with the Centre chorégraphique national de Franche-Comté, in France, the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute in Calgary/Delhi, the Sangeeth Natak Academy in Thrissur, Kerala, and with production organizations in Singapore. His most recent creation, The Legends of Jil & Yill (2004-05), integrates text and music with dance. Also included in this list of contemporary dances are: Himalayas; Prayer for a Rope, a
Pope and a Rogue (2004) Courbe en Flocon de Neige (1995), Heaps of percolation (1993), Paradox of the Burning Sky (1992), The Attracteur of Ezhikode (1991), Of Mice and Other Similar Devices (1990), and Indra (1986).
"Much of the work of the choreographer is not to try to put yoga into the content of choreography, but to try to put the conditions in place where the dancer can achieve the most of themselves."(Richard Tremblay)
|(Bruno Paquet percussion/chenda (left), Richard Tremblay (right), photo: R.Tremblay)|
|(Prof. Balasubramanian at Kalamandalam instructs on mudras or hand gestures, ©Stuart Freedman)|
I sent Richard my questions by email with the intention of following up with Skype. But due to several power outages, we decided to have Richard send his thoughts via mp3 file transfer after he had recorded them on his own. The interview is thus divided into three segments, in keeping with Richard's file transfer sections. Each segment is opened by Richard's greetings and or short vignettes about life in Kerala.
Priya Thomas Interview with Richard Tremblay, April 2011
Segment One: The Beginning: Theatre Apprenticeship, Yoga with Tat Wale Baba and discovering Kathakali
Hi Priya! So, I'm talking to you, Priya from Trichur, in Kerala. Today it's sunny out...and there's a lot of noise from outside coming in. But I am sitting in comfort in a room with this recorder, which is very different from the first trip I made to India... back in the days when I dreamt of being a Kathakali dancer...when I slept in rented rooms in a village around 45 minutes drive away from here...
Priya: Hi Richard. So when did you discover yoga?
Richard Tremblay: I discovered yoga at the age of 18 when I was getting my bachelor of education degree in Montreal. And one of my university teachers suggested a book called, "Hatha Yoga" (Sport et Yoga by Elisabeth Haich and Selvarajan Yesudian, Lausanne: Ed. Foma, 1958.) The book was very well written and it had detailed several postures; and each section of asana would end with meditation. So that's how I was initiated was through that book. Then I left and went to the Himalayas. And this stage was very central to my life and my development as an artist... not in terms of giving me a technique for the development of the arts, but as a philosophy which is always in the background of whatever you do.
|(Tat Wale Baba)|
Tat Wale Baba was a very simple person and very easy to communicate with. And at that time, I didn't even consider studying with Mahesh Yogi because when I first came to India, I came to Delhi. In Delhi, there was a swami there all dressed in saffron with whom I had half-hour discussion who said I should not stay in Delhi, indicating, "first of all you have no money, and from what you are telling me, for what you are looking for, you better go to the Himalayas". So I took the very long and special journey up to the Himalayas with the theatre group that I was with. And we went there to see Tat Wale Baba.
Priya: What was it like studying with Tat Wale Baba?
Richard Tremblay: Tat Wale was a very persuasive person, very tall and very strong. At the same time, he was rather syncretic in his approach, not really abiding by a particular school of yoga or meditation. He was known as Tat Wale Baba, but his name was Mahavirdas. The name Mahavir is related to Jainism. But he used to say, "It doesn't matter what practice you have, as long as you are consistent in what you are doing". First of all, he initiated me to Saivism. And from that time onwards, I have practiced what I was taught.
Priya: What was the method of training Tat Wale Baba used?
Richard Tremblay: As a beginner, I was taught to sit before a picture of Siva. But I told him I was not very keen on sitting in front of a picture because it looked to me like I was worshipping. And I didn't like that idea. But he told me, "Listen, that doesn't matter. Because by concentrating on that picture, by and by, you will move from a gross state to a more subtle state." I think in that way, he was relating very much to Sankyha philosophy. And Sankhya is the basis of much of yoga, and of the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali.
