Rage buried in oceans of calm

Lokesh Bharadwaj (right) and Navtej Johar (far right) in Frenemies.
Lokesh Bharadwaj (left) and Navtej Johar (right) in Frenemies.PHOTO: KEVIN LEE


FRENEMIES/Navtej Johar


Part of The O.P.E.N.

Frenemies is not a work for the impatient.

The dance duet by Navtej Johar and Lokesh Bharadwaj was an unhurried, restrained meditation, punctuated by bouts of ferocity.

It demanded a quiet mind to be able to observe the duo's subtle, almost imperceptible gestures and to trace them back to their emotional source - the relationship between unequals.

In this sequel to two of Johar's earlier works on the same theme, he focused on the connection between maids and masters, and temple courtesans (devadasis in the south of India, tawaifs in the north) and their patrons.

When the balance of power in a relationship is heavily skewed, it becomes fraught with volatility and "often seethes with resentment, envy, desire, anger and hatred", he writes in the show's catalogue.



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To re-create this tension, Johar turned the simplest of props into emblems of both repression and release.

A plain white teacup, resting on a matching saucer, became a vessel for a clattering cry. A modest unfitted sheet was wrung and spun into twisted knots, which Johar and Bharadwaj clamped down on with their teeth, forming a belligerent bond between them.

Although Johar's choreography has its roots in yoga and bharatanatyam training, he shunned highly stylised movements for perfectly controlled quotidian motions, such as the slamming of open palms on a table or a body lurching on the floor.

What surprised me was how immediately we recognised the balance of power between two individuals, despite no verbal or salient visual cues.

Instead, we deduced this from a slightly slower turn of a head, the tilt of a body, a downtrodden stare or an imperious gesture.

Frenemies had no grand, sweeping sequences or stormy sprees. Johar and Bharadwaj were oceans of calm, with the rage and imbalance they were feeling buried deep within.

While in the hands of lesser performers, this stillness may have been tedious, in the masterful hands of Johar and Bharadwaj, the quiet was deafening.

Johar is a mesmerising, feline performer with fervid, glittering almond-shaped eyes that smould- ered and chilled with the seasons.

Bharadwaj, though smaller in stature, came across as the more physically imposing. When he struck the stage with his heels, in the only clearly recognisable bharatanatyam step of the evening, the floor reverberated where I was sitting, several metres away.

Though Johar's choreography may have been clean and plain, the authority displayed by the dancers - and the seamless connection between them - made Frenemies a must-watch

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2015, with the headline 'Rage buried in oceans of calm'. Print Edition | Subscribe