To fill vital gaps in dance education, three educators address how a more critical practice could be achieved
The designers of Performance Practice (Dance), a Master's programme at the Ambedkar University, Delhi, have decided that it must neither be heavy on text or theory, nor should it focus on one specific form. It also encourages students to become the agents of their own learning, unlike more traditional one-on-one relationships with teachers, which tend to seep into the students' personal lives
With an interest in generating accessible writings that makes the connection between the larger social and political landscape of the country and its performing arts more evident, this monthly column is an attempt to un-bracket the dance discourse from its contained category of “Arts for Art's sake”. Read more from the series here.
This interview is a follow-up to the author's previous essay on dance pedagogy.
Keeping the practitioner at the heart of it, the MA Performance Practice (Dance) programme based out of the Ambedkar University, Delhi (AUD) is a much-needed critical intervention in the field of dance. What follows is a conversation with Ranjana Dave, Mandeep Raikhy and Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy – all three of whom have been involved in running the programme at various stages.
Mandeep Raikhy led the curriculum design since its inception and is now an assistant professor at AUD. Ranjana Dave, also an assistant professor at the university, joined the process in 2016 and has participated in the development and the implementation of the programme. Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy has participated in the curriculum design and was a guest teacher in the first year of the programme.
What were the initial triggers that led to the coming together of this course? What did the early conversations look like?
Mandeep Raikhy: The first conversations on starting a structured programme began in 2012 after finishing a dance residency that we used to conduct every year since 2009. Anusha Lall, the founder of Gati, Abantee Dutta who was also at Gati back then, and I had a conversation about how a residency is a fantastic space for slightly experienced artists, but Indian dance was increasingly starting to look young. It looked like the needs of younger artists were very different, and the model of the residency would not be sufficient in helping address these needs. The younger artists seemed to be in search of a lot of inputs and so we began to feel that we should probably think of putting a course together.
A lot of the projects that we were doing already cut across creation, pedagogy, performance and research. They were, however, independent of each other. Different artists were involved in these projects independently. No artist was diving into all of this together. So we were beginning to feel that a course — a year long diploma probably — could be useful to bring all these strands of learning together. We put together our first proposal towards a structured programme for a Delhi-based think-tank called Art Think South Asia (ATSA) in 2013.
From the first residency that we conducted in 2009, it has taken us about 10 years to actually arrive at the Master's programme. The labour that went into putting together the residency and running it year after year was primarily focussed on building a pool of mentors. Over the years, we collectively began to think critically about questions such as — What does it mean to mentor? What does it mean to open up information that could be useful for others? What does it mean to skin down our own practice and make it available to other people as a kind of resource pool of ideas? So, in the initial years, we spent a lot of time with mentors thinking about what practices of research could really look like in dance.
What are the gaps in the existing practice of dance pedagogy that this course hopes to bridge?
Ranjana Dave: India has had a long history of dance training. Within institutions, the existing dance degree courses that we have are all based around certain forms, like a Master's in Odissi or Bharatanatyam. A university in Orissa is coming up with a Performing Arts degree, but even that is centred around Odissi. Another widely popular kind of training (especially in classical dance) happens in informal dance class spaces – you may give one of the exams, but your learning is usually with a single teacher and is often structured based on your relationship with the teacher. The third kind are the performance studies programmes which are available in a few universities, particularly JNU and even Ambedkar University, Delhi. Because of the design of these programmes, they tend to not have room for students who particularly have an interest in practice. Increasingly, these programmes are becoming flexible, but often they require outcomes to be in writing. For these reasons it is very hard for practitioners to partake in such programmes. The MA that we run positions itself somewhere in the middle, where we have have made a choice:
a) To not focus around a specific form. The diversity among the students that it has drawn has made us feel like this was the right decision to take
b) To not make it text- or theory-heavy
The course focusses on giving students tools which can help them work with their prior training, without necessarily trying to force their bodies into a form which doesn’t interest them. Parallelly, they’re also exposed to culture studies and performance studies where they become familiar with theory. Initially, there was a reluctance to engage with text which has happily changed in these past two years. Because as a dancer, you don't have a first-hand relationship with text; you begin to fear it when you encounter it in this quantity and in academic language. Over the last two years, not only have they become comfortable reading, they are also able to bring these readings into their own work. Many have found their practice somewhere in between text and body, bringing both of these together as research.
Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy: This course stands apart from most other courses because it gives students the time and space of two years to think like not just a dancer, but also a choreographer. Two years of looking at every aspect of art making from the perspective of a creator is something this course was developing towards when I was engaged in the process of designing it. Often, you get trained as a dancer, and many dance companies that offer courses also just focus on producing a dancer. Once a student is out, she is expected to begin creating immediately. Only later does one realise that creating is a different ball game.
How do you think taking dance education into an institutional space influences the equation between the teacher and the student? The programme description on the website mentions that “students are encouraged to become agents of their own learning". Can you also comment a little on this?
