The doors open and the waiting crowds converge through the narrow door into the auditorium. There’s no waiting thence. The fog machines blow copious amounts of smoke on the stage, making its ambit mimic a sauna bath. Two men in retro white tennis clothing, wielding wooden racquets, exchange shots over an imaginary net to nu-disco tunes being played by a comrade, dressed in the same uniform, on the keyboard.
The “players” are engrossed in their game. This was just a build-up to the next 67 minutes of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — a contemporary, experimental, dance-routine or live art performance, choreographed and conceptualised by Ben J Riepe from Germany and Navtej S Johar from Delhi. It was staged at the Film and Television Institute of India recently.
It will be futile trying to summarise the act because it is a purely subjective experience. In its course, certain themes become evident, which pervade the general structure of the act played out by six performers and a live musician. For one, it definitely questions the scope or definition of reality. Other themes made evident are sexuality, belonging and alienation. But these themes too aren’t rigid and could have meta-interpretations. The act is effectually open-ended and must be revisited.
“It has no script,” says Riepe, adding, “It was developed from improvisation, ideas and the process. The material matured as we modelled it further with the performers, who reshaped and contextualised it.” The artistes share that the act doesn’t have a defined point of view, reiterating that the point of the routine is to help the audience make what they please of what they are experiencing.
“We have nothing to say,” says Riepe. “This is just something we were working on and we wanted to share with the audience,” he adds. While the entire act employs very few spoken words, those uttered underline the themes mentioned in the beginning. So, there is a certain degree of objectivity associated with this piece of art, which seeks to serve as a runway for the flights of fancy.
“We are definitely not taking any stands,” says Johar, adding, “Reality, being in the moment, eroticism, and the body — these are the undercurrents of the piece; but we are not making any statements.”
The artistes says that the viewer must allow the artwork to grow on them. “One might form an opinion while or right after viewing the work, but usually after a couple of weeks, one ends up deconstructing a preliminary notion, thereby arriving at newer revelations,” says Riepe. Adds Johar, “It is also about how much one registers and how deeply he or she has been impacted by the imagery — which could happen after one viewing or subsequent ones. It is a matter of choice there too, whether one wants to stay with a raw impression or layer it through subsequent spectating.”