“India [is] remembering who it was before colonisation,” says Peterson, citing the repeal of the colonial law Section 377 which criminalised homosexuality, as well as India including a third gender option on passports. “We’ve always had more than two genders, and we’ve always had diversity of romantic and sexual relationships.”
As queer classical Indian dancers, Peterson and Pillai embody and share their culture and seek to dismantle the colonial impositions of gender binary and queer-phobia. The visually spectacular performance centres around a stunning curtain of jasmine flowers, cascading from high above the performers to the ground.
“In South Asian culture, jasmine has strong cultural associations with femininity and sexuality, as it is used to decorate women’s hair and marriage beds,” Peterson continues. “We’re using jasmine as a motif for gender and sexuality … to create a shifting landscape that changes throughout the show.”
The effect makes the piece both visual and tactile, as we witness the pleasure and fun both performers experience as they move and play among the vines. It creates a charming place in which the audience gets to share, in Peterson’s words, some of the “beauty and joy and connection of the trans experience.”
The performers’ make up heralded traditional Indian theatre aesthetics, with red painted finger tips and eyeliner to accentuate hand gestures and facial expressions. Peterson and Pillai are currently working on their next performance, Red Tips, which will feature the full “virtuosity and technical finesse of classical Indian dance to live music.”
The music in Third Nature was pre-recorded but added another element of Indian traditions to the performance. It included a mixture of works from singer Sheila Chandra, sitar player Anoushka Shankar and Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman. The songs were chosen to express “the emotional quality we were trying to create in our work,” says Peterson.
As a white, cisgender, heterosexual, I was grateful for the insights Rainer graciously gave me regarding the performance. It was refreshing to indulge in the splendour of bodies that do not conform to western ideals of beauty.
Watching them express themselves, unhindered by someone else’s standards, was liberating. The piece inspired a sense that everyone should be free to explore their own beliefs and standards, a message as lovely as the performance itself.
Arts House – North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 2 February 2019 – 8.30pm
Season: 31 January – 2 February 2019
Information: www.midsumma.org.au or www.artshouse.com.au
Image: Third Nature (supplied)
Review: Sophia Dickinson