Dance as an accumulation of past, present and future: Why no artistic practice remains unchanged

My last piece was all about interdisciplinarity and the porous boundaries between various idioms of performance. But even before those boundaries are breached, artists often look for a raison d'être within their chosen forms. Finding it often necessitates change – even the forms that we consider ‘traditional’ are actually a series of ruptures and discontinuities in a particular practice. No artistic practice is unchanging or unbroken. In the process of working with several groups of young dancers in recent times, I am reminded of this yet again. Dancers train systematically for years, but eventually there comes a time when they have to find their own voice – and this can be a confusing-yet-exciting crossroads to be at as an artist.

Historically, dance practice in the 20th century, particularly in the West, has often been classified as a chronological series of genres such as modern, postmodern or contemporary dance. These taxonomies are not easily universalised; for instance, they don’t lend themselves to the timeline of dance practice in 20th century India. Yet, what these genres and systems have in common are their origins in a desire for change. Sometimes, the spirit of change can be drastic – like the 60s American choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s famous ‘No’ manifesto.

Rainer was a driving force of America's postmodern dance scene – one of a group of dancers who were disillusioned by the dramatic, larger-than-life tendencies of concert dance. The alternative, they proposed, was to return to the daily and mundane. Rainer’s Trio A epitomises this – the choreographer moves from one unremarkable movement to another, with no pause or predictable logic. In another work from the same period, Accumulation, choreographer Trisha Brown begins a repetitive movement, accentuates it with a small nuance, gradually building the original movement into an ‘accumulation’ of several nuances and accents.

For an earlier generation in Europe, the dramatic could still act as a counterpoint to the spectacle and pomp seen in conventional performance. We recognise Expressionism as the genre that gave us Munch’s The Scream, but what’s lesser known is that it also opened up avenues for a generation of German Expressionist dancers. Caught between the politics and savagery of war, as institutions and countries collapsed, artists began to privilege their emotional experiences over their physical realities, giving voice to their most grotesque selves through the work they made.

Examined in the wake of classical ballet with its tragic romances set in medieval Europe, oblivious to the realities of life in post-war Europe, works like Mary Wigman’s Hexentanz (Witch Dance) challenged the status quo. In a fragment recorded in 1929/30, a seated Wigman, her face hidden by a mask, makes clawing motions with her fingers as she menacingly advances towards the camera, often inducing in present-day viewers the urge to move away from the screen. With rudimentary recording technology and a carefully planned soundtrack, Wigman’s choreography capitalises on the fear, menace and grotesqueness evinced by this witch-like figure.

Rather like Brown’s choreography, dance is often an accumulation of its histories. It is easy to forget that forms that now seem consolidated and ‘permanent’ are themselves works in progress, snowballing into constant accumulations of their past, present and future selves. Footage from 30s Baroda shows a royal celebration where dancers perform in the outdoors.

Two court dancers, accompanied by a host of musicians standing behind them, perform what seems to be an alarippu, often the opening piece in a Bharatanatyam recital. In their time, the dance was known as sadir; the word Bharatanatyam came into circulation much later. There is a delightful casualness to their motions – they waddle onto the white carpet that serves as the performance area, and when the sun grows too bright, they continue to dance while using one palm to shield their eyes. At one point, they perform a salam daruvu, a gesture of salutation, possibly acknowledging a deity, or a member of the royalty.

In present-day Bharatanatyam, an alarippu is performed similarly, in this instance, by the dancer Leela Samson, but the musicians are now seated and the dancer is at the centre of the performative landscape. There is a focus on the clarity of line, and on the dancer’s appreciation of the virtuosity of her movement. It is quite unlikely to find the dancer mopping her sweaty brow on camera or engaging in any mundane action that detracts from the classicism of the performance.

However, do these two videos, with their fairly similar choreographic structure, encompass a history of Bharatanatyam? To end on a note of suspense, I present this dance of mysterious provenance, shot at Amer Fort in the 30s. Dressed in lehengas and veils, the dancers are reminiscent of their counterparts in later Bollywood cinema. They launch into a hide-and-seek motion with their veils, using the sheer fabric to hide and reveal their faces as they spin. But most intriguingly, they’ve picked up a few tricks from Bharatanatyam, hidden among the innumerable spins that form the bulk of the choreography. How did sadir/ Bharatanatyam find itself in 30s Rajasthan? The mystery endures.

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

Updated Date: Jun 06, 2018 20:29 PM

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