Paper doll

12. 13. 14/05 > 20:30
15/05 > 15:00

Padmini Chettur's intense and minimalist dance asks questions of, and reinvents, choreographic language.

Much more than a synthesis of traditional movements from her native India and contemporary dance, Paper Doll releases a singularity that outstrips codes and customs. For this group piece Padmini Chettur was keen to work in her home city of Madras in order to train local dancers. Like a chain of paper figures, the dancers remain connected to each other by time, by body or by intention. Each delicate and precise movement by the dancers is a response to what is around them. Each individual is connected to the other by a breath of air. All alike and all different.


Padmini Chettur


Maarten Visser


Sumant Jayakrishnan

Technical Assistant:

Satyajit Dhananjayan




Krishna Devanandan, Preethi Athreya, Andrea Jacob, Anoushka Kurien, Padmini Chettur


Springdance Festival (Utrecht), SW & G (Berlin), Grand Theatre (Groningen), KunstenFESTIVALdesArts


Charleroi/Danses-La Raffinerie, KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

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The chain of paper dolls we cut out as children come to life. They represent what’s perfect but what is also two-dimensional. A form easily broken, held together by the thinnest strips of flesh. The line unravels, then breaks into segments, clusters, fragments. Each affects the whole constantly, consistently. The dancers are hung perpetually in a tense negotiating space of nearness and distance. They remain connected, often by time, sometimes through intention. The aim is not to dance in isolation, but in response to the dancing around you.

Padmini Chettur


We started the work on this piece in 2002 and the image was that of dolls in a line cut out of a piece of paper. Their forms were identical, two-dimensional, held together by their thin paper arms. The strength of the form was the line they created and the sense that the spaces in between them were as important as the dolls themselves.


I began to see the ‘dolls’ as a representation of mechanization – the quality of uniformity, a brittle perfection easily torn apart or scattered. I worked with the dancers around these images of two-dimension to create a series of ‘doll shapes’, which retained an almost idiotic, dogmatic, endless quality. This early material, which came from the group as a collective, had a quality that reminded me of old dance clichés yet at the same time not.


What struck me in this visual moment of mindless movement – this later became a prelude to the piece and you will see moments as you enter the theatre – was the very absurdity of trying to create ‘meaning’ out of movement that was created literally by assembling parts of the body in a puzzle like manner. This particular problematic became the core question which led me to the ‘concept’ that PAPER DOLLS ultimately deals with: The fact that space, time and the positioning of the dancers’ minds can create ‘meaning’ out of the simplest movement.


Once I felt freed of my figurative associations to the ‘paper doll’ image, what remained was a very pure spatial abstraction of this, which was merely a ‘line’. This line for me now held meaning – spatial, rhythmic. Actual lines, invisible ones. Soft lines, tensile ones. Curves, corners, cracks, joineries. By approaching the work so abstractly the images started to regain a narrative quality. All of a sudden there was meaning in the way the dancers remained connected, disconnected. Layers of significance began to show within the confines of this space, which the five dancers never enter or leave.


The quality of ‘Paper doll’ seems to require two almost contradictory abilities from the dancers. One is the ability to execute the ‘movement’ and provide it particular interpretation which can be intensely personal. The second is the ability to execute the ‘movement’ in a way that the other dancers become a part of it. I found myself constantly telling the dancers to imagine the larger picture in order for themselves to be perceived. This is a work with no solos, duets or trios. The five dancers together create the context for each other – continuously weaving patterns with invisible threads.


Every moment of ‘Paper doll’ is precisely calculated in a way that makes us see clearly ‘empty time’. In other words the ‘movement’ is always set rhythmically in a way that we almost wait in anticipation for the rhythmic ‘tune’ to be clear. I’ve tried to almost create a visual translation of two harmonic melodies in resonance. In between the two different movements, separated in space and time, is a sense of a third one, which is merely lingering in an intangible way. The more one is able to observe multiple activities with equal focus one will find a sense of ‘noise’ almost. A very silent ‘noise’, hopefully an emotive one. One that doesn’t remind us of anger, guilt or sorrow, but of who we are.


During my years of work with Chandralekha we often heard this phrase – “don’t let rigor mortis set in”. Since this comment always came at a time when the dancer was required to be still for a duration of up to five minutes, it took us years to understand the concept of pulling energies through the body so that in stasis it remained fluid. In my work now as well – though manifest through another aesthetic – I employ this image of the body as a series of channels. Energy can only enter through the feet and the body can manoeuvre the way it flows. The body can keep this energy within or let it go out and I see all movement as the body’s ability to do this. The more efficiently, economically, and sensitively these procedures are worked, the more clearly visible to the audience. I am somebody who believes in the wholeness of the body and its multiple capacities of evocation.


I have often been asked why, when India has such an abundance of ‘ancient’ forms, I feel the need to create ‘modern’ work. Why don’t I work instead to preserve REAL INDIAN art which is so complete and sublimely beautiful? Now, more than ever before, when American culture threatens to consume us all, the ‘INDIA’ identity – which of course is only reflected through its arts! – must be kept pure. What’s more, as a carefully marketed, suitably mystified commodity, it sells too!

One of the first and biggest problems with this ‘Incredible India’ picture – beyond the fact that its unreal – is the fact that the ‘traditional’ role of women is to be beautiful, soft, curvaceous, seductive and not too intelligent. The picture becomes larger than life within dance because it dictates everything from how the dancer must smile, bat eyelids, walk, swoon and hold her breath. Any attempt to create a real change in perception here must be radical. My own work, which started with the very idea of questioning perceptions of the female body in performance, has even been criticized for its complete de-exotification. The implication also being that thus I become a cog in the wheel of western imperialistic consumerism. Whatever the case, I need my work to repair a lot of damage done to women’s possible empowerment within the arts. For now, it can be like this alone.


Last year, after my performance of Solo here at KunstenFESTIVALdesArts, there was some press which bothered me. I would like to address a couple of these issues in my own ‘voice’.

The first is to do with a common misconception that because my movement vocabulary does not resemble any obvious ‘western technique’ it is therefore ‘traditional’. And hence that my work is a mixture of ‘traditional’ movement and ‘modern’ ones. I find this an utter simplification of our very way of looking at dance from non-european parts of the world.

In today’s highly complex globalized world, ‘modernity’ cannot be defined as any

‘one’ thing, be it in dance or in life. The irony of my situation is that on the one hand when I show my work in India, people can’t even believe I have any training in Bharatanatyam because my aesthetic and use of body is so far from it; on the other hand outside India the minute I use my hands for instance stylistically, the assumption is that they are traditional ‘mudras’ and therefore must be ‘explained’.

So, for the sake of clarity to my audience, I want to say that my work is completely un-codified. Please look at it the way you would look at any other work of contemporary dance but don’t expect the same concept of modernity that my western colleagues take for granted. My origins are completely different from the ones you have, but my aim is really to demystify. I represent an India still in the process of assimilating urbanity into its culture. An India where the ‘body’ still longs for freedoms it doesn’t yet have.

Padmini Chettur

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