Bridging east and west

Anne Dietrich, a faculty member of NSD, on how she combines Indian classical dance forms and western contemporary dance to come up with new productions

Her hands move involuntarily as she speaks, either for pushing back her long ash-blonde hair from her face or for emphasising her words. She frequently adjusts her orange-and-gold lehenga, a habit she has picked up from her 14-year association with India. “I have to restrain myself a lot when I am in Germany, to sit like this (she sits straight, with clasped hands resting on her lap). I happen to move my head while talking and my teacher once asked me what I was doing,” Anne Dietrich laughs.

The Indian body language was one of the challenges that this accomplished contemporary dancer from Germany faced as she joined Kerala Kalamandalam in 2005 to learn Mohiniyattam under the tutelage of Kalamandalam Leelamma.

“Expressions along with fluid and graceful movements are the characteristics of Indian classical dance. I have learned ballet and contemporary dance where expressions have no place. And in the European climatic conditions, the fluid movements are not that easy,” Anne says, sitting in a corner on the floor of Dyuthi, a dance studio in Kozhikode, while explaining how she struggled to make her fingers flexible enough to form the mudras in the initial period of her training.

Anne has certainly come a long way from her days at Kalamandalam. A faculty member of the National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi and founder of the Indo-German artist collective ‘Prateeksha’ and ‘Atmadhvani’, Anne is also artistic director of Prospect Dance company as well as TanzART – Center for Dance, Movement and Art, which popularises inter-disciplinary and inter-cultural art in East Germany, where she comes from.

Practising different styles

She is a master of at least three western and two Indian dance forms. So is she confused when she switches from one style to the other? Not really, Anne says. “Not when you are properly trained.”

“Western contemporary dance involves a lot of jumping, rolling and experiments with gravity, using the energy of the body and the surroundings. Classical Indian dance has a fixed style, movements, tala, rhythm, music and special movements. It is impossible to confuse the two,” she says.

Anne received further training in Mohiniyattam from Pallavi Krishnan and, later, from Bharathi Sivaji. It was around 2011 that she started learning Kathak from Geethanjali Lal. And the two Indian forms of classical dance have certainly influenced her contemporary moves, creating her own unique style, as was evident from her latest production ‘Happiness? Identity’, which she performed in Kozhikode.

So what attracted her to Mohiniyattam and Kathak? It was by accident, she says, explaining how her friend wanted to learn Kathakali and she ended up doing basic research on other Indian dance forms, and deciding to learn Mohiniyattam.

Now, she is one of a handful of dancers in Germany trained in Indian dance forms. She has already performed the classical versions as well as her productions in contemporary dance, not just in Germany, but in other parts of Europe, in major dance festivals in India and temple festivals in Kerala.

In NSD and in workshops across the country, Anne is a trainer of western contemporary dance, which she says, is quite different from Indian contemporary dance. “I cannot forget the looks on the faces of the students when I demonstrated western contemporary dance at a workshop in Ottappalam. It was not what they had seen till then, or even what they thought was contemporary,” Anne says. She believes that Indian contemporary dance is heavily influenced by the classical dance forms of the country and martial arts. There are also influences of Bollywood dance styles, she adds.

As a teacher

Educating Indian students on western contemporary dance is only as difficult as educating Europeans on Indian dance styles. “Once I explain to them what the plot is and what each mudra means, they are mostly open to it and then they start enjoying the experience,” Anne says.

Anne is a workaholic, she confesses, juggling a multi-dimensional career, a number of productions and travelling between her home land and India every once in a while.

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