Laws of Desire: Man to Monk

Were you familiar with the work of Mavin Khoo before this commission?

Photo: Dolly Brown

Photo: Dolly Brown

I was, yes, I had followed Mavin for a few years, and I have to admit it was a pleasant surprise when he approached me about working together. I was more familiar with his contemporary dance work, as I wasn’t very well versed in South Asian dance- so once we started working together, learning about his training and trajectory as a Bharatanatyan dancer has been a fascinating learning experience. Throughout the process, it has been very interesting to learn about Mavin’s thoughts behind dance and performance, and how his training in India has shaped his philosophy for Western classical and contemporary dance.

How specific was the brief that you received? What was it about the brief that you most responded to?

Because of the nature of the project, the brief itself has shifted over a year. Initially, our brief was to create a work that was born out of the relationship between Mavin and me- it was a bit of an experiment wherein two strangers meet, spend a lot of time together, and out of that relationship a duet would appear. That research phase I kind of felt like Christopher Isherwood in the Berlin novels, you know, “I am a camera”-I spent a lot of time observing Mavin at work and in the studio, documenting his history and his present. I had never worked in this way- really researching a living person and responding to that, so that was very interesting.

As the work developed, we both felt we had to focus the work on what we both felt defined desire. Mavin and I are both very spiritual people- although in very different ways, as I was brought up Catholic and Mavin is a practising Hindu- and we are both gay men, so what I’m responding to the most as we finish the work is the relationship between the spiritual and homosexual desire, thoughts which  have definitely stemmed from the time spent with Mavin.

The male duet has featured in your work as a bit of a recurring theme. How did your past experience with the male duet inform the creation of this piece?

Yes, I am very interested in the male duet, because I have a very strong interest in human relationships, particularly when it comes to emotional ones. When I create work I always have to start from a personal place, so that the work is honest, and being a gay man, most of the relationships I portray are between men. You grow up watching so many female and male duets, which you’re expected to relate to- and you know, male and female relationships are not the norm, and that’s not what we have to abide to.

One of the things I’m also very interested in is the classical duet, the pas de deux, which is traditionally always performed by a man who generally supports a woman. Mavin shares that interest with me and we were both very excited about questioning that concept of male and female, deconstructing and subverting it. That has definitely come into play in this work, especially considering Mavin’s history of performing traditionally female roles in both Indian and Western dance.

As for me- like a lot of us- I’ve lived through a lot of tempestuous relationships with men, which have all had moments of beauty, ecstasy and love, as well as hurt, rejection and sometimes violence. In many ways I use the male duet to resolve these issues for myself, to figure them out, and also maybe sometimes to exorcise them by putting them onstage. Most of the time this happens unconsciously, and when you see it onstage you are taken back because you see yourself and what you’ve been through. So I would say that’s the main way in which my experience of the male duet, and male love, has informed this work.

Desire and lust are themes that you've explored previously in your choreography. Did you need to research Hindu and Sufi culture in order to see how best to explore those themes in the context of this piece?

I really believe that desire, lust, the need to possess another body and to feel possessed by someone, are the driving forces for human behaviour. Even when we repress those feelings, and deny them- that repression is a driving force in itself.

Of course, the above really doesn’t work well with the Catholic Church, in which I grew up, so I’ve always been really interested in that conflict. To me it was fascinating to hear what Mavin had to say about desire in Hindu and Sufi culture. Instead of denying the flesh, he spoke of religions in which as a human you have to understand desire, love, passion, sex, jealousy, rejection, anger and joy so that you can really reach the divine. Once you have lived through those emotions, once you understand them and understand the darkness and light- then you can really transcend. To me it made much more sense than spending a lifetime trying to escape this series of innate urges that we have as humans.

But you know, you can take the boy out of Catholicism but you can’t take Catholicism out of the boy, so in terms of narrative for the work, I related this to Christ’s Calvary and passion, where he had to undergo all that torture and humiliation before crucifixion and resurrection. In a sense, the work is a Calvary where the dancers have to go through many phases of desire in order to be reborn.

Another thing that has inspired the work is, strangely, the work of Leonard Cohen and his relationship to the poet Rumi. I was listening to Cohen, and the verse from one of his songs, “Lover lover lover came back to me” stuck in my head, and as the song has very spiritual connotations with relation to Judaism, it made me think of how for Rumi, God is often depicted as a lover, and that perhaps that was the lover Cohen was referring to, as he had quoted Rumi before. And actually, in Mavin’s classical Indian repertoire, he often dances the role of a maiden waiting for a romantic encounter with God. So narratively, I’ve also started playing with the idea of God coming down as a lover, to make us live through a tempestuous passion, and understand it, and maybe even murder it, so that we can truly reach the divine.

 What do you hope that audiences feel when they're watching this performance?

 I think the main thing for me is that, although this is a male duet, what it speaks about is universal- desire is something that we all feel: attraction, rejection, passion, care and violence all come with love and are experienced by all denominations of gender. I would like for it to feel cathartic; it is my intention that for Mavin, who will in future perform a duet called Monk as part of this project, Man really feels like a transition, like a shedding of flesh. So hopefully audiences can experience that journey as well.


Carlos Pons