Interview: Choreographer Raghav Handa

Rebecca Varidel
21st Feb 2024

Campbelltown Arts Centre presents The Assembly: bastard of a place a multifaceted performance from celebrated choreographer, Raghav Handa 7 - 9 March 2024.

Familial narratives are seamlessly woven into abstract realm where the past and the future meet. Raghav Handa’s grandfather's regimental legacy serves as a compelling lens through which Queer culture is vividly expressed. This exciting new work examines the fragility of human existence through the incompatible meeting of memory and circumstance. So, I asked Raghav Handa to explain a little more about this work ahead of the March performances.

How has Indian Kathak theatre influenced your choreographic style, and what specific aspects of this dance form do you incorporate into your work?

The etymology of Kathak includes ‘conversation’ and ‘story’. Dance, music and theatre work in symbiosis to tell a story and to create an exhilarating theatrical experience. Kathak is highly codified where the dancer and the musician work through a complex mathematical structure often to the precision of 0.75th of the one beat. With a strong repertoire of highly dynamic foot patterns, spatial arrangements, turns and fluid upper body movements (including the eyes), Kathak requires the dancer to possess three-dimensional virtuosity. By that I mean they have to be a quadruple act.

The dancer and the musician perform a game of call and response - who is leading and who is following is always up for grabs. They often depart from the rhythmic cycle by riffing off each other as in a Jazz style improvisation, only to return or stop emphatically at the beat of the ONE, effortlessly. It takes courage and years of intense training to be able to master the art listening and collaborating.

Collaboration is at the very heart of what I do. I create WITH my team. Classical Kathak is not the sole focus of my work, but rather a framework/ a set of principles that we can interact with in the pursuit of creating something unique. We treat the concepts and provocations in my work as experiments with movement, music and theatricality. Similar to Kathak, in my process all the artistic mediums hold equal sway. We then find how we convey an emotion/story or an idea coherently.

My contemporary movement language is heavily influenced by Kathak. There is fluidity in my style, which is punctuated by the speed and precision of the classical structure. Musicality of Kathak allows me to work with complex and often syncopated poly rhythmic structures. Which has contributed greatly to the development of a movement style unique in the Australian dance landscape.

Kathak gives me determination and a connection to my cultural heritage.

Your performances often tell a story or convey a narrative. Can you discuss your approach to selecting themes and how storytelling contributes to your creative process?

I use dance as a trojan horse to talk about things I find interesting and to have conversations that are all together uncomfortable. Themes just emerge out from that approach and in some ways, narratives select me.

Of course, art reflects our time and time reflects our art. Where ever you look in the world at the moment there is hurt. But, there is also beautiful and generous side to our humanity, which manifests itself in unexpected ways. I find human behaviour extremely interesting - how we live contemporary world politics, how we assemble, what we find humorous, how we love, how we create and how we destroy.

I feel, in our society we have a tremendous impulse to be on the right side and we find it hard to be confronted with the wrong thing... things that are uncomfortable, especially on stage. My work has offered access to the audience to sit with and witness the uncomfortable and the wrong side of things, creatively. Of course, there is strong intellectual framework exists around my work but the emotional stakes are also high. So, it becomes a felt thing.

I plant that felt experience at the forefront of my creative process. I then put the themes I am working with, through a series of direct and surreal imagery to create a larger framework. From then on it is about distilling and refining.

My works have afforded me to develop my own way of working, my own distinct voice. I owe a lot to my process. It has made me brave!

Are there any artists who have played a significant role in inspiring your practice?

I have been dancing professionally for 21 years. I have been making my own works for about 10 years. Choreographers/dancers/artists in the independent sector don’t get long service leave or pats on the back to say well done you have made it. However, we get to create our own voice, our legacy.

I stand on the shoulders of artists like Vicki Van Hout, Marilyn Miller, Sue Healey, Martin Del Amo, Julie-Anne Long, Brian Carbee, Justine Shih Pearson and Rakini Devi. Vicki and I have had a long-standing relationship - spanning two decades. Developing, creating, performing. And this is what I mean when I use the word legacy.

I only hope through my own way of working, I will hopefully inspire younger artists to stand on my shoulders as I relied on the artists I mentioned above. Keeping that in the back of my mind, I am creating works that are more than just a show. The works become contemporary documents that facilitate cultural perpetuity.

In what ways do you incorporate innovation and experimentation into your choreography? How important is it for you to keep evolving as an artist?

The more I look at the past, the more I feel that multiplicity of perspectives and divergence of thought is not a modern phenomenon as we often pigeon hole it to be. Evolution and experimentation are embedded in our human DNA.

In my creative process, I am constantly challenging my range – physical and emotional. In some ways I am both traditionalist and moderniser. This trait allows me to investigate what I know, how I hear it, words I use to speak it and how I dance it. I am not constrained by my traditional heritage. I am propelled by it to take a bold step further. I do that by approaching my interdisciplinary collaborations - like experiments - where the bodies become the agents of discovery. Nothing is off limits. I mean humans are not systematically balanced clockwork mechanisms are they. I mean the ideas often run off the rails. Life happens. Embracing this unpredictable (often scary) prospect is how I propel myself forward.

This approach allows me to not expand towards abbreviation or simplification but towards complexity of what I do. This way of working has taken my artistic inquiry to very interesting places, I may not have chosen to go there otherwise.