Sunday, February 28, 2021
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The give and take of Phillip Zarrilli’s art

The far-sighted internationally renowned theatre personality, Phillip Zarrilli, passed away on April 28, after a fourteen-year battle with cancer that did very little to deter his indomitable spirit and unflagging dedication to his practice. His long-standing professional affiliations with the University of Exeter and the Llanarth Group resulted in an impressive body of work that straddled pedagogy and practice with great facility, and was a source of infinite inspiration to students, collaborators and peers alike. His interest in probing and developing intercultural practices took him across the world, including India. It has been an association of more than four decades — being the first Westerner to seriously study kalarippayattu, beginning 1976, under the guidance of Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar in Thiruvananthapuram. In January this year, he staged his Noh-inspired play, Told by the Wind, at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, and spent weeks in talks, workshops and training; rekindling linkages with a region in which he had cumulatively spent seven years of his life. In a heartfelt tribute, long-time collaborator Kaite O’Reilly writes, “He said that he felt all that happened that month was a full circle turning, a completion, and he was full of gratitude.”

Rooted in contemporary directives

His former students at Exeter and at Singapore’s Intercultural Theatre Institute include such Indian practitioners as Sankar Venkateswaran, Sreejith Ramanan, Anirudh Nair and Mohit Takalkar — all of whom developed distinctive styles with a discernibly shared sensibility. Takalkar was at Exeter for a Masters in theatre direction in 2009-10. “It took me a while to grasp Phillip’s emphasis on the sheer physicality of tai chi or kalari, and to realise how powerfully his psycho-physical processes would serve my characteristically text-driven ventures,” says the Pune-based director, whose plays, like Necropolis, The Mathemagician or Main Huun Yusuf Aur Yeh Hai Mera Bhai, benefit from an overriding stillness, an economy of words and gestures, bodies ‘speaking’ as much as voices, and an elegant sparseness of presentation — signature aspects he attributes to Zarrilli’s influence. “He was gentle but deft with his interventions in the studio, and equally charming and jovial after hours,” remembers Takalkar.

Nair, from the 2008-09 batch, similarly remembers Zarrilli as someone who pushed him towards his own cultural roots in Kerala. It was ironic at first, being taught Indian forms by a Jewish American professor often using traditional modes of address, and Nair remembers one telling incident with a degree of amusement, “When my father dropped by one of our sessions, Phillip was worried his accented Malayali wouldn’t be up to scratch, but in reality, it was my father and I who were completely at sea with his instructions.” Keeping aside the cultural antecedents of the training, Nair feels the rigour of form Zarrilli introduced, which coexisted with contemporary practice with a remarkable depth and precision, left a deep imprint on his own pursuits. It was serendipitous that Nair would go on to build a fruitful artistic association, founded on a common vocabulary, with Venkateswaran, who trained under Zarrilli in Singapore.

Complexities of process

Around this time last year, Routledge Books released Intercultural Acting and Performer Training, the training manual Zarrilli co-edited with noted pedagogues T Sasitharan and Anuradha Kapur. The book, a collection of essays interrogating the complexities of intercultural processes in the twenty-first century, is not without its forces of opposition. “We were able to find nuanced space within that combined volume, to deal with both the problematic and propitious aspects of such training,” says Kapur. “Very unique to Zarrilli’s approach is how there is an even-handed ‘give and take’ between the rootedness of the form he has embraced, and his own contemporary practice marked by a profound individuality,” she elaborates. This was a radical shift from, say, the manner in which an intercultural pioneer like Peter Brook ‘assembled’ cultures in his work.

In an insightful interview with The Hindu’s Renu Ramathan earlier this year, Zarilli said, “To me, life is a process of encounters and negotiations . . . I have brought together kalarippayattu and tai chi into my practice. This process of negotiation is [constantly] taking place within my body and through the body-minds of those [training] with me.” His unrelenting focus on the body and its revealing systems of circulation continued until the end. As O’Reilly describes it, “He rode out on a breath . . . the space in-between the end of one cycle before the impulse of the next inhalation begins. This time came no inhalation. It was the ‘good death’ he wanted — calm, pain-free, unsentimental.

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