I spent quite a bit of time living in a guha, in a cave, (he gave me one of the caves for my practice) and later on, with the rainy season, I moved down the hill to a room there. And after six months with him, having heard about Kashmiri Saivism, I went to see a very famous swami in Srinagar, about 20 km away along the Tal lake. He used to live in the Mughal gardens, very beautiful...and very peaceful. And he had his ashram up there. Of course with what happened in Kashmir subsequently...well, he had to migrate but I stayed with him for some time.
Priya: What was your original training before you came to Kathakali?
Richard Tremblay: Well my early training was as an apprentice actor. As a teenager I was involved in several theatre productions over the period of a few years... participating in plays by Peter Ustinov, or even Agatha Christie and Chekhov. I was doing a production or two a year until I became a professor of Geography in a college, where in between my classes, I began to create and direct plays of my own. I created plays from Jean Genet as well as Classical Greek tragedy. That's when I created "Madame Is Being Carried Away" which was presented in New Theatre Festival Baltimore in 1978. That same play was also presented in India at the National School of Drama in Delhi. The play was in French, but used leitmotifs in Hindi or the specific local languages spoken where the play was being presented. So in effect, there were three languages at one time, and actors that were representative of those languages in the production. A few years before that, I had also worked with amateur theatre groups in Kashmir.
Priya: So you were already familiar with the performing arts in India...but at what point did you come across Kathakali?
• • • • •
|A boy is corrected by his master at Kalamandalam, photo: ©Stuart Freedman|
|(boys practice at dawn at Kalamandalam, ©Stuart Freedman|
Segment 2: The Relationship between the Performing arts and Yoga in India: Kathakali and Yoga
Hi Priya. Today it is April 2nd, 2011.
It's been a silent few days, maybe a week, or maybe more, I don't know…I had a workshop that just finished... a collaboration with Pallavi Krishnan, a choreographer here. Pallavi Krishnan is a Mohiniattam dancer and choreographer. We had two wonderful dancers; one Kathakali dancer and one Mohiniattam dancer, and we did some research on possible creation. I haven't forgotten about your questions. I find they are really quite interesting. Some of your questions may require more research because some of them, I believe, may not have have been dealt with in Indian literature so far...
Priya: Hi Richard. Is there a relationship between breathing and the distribution of prana (life-force) in kathakali?
|(Boy does flexibility exercises after massage at Kalamandalam, ©Stuart Freedman)|
Richard Tremblay: About prana and Kathakali, well the relationship is not explicit. There are some gurus who have been working on the idea of prana, but I was taught Kathakali by Vazhenkada Vijayan. Vazhenkada Vijayan's father was a very, very famous dancer and teacher named Kunju Nair. And in this lineage of teaching prana was not relevant to Kathakali. Then when I raised similar questions with him a long time ago, he told me "you don't need to have prana in Kathakali... is not needed". So he said to breathe normally. So I raised the question again with another teacher and he said about the same thing. However, I did receive some more specific information about breathing from K. Gopalakrishnan, another Kathakali dancer.
What K. Gopalakrishnan taught me is that what happens when you breathe is that you better breathe from the belly. So I understood that the lower portion of the loins are of better use for the Kathakali dancer. So pranayama is not part of Kathakali. But it may be worth researching this relationship between breath and Kathakali performance further. There are some teachers at Kalamandalam some of whom have given lectures or writings on that subject. Although I have to say, I haven't gone deeply into that matter.
|Boys Practice their Eye Exercises, Kerala Kalamandalam, ©Stuart Freedman|
Priya: In postural yoga, drsti (gaze) plays a significant role in practice....
In some ways, the emphasis on visual focus separates yoga from say, gymnastics or other forms of dance. Why are the eyes of such importance in Kathakali?
