Indian dancer Astad Deboo recently visited and performed in Yangon and Mandalay.
Deboo, a pioneer of modern dance in India, is a contemporary choreographer and dancer, who employs his training in Indian classical dance forms – Kathak and Kathakali – to create a dance form that is unique to him. His work has been seen in seventy countries and a critic sums his work as 'poetry in motion'.
Deboo has performed at the Great Wall of China, with Pink Floyd in London, and at the 50th anniversary of the American Dance Festival. He was commissioned by Pierre Cardin to choreograph a dance for Maia Plissetskaia – prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet, and has given command performances for the royal families of Japan, Sweden, Bhutan and Thailand. He was also the first contemporary dancer to perform at the Elephanta and Khajuraho festivals in India.
During his visit, he sat down with Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint to discuss his visit and his work.
Can you tell us about you visit first?
Well, the visit was organised by the ambassador I was looking forward very much to coming and sharing my work because Myanmar is my 72nd country where I am performing. Generally, I perform a lot in Europe, South America, even in Korea, Japan. But I have never had the opportunity to come if it were not for the ambassador and yesterday’s audience were absolutely a delight. They were all there. The Mandalay audience had a different ambience to the Yangon crowd.
Is this the first time for you here?
Why is this kind of visit important in your opinion between countries?
Because you know what happens, especially in Asia and South East Asia, many people are often looking to Europe, America and England. They don’t really interact with our close neighbours which is very important. There are similarities such as Buddhism but other than that the music is different I have seen a little bit of Burmese dance and compared it to ours in a way of interacting and making people aware. My work is not classical, it is coming from a classical background but is more contemporary.
So yesterday you performed in Yangon and before that in Mandalay what has been the response from the people of Myanmar to your performance?
Well, you will have to ask the locals. This is just my feeling I think they were surprised to see very traditional drumming performers yesterday, they are drummers and I have made them into dancers also. Also, when they drum there is a bit of rhythm in them and there is also acrobatics in their own traditional performances. And again they are performers in temples and I took them so there is a lot of cross-fertilisation or pollination, I would say of tradition with modernity. And that is what I have always been looking into. Take the tradition but now take it to another level because today a lot of youngsters, because of television and social media they are also unique. But my work my creation are not popular my work is for a discerning audience. Some people [like to] go to a rock concert, I am not a rock group. You can have hip hop and be-bop dancers mine requires a certain amount of sophistication or openness to my work.
Can you tell us some more about the music that you have been doing all these years and also you mentioned there was a difference with Myanmar how is it different?
Unfortunately, I can’t talk much about the Myanmar performers, I’m familiar with a little bit of puppetry but it is very fleeting, small, I am not authority to even compare between my country and Myanmar. Both our tradition are distinctly different maybe there may be some influences. I don’t know if you had the Ramayana here or not.
We do but not the same as the one in India.
My work, the music is very eclectic that I have in my creation and I use from Indian classical singing to western classical to Brazilian music, Japanese contemporary composers, not traditional Japanese music so it depends on the type of work I am creating. I then sought of figure what kind of music, because I listen to a lot of music, so what I would like to incorporate into my work.
I would like to talk a little about how you see trends in music. We see music has to be affordable accessible and the kind of music you are providing in a big group is very expensive and you people now they download from the internet. So how do see your music is very rich very powerful, but there is a trend that seems to be going opposite.
Right. The tradition will always stay. It is just a matter of taste but there are also some youngsters, quite a few, who are interested in listening to traditional music, it is not just rock and DJ kind of mixes and all that. There is some certainly, but there I would say in most of the countries I have performed and music plays a very strong part in my creation and one of the things I have acknowledged in and appreciated is my selection of music again it is very, very varied.
Yesterday there was a section where I used jazz music but not the typical jazz it was mixed with electronic and the fact that to see traditional drummer from India who had had no exposure, they have been with me for 10 years so I have exposed them to my works different kinds of music and they have been able to grasp the different kinds of beats. The creative process always takes time but once they have a feel of it then it is in them in their blood. Even when we are rehearsing without music they know the beat so they rehearse with the beat they remember.
The Indian Embassy is organising your visit as part of a cultural exchange between the two countries how is it important to use culture to strengthen bilateral relations?
I think culture is the most key element in relations between countries. Politicians may discuss politics and but it is culture which really bind and brings together people from different nations whether music, dance, painting, photography. Some people may think it is not necessary but it is the key which opens the door even for strengthening ties.
You have performed in Yangon and Mandalay where are your next performances in Myanmar?
I am finished so I am heading back. I am still going to do some solo work so I am performing in Stockholm, Vienna, Munich and I am also collaborating with a Japanese composer who is based in New York. We created a work last year and opened it at the Metropolitan Museum in New York so we have some show coming up with that. I am also working in Korea at the moment with theatre there on Hamlet. So new did that production two years ago we opened it and we toured also India and went back to Korea and next year we are going to tour London and India so these are some of international collaborations.
This is the first time for you in Myanmar, how would you compare it to other countries you have visited?
Each country has its own flavour so I don’t compare I go with the aim of reaching out and sharing my work with the people but again as I said I represent contemporary India and it is not very often people get to see that. They often think about the traditional. So the combination of the contemporary and traditional makes it very special. Also, as I said the kind of rapport one had just by feeling the audience last night I mean I didn’t have a chance to talk with people but today I will have more some of them who came yesterday are coming back tonight to listen and to talk and maybe to discuss I don’t know. So I reach out, and I think I did reach out because it is very important that you reach out to your audience and not create work where you say sorry if you didn’t understand it, not my problem, you know. That kind of arrogance I do not have, there are some artists who do have that but that is a different way of thinking and I don’t agree with that. But at the same time, you respect them as a creative person. I am not saying I want to be popular but I do want to leave the country with people saying there was an Indian dancer who really did something. I think I have left an impression with the audiences both in Mandalay and Yangon last night. And who knows maybe if I come back. . .
Are there any plans for you to come back?
Well, it is too early to say. But I would love to dance in Bagan because I have danced the Great Wall of China and danced in the Alhambra in Spain in India I have also danced in many temples and old forts so another important feature of my work is that I work outside the auditorium.
Do you know the first world heritage site in Myanmar -Pyu.
Pyu, where is that? I would like to come to perform there.