As our understanding of dance expands, boundaries of the discipline call for reconfiguration
What clarity of intention can a dancer bring to the mere act of walking? What do you make when all a dancer does is hold your gaze, locking eyes with you for an uncomfortably long span of time?
I write this column in memory of Ankit Chadha, the peerless dastango who passed away after an unfortunate accident near Pune on 9 May 2018. Ankit saw a story waiting to be told wherever he looked. His ability to seamlessly segue between the everyday and the performative enabled a deep familiarity with the storytelling medium — and great freedom in how he interpreted his work. Whether it was a ‘traditional’ dastan about Amir Hamza, or a story about urbanisation, ownership, and the death of pastoralism, or a work on Kabir where a few lines of song were de rigueur, Ankit brought a wide range of expressive qualities to his work.
How does one categorise Ankit’s work? Was it ‘storytelling’, ‘theatre’, or ‘performance’? In dance, the question of ‘categories’ is a crucial one, leading us to revisit our notions of the ‘dancing body’. What is ‘dance’, after all? Is it ‘dance’ when someone stands on stage and delivers a monologue to the audience? Or when the performers repeat just one foxtrot step for 70 minutes [contains nudity]? What if all the dancers do is fall, again and again? Is it theatre when a dancer has a speaking part? Is it dance when a musician uses his body to produce sound? As our understanding of what it means to dance expands, the boundaries of the discipline also call for reconfiguration.
In Indian performance nomenclature, the Sanskrit term sangeet, while commonly synonymous with ‘music’, is understood to signify vocal and instrumental music, and dance. It suggests a heterogeneous performativity in the ‘dramatic’ mode, combining music, movement and speech. It is also important to acknowledge how technology and modern spectatorship play a role in this separation of disciplines. The introduction of the microphone expanded the reach of performers’ voices, but also required them to stay within close proximity of it, limiting their range of movement. Then the Kathak dancer who comes from a longstanding tradition of baithaki bhaav, where a seated performer sings and emotes simultaneously, now has to choose how to negotiate these disciplines. The audience may not be seated intimately enough to capture all the nuances of expression flitting across her face. A background of training in movement may have left her ill-equipped to sing as easily as she dances. Onstage roles are well-defined – the singer sings and the dancer dances. What contemporary performance is beginning to do is to destabilise these fixed notions about the boundaries of performative mediums.
There is a fluidity across disciplines, best illustrated by the current interest in artistic work that is interdisciplinary and collaborative. This can be confusing for anyone who tries to define or frame present-day dance practices. What is happening in dance today belies easy, already-defined frameworks — while we loosely band many current works as ‘contemporary’ performance, the word ‘contemporary’ actually begins to encompass a whole range of dance practices that mobilise the body in different ways, drawing from established and newly evolving ‘styles’ of dance.
In a 2015 essay on the American choreographer Elizabeth Streb’s work, writer Alec Wilkinson noted that she called her dancers ‘action heroes’, going on to quote her, “…I am now sending you out there, and, live or die, it’s time to fly. I am rough like that, and I don’t apologise.” Her company is called Streb Extreme Action, and falling is her signature move. Her dancers, however, don’t pretend-fall. In Human Fountain, a group of dancers recreate the illusion of a never-ending spurt of water, jumping off a scaffolded structure to fall like an arc of water, and then quickly running back to repeat their actions. In another piece, Forces, dancers violently nudge a heavy metal bar into motion, and then allow themselves to be chased around the stage by it. While Streb creates experiences that amount to the spectacular, her work is driven, she said to Wilkinson, by her pursuit of the ‘real move’. An interest that many choreographers share, looking for inspiration not in affectation, not in the graceful or beautiful, but in the daily and embodied. What clarity of intention can a dancer bring to the mere act of walking? What do you make when all a dancer does is hold your gaze, locking eyes with you for an uncomfortably long span of time?
Consider this an ongoing conversation. By way of conclusion, I leave you with one of my favourite sequences from German choreographer Pina Bausch’s Café Müller. The piece is based on Bausch’s childhood memories of watching her father at work in his café, during and after World War II. She suffuses the space of the café with an abject quality of loneliness. In cold, dim lighting, dancers often dance with their eyes closed, frantically lurching across space as they knock into chairs and tables. Another dancer tries to pre-empt their movement and move furniture, attempting to clear their path and prevent collisions. In another sequence, a dancer ‘arranges’ a moment of intimacy between two others, carefully aligning their limbs so that the woman is placed in the arms of the male dancer. As soon as he moves away, the female dancer slides off her partner’s arms and falls to the floor, rising quickly to envelop him in a tight hug. The third dancer returns to rearrange her limbs, but time after time, the couple breaks the pattern, until they need no external intervention, frantically executing the mechanics of one partner lifting another, falling off, and returning to the embrace, leading us to one of the most iconic moments in ‘contemporary’ dance – a man, a woman, and an embrace. The next time you’re tempted to think that’s ‘not dance’, you have something to chew on.
Ranjana Dave is a dancer and writer based in New Delhi. She tweets at @chaltipatang