Richard Tremblay: I think the eyes are important in all Indian dance forms. This simply, as I view it, is an opportunity to develop a different focus. In the west, the focus is really in front of you. In Kathakali, it is following your gesture. So it is with you. But, you also have a focus at a distance. That means your eyes are using projection, if you want to put it that way. The eyes could be oriented externally in terms of focus, as could your gestures. In my view, only differences of focus exist. In the west, the eyes are always centred and you don't always have the eyes moving from one side to the other. And in Kathakali, as well as other Indian dance forms, that exists. In Kathakali, it's particularly important. But I think the importance of eye movements in the practice is about developing focus.
|(boy practices stretching exercises at Kalamandalam, ©Stuart Freedman)|
Richard Tremblay: No...it is not necessary. I studied Kathakali at Kalamandalam (which is a university), and I've never heard of any requirement to study yoga for Kathakali. The main goal of Kathakali is the achievement of the art form, and so training is oriented towards that. However, yoga is part of the cultural backdrop. For example, for us, we may need to get familiar with the cultural background behind yoga because the culture is not something we are exposed to. But when you are a student of Kathakali, a boy from Kerala, (or girls although it's less common), the moment the boy comes to the Kalari, or the studio, he has that background which includes yoga as part of his family or his culture. They wouldn't necessarily need to go and study yoga; because it may even be taught within their families. And they may have a personal practice of yoga. In that sense, yoga is also part of the culture for those who learn Kathakali in Kerala. And of course, that helps perhaps in the study of Kathakali.
Priya: So then does yoga play a role in the performing arts in India? Does it have a tangible impact?
Richard Tremblay: Yoga may not be part of the actual training of an art form, but it is important in the arts in India. If I look at some instances of practitioners in art forms, there are a few examples that are very interesting. Anandam Sivaraman was a Kathakali dancer; and to him, Kathakali was his sadhana (religious practice). And though he didn't develop his ideas on that, when he entered Kathakali he was already embedded in his own practice of yoga. I met him in 1984 in his gurukula house... He was retired at the time. He didn't dance in those days. From what he told me, he realized that within Kathakali he could find the same balance between the mind and the body that he had learned in his yoga practice. Because after a performance, you have a sense of physical satisfaction and after a rehearsal you have a sense of physical satisfaction. If you go deeper within yourself and you take that satisfaction as a springboard, then you have a physical basis on which you can go further in your personal practice of yoga. It's as simple as that, within my personal experience. Normally speaking when you finish a performance, or you finish a rehearsal, you have a sense of contentment, you have a sense of peace, your body is relaxed and you are ready to go further… if you decide to go in that direction.
That's what I can deduce from talking with Anandam; although he didn't articulate it quite that way. That's my interpretation. But I think it would make sense for any dancer who has experienced this physical well-being after a performance or a rehearsal. And from there maybe you can realize a balance between the mind and the body. The person with whom I am working now, Pallavi Krishnan, also says that yoga is very much embedded in Indian dance culture.
Segment 3: The Role of Yoga in Contemporary Choreography:
Hello Priya! Richard here. What's happening here? Well, we had the ritual Atiratram near Trichur that ran continuously for 12 days. It's a soma ritual from the vedic tradition. It is performed once in 35 years, the last time in Panjal near Trichur…. There are reports in all the papers that there were 10,000 people in attendance. There were big feasts going on apart from the ritual which have been well documented. It was attended as well by many people from around the world including a scholar by the name of Frittzs Staal, an Indologist who taught philosophy and East Asian studies at the University of California, who first recorded the event in 1975. So in 1975 I was in Kerala and I had heard of it at that time, but it was my first trip to Kerala and I had a lot of things to see. In fact, I may have been at Kalamandalam at that time doing my first intensive course. So yesterday I had a research workshop with Pallavi Krishnan… anyway we are now in the peak hours of the morning.
|(photo: ©Stuart Freedman)|
Priya: Does yoga play a role in your own choreographic work?
Richard Tremblay: Well, there are two issues here: The first is what I recognize as my work and the second is the public's reception of that work. In terms of the reception of my work, there's the issue of religion. We generally think of yoga as distinct from religion. But it is linked to religion as well. In Hinduism, yoga is quite closely linked to religious culture. So the religiousness or non-religiousness of my work influences the reception of my work and its perceived Indian-ness, and thereby it's perceived relationship to yoga. On that basis, people in India would say my work has nothing to do with yoga.
