“To understand dance, you have to be still. And for really understand stillness, you have to dance ”.
– Rumi (13ecCE entry)
The space is silent, it has potential. The dancer enters, creates the movement and the magic begins. The space is sculpted, energized and redesigned. The imagination soars and hitherto unknown worlds are born as the dance progresses body takes us into the inner spaces of the heart and mind.
These magical moments in theaters everywhere have been interrupted for the time being being that the pandemic devastated the world and impacted our lives in in multiple ways. The privileged among us have, for the most part, fired through, but there are millions who have faced the wrath of the virus and saw their lives divided. More than ever, we need empathy – to our planet, for humanity and for nature. Physical isolation has shown us how lonely and disconnected our lives can be and this made us realize the value of links and relationships.
In these difficult times, the arts have been a lifeline – keeping people all over the world full of spirits and hope. Seen in this context, the Indian classic dance has a lot to offer as its scope is the vast array of human emotions. Yes judiciously exploited and presented with authenticity, classical dance can touch people’s lives in immeasurable ways, reminding us that we are all a part of the same humanity.
Dance as an experience
In classical dance, the dancer, when he dances with serious intention, takes himself or herself himself in deep, vast and wonderful worlds. When the technique, imagination and intention come together, complexity gives way to essence and dance moves from a ‘performance’ to an ‘experience’. Vulnerability becomes a force for the artist to enter moments of passionate depth. This dance experience can be astounding – sometimes as vast as a panorama view of the mountains and at other times – as delicate as a dew drop on a lotus sheet. Tradition is no longer a set of rules, borders or codes of convention. Rather, it is fluid and fluid – with the artist’s moving improvisation towards hitherto unexplored spaces. Classical dance becomes a quest – an effortless investigation into the walls of tradition. By diving deep into an expanding consciousness, the artist touches deep levels to reveal beauty and truth. By following the intense wake of the dancing body, the public is invited to discover themselves.
Dance when presented as an experience is amazing in its ability to attract the spectator by the power of intention and suggestion at “aha” moments. When the spirit of dance inhabits the artist, the borders of culture, language, form and content become partners for a greater cause. And, when presented to him depth, classical dance becomes the umbilical cord that connects us to our inner self and – the world.
Performance and experience
Sometimes a solo classical dance performance can be considered entertaining, attractive or stimulating, especially when the artist is an effective communicator. Such performances are typically marked by a certain mastery of the form, safe and proven movement patterns, easy mastery of space, and a flamboyant sign language in his confidence. The audience at such times is delighted to be able to understand and “read” the dance. resulting in an excitement that permeates the viewer. And rightly so!
However, the real dance adventure could be a deeper journey that is experiential – where the viewer is led beyond the base camp of the expected, past gorges and cliffs of breathtaking beauty of interpretation, higher and higher at the top of the mountain to experience the euphoria of space, silence and countless new heights. This rite of passage involves the artist and viewer to embrace adventure, take risks and put aside the comfort of the experienced and tested.
If the work in solo or in ensemble remains a “performance”, we miss out on vitality of “experience” which refreshes the form and is an essential marker in Dance. If we prioritize understanding and reverse the ability to feel, dismissing it as unimportant, aren’t we eroding what makes us human? East is that enough to make dancing smart and entertaining? Or are we losing that quintessential vitality of classical dance – which must be moved, transformed, to be displaced from our ordinary self. Certainly, in a world that offers any type of entertainment, classical dance can be an instrument to show us other realities. Otherwise, we deny classical dance and ourselves the richness of life.
Solo and ensemble
The solo form has enormous potential and eminent artists through the years were celebrated for their unique art. This, in turn, encouraged a few younger dancers to hone their skills and continue the solo form despite it is an arduous process involving several years of sustained effort and training dedicated to skills, technique and emotion without guarantee of financial stability.
The last few years have seen a change in dance programming. More and more, the whole the work gained popularity and changed the choice of young dancers with many of them choose to dance in groups. In this environment, new directions have emerged in both solo and ensemble work. At some level there is success dance companies and dancers, astute enough to gain financial support or self-promote, who pack their productions with high production values and widely use social media to advance their work. Others visibly dominate with the large number of dancers they present in any performance, using patterns and poses, choral dance and thematic narration of the gods and goddesses, who instantly attract a mass audience, given the familiarity of these stories. There is yet another level of “group work” which has saw a proliferation of dancers, often mediocre or below the norm, group with aspiration to tour.
The change in preference for ensemble work has become more and more palpable in Lately. Big productions have “action-packed” dance, several dances bodies on stage, frequent costume changes, charged light design, recorded soundtrack or multiple musicians on stage with increased instrumentation. To dance is then relegated to impressing rather than expressing.
In this scenario, with the exception of a handful of artists who have distinguished themselves, most of the others form nebulous groups of varying qualities. With no merit-based or healthy differentiation that separates professionals from amateurs and aspiring dancers, this represents a disorganized sector. It is particularly demoralizing for young dancers pursuing the dance seriously in the tent because the system has lowered the bar allowing mediocrity to assert itself in no uncertain terms.
Since there is no arrangement between practitioners, organizers or presenters to separate mediocrity and excellence, the dance arena becomes free for all. The collapse of the quality and standard of dance in general and the lack of differentiation in particular have tarnished the programming, the quality of the dance and the dignity of serious professionals.
The heart of the matter
Presenting dance as an experience leaves the solo artist dependent on the instrument of the dancing body, intelligent concept, consummate art, and effortless technique to keep the audience spellbound. Accompanied by musicians or dancing to recorded music, the solo program can also be enriched by high-level production values, with sophisticated sound and lightweight design. The need of the hour is to reappropriate the solo form in all its beauty and splendor, rediscover the nuances and transform classical dance from a simple performance to a useful experience.
Whether solo or in ensemble, the key question is the role of Indian classical music dance in the present day and its potential to adapt significantly to remain salient in the face of popular options. My own experience in solo Bharata Natyam dance took me on an inner journey to the heart of the matter – which is the relationship. Relationship with the world, with people, with nature. When this happens, the boundaries soften and the dance doesn’t stay a style with codes and conventions but which transforms to become an essential language of the heart and the mind. The dance repeats that without relation, life is empty. The dance is empty.
If a dancer chooses the path of solo dancing and dives deep, there are untold treasures and countless discoveries in the language of dance, vast content to choose from, amazing moments of harmony, hidden moments of dance. wonder and endless inspiration. Because in the magical moment of ‘rasa ‘when the dancer is the dance, both artist and spectator, meet in a moment of indescribable happiness. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Malavika Sarukkai is an adancer, choreographer and mentor.