Follies of God, Raghav Handa
Soo-Min Shim

This month Performance Review is partnering with the Keir Choreographic Award (KCA) to bring you interviews with this year’s finalists: Alan Schacher & WeiZen Ho (NSW); Alice Will Caroline (VIC); Jenni Large (TAS); Joshua Pether (WA); Lucky Lartey (NSW); Raghav Handa (NSW); Rebecca Jensen (VIC) and Tra Mi Dinh (VIC). In this interview Soo-Min Shim speaks with Raghav Handa about his KCA work Follies of God, 2022.

Raghav Handa, Follies of God, 2022. Photo by Lucy Parakhina.

SMS: I might start with a broader question – what draws you towards dance as an artistic medium?

RH: I was never formally trained in dance. I fell into Kathak coincidentally when I was young. My mum had bought a ten pass dance class for my sister and she didn’t want to go so I went instead. I was originally drawn in by the costumes, the energy, the theatricality of the dance, rather than the form itself. I loved the way the Kathak skirts looked during Kathak pirouettes and spins. I grew to have an appreciation for all these disparate elements and though we call it dance, it’s actually theatre when you consider the musician, the dancer, the audience and the entire space working together.

I didn’t ‘officially’ consider myself a dancer until after high school, when I was coincidentally cast in West Side Story. After that, I started working with Indigenous choreographers, in particular Vicki Van Hout, who I still work with today.

Not having been formally trained in dance and not having a dance degree gave me a greater perspective on dance outside of the regimented, institutional understanding of dance. For me, dance is a lifestyle and it’s in the everyday. I saw movement and gestures even in the rituals of my mother cooking everyday. I came to see the importance of process, rather than outcome. I came to see that my body holds knowledge and lineage.

Dance also allows me to explore tricky and touchy subjects. There is a certain ambiguity and fluidity that allows me to explore topics that I couldn’t otherwise.

SMS: I definitely see that in your practice and in particular your exploration of the rather tricky subject of tradition. Indeed, interrogating tradition means challenging with respect but also could be interpreted as iconoclastic or irreverent. Could you tell me a bit more about your experience with this tension?

RH: Nithya Nagarajan described my work as “playful but never irreverent” in her review of my work Two, 2021, in which I work with the interplay of music and dance in traditional Kathak. Kathak is usually quite regimented with a delineated space for the musician and a space for the dancer that don’t cross over.

My intention is not to be ‘cutting-edge’ or necessarily ‘different’. I do not see my practice as deconstructing or even decolonising traditional dance forms. These forms have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years and will continue to prosper. It’s just about reflecting from my perspective, where I am now and how those rules maybe do or do not apply from my positionality which is not static. Forms and texts themselves are also always transforming and evolving.

SMS: I am glad you mention texts as I might segue into the next question. I wanted to use this opportunity to talk about your work for the Keir Choreographic Award specifically. Your work is based on the Bhagavad Gita which is a 700 line section of a longer Sanskrit war epic the Mahabharata. Would you be able to tell me a bit more about this Sanskrit verse, its inspiration and significance to you?

RH: The Bhagavad Gita is not a dogmatic collection of do’s and do not’s. It is a text concerned with larger, philosophical questions about action and inaction. Due to this ambiguity, I was interested in the multiplicity of ways that the Bhagavad Gita, both the text and its interpretations, have transformed and evolved. For example, the Bhagavad Gita has been used by Mahatma Gandhi to preach non-violence. But then, infamously the Bhagavad Gita was used by the Nazi SS head Heinrich Himmler to justify killings and genocide.

When I started the work, the war in Ukraine had not yet reached its peak but there is continuing conflict everywhere. I found myself turning to the Bhagavad Gita and its setting of the battlefield. The audience for this work may not know the Bhagavad Gita but there are universal themes within it: the nature of conflict, the weaponisation of language, the damage of polar interpretations and the consequences of just standing still. These are big questions to address in a 20 minute work, so I pose more questions than I provide any concrete answers.

Soo-Min Shim is currently completing her PhD in Art History and Theory at the Australian National University. She received her Bachelor of Art History and Theory (First Class Honours) from the University of Sydney where she received the Mary Makinson Prize, the Francis Stuart Prize, the GS Caird Scholarship, the Kathleen Garnham Laurence Prize and the Sydney Scholar Award. She has written for several Australian and international academic publications including Art & The Public Sphere, ArtAsiaPacific, Art + Australia, Art Monthly Australasia, Southeast of Now and The Journal of the Asian Arts Society of Australia.

Raghav Handa is trained in modern and Indigenous contemporary dance and draws on the principles of Indian Kathak to create multifaceted, engaging explorations of modern Australian identity. His works challenge cultural and contemporary norms by navigating the “preciousness” and complexities that surround traditional hierarchies. By utilising his Indian heritage to create spaces that foster robust discussion and risk taking, he encourages his audience to come to their own conclusions rather than imposing his own. His creations are novel, engaging and often playful, but he also likes to play with fire!

Raghav Handa will perform Follies of God at Carriageworks on 23—25 June and at Dancehouse on 30 June—2 July.

An innovative commissioning partnership between Dancehouse, The Keir Foundation and the Australia Council for the Arts, with presenting partner Carriageworks, the KCA is Australia’s largest contemporary dance award showcasing new, choreographic short works by eight Australian artists.

Held over two weeks, this year all eight commissioned works will be presented at both Dancehouse, Melbourne and Carriageworks, Sydney in a rotating program of two bills (four works each).

The KCA is an extraordinary, fully paid opportunity for independent Australian artists to develop and share works with audiences and an esteemed jury of dance luminaries. The jury of international dance leaders tasked with selecting the recipient of the 2022 Keir Choreographic Award and awarding the $50,000 jury prize on Sunday 3 July at Carriageworks includes Daniel Riley (Wiradjuri/Australia); Eko Supriyanto (Indonesia); Laurie Uprichard (Ireland); Lemi Ponifasio (Aotearoa/New Zealand) and Nanako Nakajima (Japan).

Melbourne season at Dancehouse
23 June – 2 July
Book tickets for Melbourne

Sydney season at Carriageworks
23 June – 2 July
Book tickets for Sydney

Performance Review acknowledges the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we operate. We pay our respects to their Elders; past, present and emerging and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.