Also in India, dance is traditionally understood in terms of some sort of revelation. In this view, dance is worship generally speaking. In modern India this idea meets with both acceptance and resistance. And so, as you can imagine, in Indian dance culture, the notion of "Indian-ness" or of cultural identity is not homogenous.
|(A young pupil watches a rehearsal of a play at Kalamandalam, ©Stuart Freedman)|
As far as I'm concerned, I will not say that there are the physical hallmarks of yoga in my work. That's partly because the choice to incorporate yoga in my work is something that is done with the collaboration and cooperation of dancers. Some contemporary dancers might not be interested in performing yoga-derived dance; and I'm not sure whether contemporary dancers would all be able to demonstrate yoga postures with mastership or credibility. After all, yoga is a practice which requires lots of training.
Priya: Are there other ways in which yoga impacts your work...apart from what is visually apparent in performance?
Richard Tremblay: I would say that when it comes to my work, yoga's influence can be felt not in form or contents necessarily, but in the approach to the human body, and also in terms of the approach of the work. My concerns are: "What should the work project"? "What should the work awaken in the audience"?
|(Choreographer Jayachandran Palazhy)|
I personally think if we move forward with values of diversity, non-dualism and an egoless mode of creation, then we may try to put in place the conditions by which people could achieve the goals of yoga in their personal practice....whether that's dance or any other activity. It's certainly a very important part of a choreographer's job to make sure that the conditions are available for his or her dancers to achieve the maximum of themselves....of self-realization. Much of the work of the choreographer is not to try to put yoga into the contents, but to try to put the conditions in place where the dancer can achieve the most of themselves. And this being said, a piece of work done by a choreographer who is a practitioner of yoga might bear traces of their practice. And maybe those traces would not be recognizable at first sight because it's a trace that has to be "read", and that needs some sort of inter-text. Just like when you read a work say by James Joyce. See, if you don't know the background of the epics, of Ulysses or the Odyssey, you'd miss something in Joyce. In the same way, there are traces of yoga in dance that may not be recognizable at first sight, but would need some kind of inter-text to access it. We're expected to have that background when it comes to literature and there is no reason why it should be any different in dance. And I am sure that dancers are able in their sensitivity able to directly perceive those traces.
|At dusk, two boys practice on grounds of Kalamandalam, Photo ©Stuart Freedman|
I don't think I see yoga explicitly in my physical work, but I certainly see yoga in my life, insofar as yoga is not a definite pattern which is practiced like a recipe. Yoga is also reinterpreted in your personal lives and practices. In that sense I can say that my work has also been instrumental in reaffirming and extending my practice of yoga - as understood in its broadest sense...as process.
Priya: You mentioned Chandralekha as a choreographer whose pioneering work reflected the deep influence of a physical yoga practice. You were friends with Chandralekha. How did you meet Chandralekha?
|(left) German choreographer Pina Bausch, (right) Chandralekha|
|yogi/dancer Tishani Doshi (left) kalaripayattu master Shaji John (right) in "Sharira" by Chandralekha|
|(postcard to Richard Tremblay from Chandralekha)|
|(Chandralekha by Rustom Barucha)|
Richard Tremblay: She talked very much about energy. Chandra's background was in Bharatanatyam but she was very much impressed by Kalaripayattu (an ancient form of martial art practiced in Kerala), and one of her dancers, Shaji John, who was a trained Kalari master. He had studied extensively in Kerala. Kalaripayattu develops intense concentration. A fighter facing another fighter creates an encounter with concentration. The fighter will pause and look straightforward into his adversary's eyes. So I think she was impressed by that sort of energy that was visible in Shaji's work. She would talk about many different types of energy...There was the opposite of fighting, there was the energy of peace, the energy of violence towards women, and then the energy of revolt in the woman. She also did work with the feminine energy in a man. She used to tell me, "I lost lots of feathers with that one!" And she portrayed two men on stage interacting very closely, in search of each other, and with this very sensual energy. So the energy is physical and it is also spiritual; much like it is with a yoga practice.