Ranjana Dave: Outside of institutional spaces, in a one-on-one relationship between a teacher and a student, when things get complicated, they get very complicated. I feel like institutionalising it in this way gives it a distance it needs. It doesn’t mean you don't care any more; you are still invested, but the training leaves the personal space. It protects the relationship from becoming a space of inter-personal conflict.
Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy: Before starting the course, we did a laboratory series where we tried out some course structures we had planned for the MA. Soon I realised that classes which involved creating and critical thinking would just not work if the relationship between the facilitator and the student was a hierarchical one. Especially because we are so invested in holding a space where students can start creating rather than being taught how to create, equal give and take became indispensable. So these laboratories helped us approximate at the relationship that we’re trying to achieve: what is the right time for us to step into their work, at what time should we step out, when is our intervention too much? To look at a student as an agent was not a “decision” that was made, it was arrived at after a process of conscious experimentation.
You are all dancers who engage with the body, both physically and intellectually. How differently does this course look at the dancing body?
Ranjana Dave: Just as we look at the student as an agent, the idea of the body as an agent is central to the programme. Because in my training I know that the body has constantly been something to discipline, something that is subject to a series of constraints. This gets us used to thinking about what we can do with the body in a limited way, and consequently, you actually find it difficult to work without those constraints. During the course of the programme the students have got used to working with their bodies in a way that allows them to imagine their bodies in a range of contexts and do different things with them, which is something that “form”-based learning as I have known it has taken away from the body.
Mandeep Raikhy: One primary objective of this course is to enable a process of thinking through the body. It looks at how cultural studies, dance history, dance theory can all come together and become a mode of critical engagement with the body at the heart of it. What this opens up is also the idea that the body is not only informed and shaped by the socio-political contexts that it inhabits, but also that it can participate in shaping this very landscape.
Students are beginning to formulate their research questions by drawing from their own bodily experiences with regard to the various identities that they embody and assert in the political space. For example, one student is looking at care and support as resistance, where she explores dance as a system of care for the body. Another student is doing a dissertation on studying the pelvis as a site of performance by exploring the history of the pelvis in Indian performance traditions and sculpture. This is an exciting moment and I am waiting to see what can happen with this line of inquiry of thinking through the body. What could happen to dance in the future, if we continue to think of the body as a political entity?
Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy: Before we even look at the body in larger political contexts with various identities layered on it, what this course does is to look at the body as an intelligent being. The act of looking at the body as intelligent is itself political.
Your course has fee waivers and reservation for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Given that it is a course on dance, have you considered engaging with marginalised communities of hereditary dancers? Do you feel young practitioners from these communities could benefit from such a course in any way?
Ranjana Dave: I do feel like the university space is far more willing to acknowledge hereditary histories than the arts itself — the classical dance space. I’ve seen that even my access to information on how forms like Bharatanatyam were appropriated have come from university spaces, because in classical dance spaces, people don’t talk about it. At least not enough. To really further that not-appropriating, it would be useful for people from hereditary communities to join this conversation, because, right now, even if the university space is sensitive to this information, it is still discussed and spoken about by people outside of these communities.
Mandeep Raikhy: From the very beginning, one of the things that attracted us to AUD was the fact that it was a university that would make the course accessible to a wide range of students. Many students who cannot afford it can access the course at a fully subsidised fee. This ensures that entry is not limited to students who can afford it.
However, we did have to deal with the fact that it was a Delhi-based university. It has a mandate to support students from the region of Delhi (Gurgaon excluded). There is an 85 percent Delhi quota. We look at this both as a limitation and an advantage. But what was key for us is that we bring in people from various kinds of training backgrounds, and that’s when the learning becomes more interesting.
I think in future runs, we would like to get students from more diverse backgrounds into the course. In a way, the course was meant to help students re-evaluate given histories and to rethink how these forms have become what they have, and under what political conditions. We need to begin re-assessing these moments in history not so much with an intention to challenge these forms, but to explore the possibility of extending these forms, to loosen their nuts and bolts, to begin to infuse new energies, questions that are relevant, that stem from today's context.
In what capacity do you as teachers expect students to integrate into society after they finish their course? That is, at the end of this course, what kind of work could be expected out of a student from here?
Ranjana Dave: The first batch of students are currently in their last semester, and in the course of two years, their options with respect to what they can do after they leave the programme have radically expanded because of the wide range of things we do.
Based on their interests, they have the option of performing, researching and writing, making performances, teaching (this is also something they are trained to do). During the programme they have constantly been in interaction with various people in the arts community. They even performed last weekend with Black Box Okhla. The people who they have interacted with are familiar with their work, as well as with how they are growing from month to month in some cases. Apart from this, they also take up internships at the end of the programme for six weeks, for which they are given financial support. So when they leave, they have some interface with the arts community already.
They also understand that their work needs to be recognised and compensated. In the arts in general, and dance in particular, the question of not being paid for your work is a big one. They understand that they have invested a considerable amount of time training and they should expect to be compensated for it.
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