Person or performer? Dancers want audiences to engage with their process, not just product
Does ‘performance’ exist in a detached capsule of time that is a respite from daily life, or do we see it in the context of how dance relates to society?
In Lion Goes for a Haircut, a children’s story by Swati Shome, a bored lion leaves his usual surroundings and begins to wander the city. A haircut is just what he needs to dispel this monotony, he decides. Peering into the hairdresser’s salon, he gets excited as he visualises various possibilities for the new ‘look’ he is about to get. But when the lion walks into the salon, the people in there are terrified and flee as fast as possible. Aghast, the lion tries to stop them; he just needs a haircut and has no desire to eat anybody. Now alone, he looks around and spots a wall of mirrors – a strange sight, for he has never encountered his own reflection. He finds himself staring right into the faces of a huge number of lions who look every bit as fierce as him. Desperate to retain his dignity, he begins to roar to scare them into submission. They roar back, equally fiercely. Finally, frightened out of his mind by this relentless posse of lions in the mirrors, the lion abandons all dreams of a styled mane and rushes back to familiar surroundings as fast as his feet can carry him.
In my last few pieces, I’ve considered how the term ‘dance’ can encompass a spectrum of movement-based practices, how dance intersects with the history of civilisation in fundamental ways, and finally, who the ‘performer’ can be. As an Odissi dancer, during my training, I was often told that the dancing needed to look ‘effortless’, an instruction that appears in different forms across most classical dance practices. If you are tired, you smile brightly. If you are in pain, you smile even harder. You think you’re dying? Death can meet you backstage after you are done dancing. The audience doesn’t need to know how much you struggle to maintain the illusion of being ‘effortless’, ‘light’, or ‘beautiful’. Then, I ask, are audiences interested in being put into conversation with the style-conscious lion, or do they place him firmly outside their orbit? Does ‘performance’ exist in a detached capsule of time that is a respite from daily life, or do we see it in the context of how dance relates to society? What are the questions that dancers are asking? What is the ratio of ‘performer’ to ‘person’ that we want to see on stage?
There has been, and continues to be, an interest in ‘process-based’ performance in the current dance landscape. Dancers don’t want their audiences to engage merely with the final ‘product’, but also want them to see how it came to be made. In Conditions of Carriage: The Jumping Project, Chennai-based choreographer Preethi Athreya worked with a diverse cast of ‘performers’ – some dancers, a few parkour artists, a lawyer, an art therapist, a theatre-person, and others. Jumping was a familiar, functional form of movement, Athreya reasoned, one that wasn’t exclusive to dance.
To jump for the better part of an hour required a certain kind of physical endurance, but it wasn’t something one couldn’t develop. Over the years, Athreya has worked with a mixed cast, often based on the availability of her performers. She has performed the piece indoors, under a bridge, in colleges, and on the beaches of Chennai. When you have jumped under the afternoon sun, your heartbeat is likely to reflect that. In how it is performed, in a square pit that the audience surrounds on all four sides, Conditions of Carriage makes every moment of this engagement visible. It is ‘performance’, but you see nostrils flaring as the performers exhale. You see their clenched fists tightening as they leave the ground and pumping downwards as gravity does its job. You watch their hair go awry as they jump. In addressing what it means to ‘perform’, and complicating the question of who can perform, Athreya’s choreography opens up a conversation about ability. Does dance need to correspond to an idealised physical perfection? Are we, as audiences, willing to engage with performers as people, regardless of their size, shape, colour, race, gender, sexuality, ability, and identity?
What is the ‘able’ body? Is it the only lens to view the world with? When hearing dancer Avantika Bahl started learning sign language, her interactions with the deaf community in Mumbai opened up to her a whole world of ethical questions around deafness and the ways in which deaf people approached ‘ability’. Working with deaf dancer Vishal Sarvaiya, Bahl made Say, What?, a dance piece that challenged the codes of communication and language that are normally taken for granted. The dancers’ focus on the non-verbal was informed by their shared understanding of the body and their ability to sign to each other. For the deaf and hearing audiences who watched the piece, the absence of music levelled the playing field. In doing so, Say, What? returns to the body to ask questions of it. Does the ability to hear need to be universal or central to how we perceive the world?
In the past few days, I have been revelling in my old fascination with medieval poetry that evokes bhakti and srngara. These poems thrive on ambiguity – lovers who never showed up, hints not taken, messages that went astray – to create charged narratives where a final union offers the satisfaction that it does only when viewed in the wake of the trying challenges that this love has weathered. There are entire compositions where a nayika stands at the door, wondering if she should welcome her two-timing lover back into her life. As an example, watch the Odissi doyen Kelucharan Mohapatra perform yahi madhava, an ashtapadi from the 12th century Sanskrit love poem, Gita Govinda, where he plays a spurned Radha, who has awaited Krishna anxiously all night, and is furious when he turns up the morning after, bearing tell-tale signs of the night he has spent with someone else.
Human complexity is central to practices of storytelling and abhinaya in classical dance. If there was no betrayal, if lovers made precise romantic gestures and choices, if they didn’t have moments of deep-seated confusion – poetry probably wouldn’t be half as exciting as it is!
There is also the rejection of the physical body and external trappings in the bhakti genre, where physical appearance is irrelevant to the pursuit of the divine. In an oft-quoted verse, the 10th century poet Devara Dasimayya declares (in a translation from AK Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva):
If they see
breasts and long hair coming
they call it woman,
if beard and whiskers
they call it man:
but, look, the self that hovers
is neither man
As audiences and performers, what if we viewed the possibilities of the body in more radical ways? What if we were receptive not only to the man playing Radha, but to even unlikelier configurations of ability and physicality on stage? If we relish the complexity and variability that these poetic narratives in dance suggest, what would it mean to let go of the primacy of articulation through the ‘ideal’ dancing body?
Ranjana Dave is a dancer and writer based in New Delhi. She tweets at @chaltipatang
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