Feature: Vena Ramphal

Friday 9 April 2010

Vena Ramphal 'Thrownness' directed by J Callaghan

*Choreographer and performer Vena Ramphal premiered a new work in the Linbury
theatre at the Royal Opera House on 25 & 26 October. It is part of* Firsts 2005 * – a week of ‘
/>**startling, surprising and totally original’ performances from some of the most
innovative artists working today. *
Tanja Mangalanayagam interviewed her for us…

*How did you first get interested in dance? * **Watching a performance of classical South Asian dance when I was about six –
I was mesmerised.

*What different styles of dance have you trained in – and where did you train? * **Bharatanatyam at the Bhavan Centre, London and in the karana technique at Nrithyodaya,

*Your work is often described as Bharatanatyam. Does categorisation matter to
you? * **Hmmm…. Categorisation is a necessary burden. Dance forms need identities for
political representation, yet these can, and often do, become stifling. I do not
describe my work as bharatanatyam – it is not! I trained in bharatanatyam and
it is in my body. I do not aspire to being true to that – or any other – form,
and I say that with much gratitude for my training. I have multiple influences
in my work – many of which are nothing to do with dance, and many from interacting
with the wide variety of dance available in London.

You’ll be performing a new live work at the Linbury Studio at the end of the month. What is Meeting You about?
It’s about meetings and partings: possibility, loss, memory and transformation within relationships. I am making this piece for everyone I have ever met and everyone I shall ever meet – with love.

You have a PhD from SOAS. How do you think your academic work informs your creative practice as choreographer/filmmaker?
Big question! Briefly: My academic work engages both with the politico-cultural environment in which (dance) artists in Britain work, and with how that environment impinges on the act of making and doing dance. This means there are a number of things of which I am constantly aware: the identities that are invoked in my body, other dancers’ bodies, dance techniques, sound score, performance location – whether gendered, racial, culturally essentialising or otherwise; the different readings to which the work might be open; the labels which I am required to wear (such as ‘culturally diverse artist’). In the creative practice itself I try to subvert expectation as well as challenge my own thinking. This often leads to tension, which becomes itself a creative impetus.

I recently heard you give a presentation – “Dancing in the New Millennium: Re-moving Identities for South Asian Dance”, in which you talked about the need to create strategies to redefine British Asian identities through dance. How do these strategies manifest themselves in your work? **Allow me to clarify – the concern in that presentation was about creating new identities for the dance work itself – not about British Asian identities. In fact, for me a large part of the problem is that certain dance practices continue to be seen as vehicles for ‘expressing’ cultural/racial identities. While I did offer a detailed critique of the way in which cultural identities (such as ‘British Asian’) are currently invoked, the aim for me is precisely to stop automatically linking South Asian identities to South Asian dance. I went on to suggest that this opens a space for a number of things to happen such as: the aesthetics of South Asian dance can come to the fore; in the interaction between South Asian and other dance forms it may be that new languages emerge for making, doing and describing dance(s). So to answer the question – in my work I try not to limit the influences and approaches available to me. While I value my dance training with a passion I have no desire to be true to its identity. At the same time I sometimes interrogate its components in great detail as in my last dance film Fold. I do not buy into dichotomies such as tradional/contemporary and this is reflected in the range of work I undertake: in movement vocabulary, costume, music, staging, content.

How do you describe your own cultural identity? **I don’t describe my cultural identity if I can help it! But here goes: today I choose to describe my cultural identity as follows: I am a menstruating woman. Yesterday I was a Londoner. Tomorrow I shall probably be something completely different.

What does “cultural diversity” mean to you? **It’s the space between people.

What interested you as a dance maker to begin working with film? Is the creative process different for film than for live dance? **The creative process is very different for film. The camera becomes a choreographic tool as well as the means through which you direct the viewer’s gaze. You prepare for and do the shoot then go into the edit suite and you can start choreographing all over again.

You have recently directed a film, Fold, for Channel 4. Can you tell us a little about it?

  • Fold is a close up look at the spectacular-ness of the bharatanatyam costume. The music score (composed by Rama Gheerawo and sung by Vidya Gheerawo) is a beautifully simple exploration of classical South Asian music. The piece revels in display and the main choreographic technique lay in painstaking faming of each shot. The title is inspired by Luce Irigaray’s thinking on the female form and the folds of the bharatanatyam costume.

Do you always produce solo work? If so, why? **No, I don’t. Meeting You is a duet.

Who or what influences your work as a performer/choreographer and filmmaker? **The chef Gordon Ramsay. He settles for nothing but the best, and demonstrates incredible discipline.

Firsts at the Linbury, 25 Oct – 1 Nov more details

Article posted October 2005

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