|(Chandralekha, early years in Bharatanatyam)|
The presentation of her work was certainly very powerful. In Toronto, the audience responded with enthusiasm to a very powerful statement she made by baring her body and taking sirsasana, (headstand). When she did that headstand, you could see from her legs up to her waist and she stood in that position for 2 or three minutes at the beginning of her presentation. And I remember the audience was spellbound. And then the piece that came afterwards was very rhythmic with small, simple bells, the kind one would use in Bharatanatyam while singing and providing tala (count/metre) throughout. And the dancers danced to that in near silence almost...but with a very subtle pulsation.
Her work, employed geometric patterns, which in western contemporary dance, is not often understood. But those of us who looked at dance continually with new eyes and without preconception were not disturbed with the angular, geometrical nature of her work. Her body also spoke to the idea of "woman". In "Mahakal", the piece that she presented in Ottawa in 1997, we have a man represented as coming out of a woman's womb. She was performing body allegories, if you like, for how a man is born from the body of a woman.
I have lots of anecdotes about Chandra! She was a very colourful person and very stimulated. You'd never get bored talking with Chandra. And she used to like to play chess...Well, not with me! I'm terrible at chess! (laughing) But with one of her close friends, Mr. Dasrath Patel with whom she was always associated with in terms of the visual aspect, stage design of her work.
|(Prof. Balasubramanian, senior teacher with student at Kalamandalam, ©Stuart Freedman)|
Priya: What do you think the dance world benefits from its encounter with yoga?
Richard Tremblay: What dance can draw from yoga is the question of values. The issue here is for post-modernism. Or perhaps we should say post post-modernism could take a look at the question of values. What are our values? Dance needs to be responsible towards humanity. Those who practice dance, and those who witness dance as a meaningful event, we need to understand how we come to know and how we understand the world and ourselves. Because it's much more important how we know something in some ways, than what we know... So in contemporary dance and in post-modernism we have to get to that place where we can get to that point of asking how it is we know something. And that in itself is the point of yoga.
|(Kathakali performance at Kerala Kalamandalam, photo ©Stuart Freedman)|
|(Kathakali actor applies makeup before performance, Kerala Kalamandalam, ©Stuart Freedman)|
R ichard Tremblay has pointed out that yoga is often the invisible participant in his choreography, its traces to be deciphered only by adepts. It sure makes you wonder whether it is worth looking for traces of yoga in the work of other contemporary choreographers, filmmakers or even architects. And just how much dialogue is actually happening between these various disciplines and this multi-billion dollar industry of "wellness" that we call yoga? How elastic and bendy is this practice? Listening to Richard Tremblay speak about his vast experience in the world of choreographic practice and yoga practice allows us to eavesdrop on a conversation, the cross-talk, between disciplines. And I figure it's that subtle rumble of talk that happens between disciplines that provides us with feedback about the aesthetic values we embody when we practice yoga. And then we can really start to see yoga more fully; a three-dimensional yoga, like a body that moves, sculpted by negative space, changing mid-motion.
|(Arun Warrior, student at Kerala Kalamandalam, ©Stuart Freedman)|
My most sincere thanks to Richard Tremblay for his generous and lengthy interview.
• For information about Richard Tremblay and his work please visit Silent Culture
• To view Richard's interview with Chandralekha on Youtube, Part One and Part Two.
• Richard's small clip on Youtube of Kathakali mudras and Yoga Positions, performed on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Montreal.
• There's also a 60 minute, bilingual documentary about Richard Tremblay entitled Regular Events of Beauty which I shot and directed in 2002. It will be edited into clips and posted here in the coming months.
My thanks also to photographer Stuart Freedman who kindly donated several stunning photos of life at Kalamandalam to this blog. I'm ever grateful that his wife has a softspot for yoga!
• More of Stuart Freedman's work is at www.stuartfreedman.com
• Stuart Freedman's bio
• Stuart Freedman also has a wonderful and insightful blog at Umbra Sumus. Well worth investigating.