I had a journalism professor who emphatically and repeatedly told us that there was a difference of ‘four fingers’ between hearing and believing. He stressed on the truth of what one sees with one’s own eyes, and in doing so, he also alerted me to the ambiguous potential of the act of ‘seeing’. Like many people of my generation, I use the word ‘watched’ very liberally. I might say that I watched a group of dancers perform in London last night. On further enquiry, when people realise I am referring to a YouTube video and not a live performance, I watch their excitement quell, and sometimes wither away. Watching something on video is not ‘watching’, in their view. There is a distance that begins to set in. There are new spatial layers. This new layer can make its presence felt; the performer may be squished or elongated or her sense of rhythm is suddenly displaced if the music and the image are not in sync. Or there are things that begin to happen to the frame. The camera begins to make decisions for us, in what to see and not to see. And these make the screen and the digital interface a very contested space for dance.
Every morning, my broker, whom I actually speak to no more than six times a year, sends me a ‘good morning’ text message, usually accompanied by an agglomeration of various flowers. On Guru Purnima at the end of July, dozens of forwards flooded my social media feed, all versions of one person prostrating at another’s feet. We relate to each other through the digital interface, and yet there can be discomfort and anxiety around how technology intersects with dance. This happens particularly when technology is read as a replacement for embodied knowledge, for muscle memory, for the body becoming an archive of practice. If you could record what you have learned, does that make the body less accountable for the same knowledge? In my conversations with dancers, these are some of the anxieties that emerge around the intersection of the camera, screen and the interface with the moving body.
Then artists are also afraid that sharing their work publicly will leave them vulnerable to plagiarism.
Sometimes, their fears are justified, but is eluding the digital gaze the answer to these dilemmas? In 1983, the Belgian choreographer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker made one of her first pieces, Rosas Danst Rosas. In the piece, four women on chairs perform a series of repetitive actions — among them, swinging their hair fiercely, supporting their chin with an arm but then collapsing onto their knees, and crossing their legs. In 2011, a song by Beyoncé, 'Countdown', featured some choreography that was strikingly similar to Keersmaeker’s work in Rosas Danst Rosas and another work by her, Achterland. There was no credit to Keersmaeker, who was later cited as one of the many ‘inspirations’ for the song, in a statement released by Beyoncé, after much uproar. Keersmaeker was peeved, but she wasn’t especially angry. Instead, she wondered what it would mean to actively open out the choreography to anyone who wanted to dance it. In 2013, her company announced Re:Rosas, a project where its dancers taught a section of the original choreography on YouTube and invited people to shoot and upload videos of themselves performing the work in various settings.
The idea caught the popular imagination. From bystanders on park benches to toddlers in preschool, from costumed actors on a subway to women in ghagras on a Mumbai beach who spliced Bollywood dancing into the original choreography, the company received versatile responses to their open call. New settings only enhanced the citational relationship of these videos to the original choreography. No matter where it was performed, what each individual did still referenced Rosas Danst Rosas in every frame. By opening up access to the choreography, the work was able to reach many more people than it did in its original iteration. The Rosas ‘remixes’ re-established an image of the original choreography and redefined it in the present moment, beyond its association with the Beyoncé song.
There is so much that the screen enables for the moving body. Take the videos you see in every one of my columns, for instance. This conversation remains incomplete, for now, and must be continued. But I leave you with an excerpt from British choreographer and filmmaker Liz Aggiss’ 2002 work, Motion Control, which she made with Billy Cowie, studying this relationship between the camera and performer through the course of the work. In writings around the film, Aggiss discusses how using two media, dance and camera, challenges boundaries between these media and changes the experience and perception of the viewer. Additionally, the performer and audience find that their relationship to gravity is now displaced, when the screen becomes the interface for performance. In the clip, Aggiss contortedly attempts to place her body within a tiny niche in a wall. Eventually, the walls began to move in on her, compressing the space she has even further. When the niche loses its rectangular form, becoming a tiny square that threatens to squish or swallow her form, even as she compacts herself by folding her limbs, Aggiss opts to jump out into the unknown, her mouth wide open in what one might construe to be a scream. If the interface is an uncertain space, how do we negotiate it as artists?
Ranjana Dave is a dancer and writer based in Delhi. She tweets at @chaltipatang
Updated Date: Aug 07, 2018 17:06:48 IST