'Ability' and the spectrum of performative possibilities: Dismantling notions of the 'perfect' dancing body

Performance cultures that draw on canonised systems of dance often take the symmetry of the human body for granted. Every action triggers a reaction. Every balance has a counterbalance. Dancers often cite the popular Abhinayadarpana verse that illustrates the inextricability of meaning made by the body – where the hands go, the eyes follow; where the eyes go, the mind follows – and so on, tying the external physical appearance of the body to its metaphysical moorings. But casting aside this sense of the ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ body begins to shake things up. How does one then arrive at symmetry to make complete meaning? Does the dancing body have ‘ideal’ proportions? If the human body has only one arm to work with, will it hold a bow or an arrow? Which arm will the eyes follow? What if there are no eyes? The challenges and issues may not lie within the systems themselves, but in how we choose to interpret them.

Sanskrit dramaturgical texts like the Abhinayadarpana and Natyasastra, both of an approximate antiquity of about two millennia, elaborately unpack the physical structure of the body, sectioning it off into major and minor limbs and suggesting various possibilities of movement and meaning for a staggering number of units in the body. Most classical dance practices use the Abhinayadarpana’s classification of hand gestures, for instance. This penchant for detail in the texts persists all the way down to the movements of minor parts of the body like the eyelids, lips or eyebrows. These texts attempt to treat the body as an intricate network of permutations and combinations adding up to an infinite capacity for expression and continue to be relevant to particular conceptualisations of the body. What these texts outline is the extent of ability that the body can give expression to. What we should we asking ourselves is if ‘symmetry’ and ‘perfection’ are the only lens through which we can access these texts in performance. How can ‘ability’ operate as a graded and variable notion in the making and viewing of performance?

Of course, dance and movement artists are not oblivious to debates around ability, and enthusiastically initiate and participate in projects that harness the potential of movement in relation to various ability-specific groups. ‘Ability’, once again, can stand for far more than physical facility – for instance, it can address the aging body, issues of sexual, cultural, gender, racial identity, and much more. There are programmes designed for Parkinson’s disease patients that use simple movements and interactive exercises to boost general mobility and keep patients’ spirits up as the disease takes its degenerative toll.

There are dancers who weave the contraptions of their ability-mediated lives into the way they work, such as India’s wheelchair dancers in this medley of songs from a performance.

What the feet enable has been replaced here by highly trained and strengthened arms, and a strong core that allows them to stabilise themselves and retain control over the wheelchair even as they move around the stage at a dizzying speed.

There are other dancers who find ways of reconciling their strengths to the demands of concert performance. The 19th century classical ballet, Giselle, features a virtuosic solo by its eponymous lead; rejoicing in new-found love, she executes a seemingly flippant hop across the length of the stage, balanced on the very tips of her toes – on one foot. The dancer’s sense of balance, already challenged by being en pointe, is now compounded by the task of staying on the toes of a single foot, even as she traverses a huge distance across stage. Compared to grander ballet jumps and leaps, the hop seems insignificant; what makes it tricky is the huge amount of weight supported by such a tiny part of the body. Imagine bouncing on your little finger across the length of your neighbourhood park – Giselle has her work cut out for her. Here is a clip of the Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru executing the step.

And another, of the nearly blind Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, performing the same sequence.

Audiences didn’t flock to watch Alonso because she was a blind dancer; she was a ballerina who just happened to be blind. Alonso configured the stage to mask what she couldn’t use – her dancing partners were schooled to be precise in their placements and positioning and she used the lights as warning signs to infer that she was close to the edge of a stage area. Alonso had a long career on the stage, and well into her 90s, continues to be at the helm of the Cuban National Ballet.

Some of the most interesting conversations about ability, however, happen in the space of mixed-ability performance, where the emphasis is on exploring with performative curiosity what bodies of different abilities can propose on stage, instead of aspiring to a virtuosic ideal. How can we find enabling ways of describing what performers of mixed ability can actually bring to the stage? How can we move past conversations about perfection and ‘ideal-bodied’ virtuosity, and not bring overtones of pity or praise for a job well-done despite the circumstances to our viewing of performance? Once again, I leave you with an ongoing conversation that continues over the next column. How do you, as a viewer of performance, respond to the idea of ‘ability’ as a variable and versatile notion?

I end with a clip I often start my dance analysis classes with, from the UK-based DV8 Physical Theatre’s 2004 film The Cost of Living, whose narrative follows two out-of-work performers in a desolate seaside town. In one sequence, after peering through the windows of a dance studio, one of them, Dave (David Toole), enters the space, interrupting the rhythms of a class by the ballet barre to pursue a short, tender duet with a dancer in the studio.

The duet employs body weight, contact and a playful relationship with gravity. There is nothing to suggest that it is special or out of joint from what usually unfolds in that class. At one point, the other dancer gently curls a palm around Toole’s shoulder, in a gesture of farewell, and leaves him to resume her routine at the barre. Toole’s friend (Eddie Kaye), watching them from the outside, then gestures to Toole to hurry up. The clock is ticking, and they have places to be.

Ranjana Dave is a dancer and writer based in New Delhi. She tweets at @chaltipatang

Updated Date: Jun 24, 2018 12:10:50 IST