Contemporary or Classical – Soul’s Myriad Expressions

Published in Dharani Kalotsav Souvenier 2012 

Dance to me is pure joy and liberation. Over the years, dance has become a vital part of me, enriching my identity. Every time I perform, practice, choreograph, or teach dance, I find myself brimming with ever-new joy.

I am often asked: “How do I define my style of dancing?” Trained in Bharatanatyam, Kathak, and Modern dance, I find it challenging to label my dancing style or choose my favorite from among them.

When I perform Bharatanatyam, the experience is beautiful. With its characteristic angular movements, poised stances, the quickened flow of energy in the body and the devout act of retelling the mythological stories, their vibrant imageries, and cathartic emotions through abhinaya, I find Bharatanatyam an art form complete in itself.

Similarly, Kathak with its fluid graceful movements, the fast footwork, the euphoric chakkars and the subtle abhinaya, becomes a meditative practice.  

However, I believe that these classical dance forms and their boundaries can be intelligently and creatively explored to situate their relevance and import in this modern age.

Modernizing classical dance is an umbrella term used to denote the following: the portrayal of a contemporary theme or idea within the format of a particular classical dance form; modernized presentation of a classical dance number using unique stage design and lights; retelling an ancient story by drawing parallels with what is relevant today or innovatively re-defined dance space and dance music. 

Then again, modernizing classical dance has its inherent challenges. To me, the foremost of them is to keep the essence of the classical form intact while experimenting with it. Our predecessors propounded and codified rules for classical and traditional dance forms to achieve the sole objective of elevating the sensibilities of the dancer and the rasika, the art connoisseur to bring them closer to the Supreme Being. Titillating the mind and senses was never the goal.

Classical art over the years has had fewer rasikas compared to popular art. Unfortunately, in their eagerness to entice the uninitiated, some artists deviate from the higher purposes of classical art and seek to provide instant entertainment. This fleeting experience of recreation causes a spiraling down of energy levels as quickly as the rise. Moreover, when they plummet, a vacuum is created within, making the audience crave for more instant gratification. They are led astray and the journey becomes pointless; the dancer becomes a mere performer and not a complete artist. Often, the exuberant dancers are appreciated more than the talented ones even by the so called art connoisseurs and literati.

To expand the audience base of classical dances and woo potential rasikas, it would be worthwhile to introduce compulsory courses on art appreciation in every educational institution and periodic art workshops / lecture-demonstrations in corporate companies. An initiated and refined audience not only enjoys art more but also creates an environment that encourages and supports real art and its practitioners.

As an artist, I try to steer away from the danger of succumbing to what is appealing to the masses as opposed to what enriches the spiritual growth of humankind. However, I do aspire to connect with my audience. To remain true to the form and, at the same time, appeal to the sensibilities of even an uninitiated audience is difficult, but not impossible. 

Aspiring to work within the pristine form of classical styles does not prevent me from experimenting in what we all call contemporary dance. My training in classical dances, Indian martial art forms and Modern dance techniques define and fashion my contemporary dance choreographies. They have molded me into a better dancer, choreographer, and performing artist.

A lot of influences shape an artist’s unique style. In my case, what began as an imitation and emulation of my Gurus has now evolved into a style that is very individual. Various dance forms that I have been trained in also have left an indelible mark on my style of choreography. Most importantly, my style evolves as I teach the three dance forms. Teaching, after all, is another name for learning. Being methodical and analytical and possessing a scientific knowledge of the anatomy help me, and in turn my students, to be precise and accurate in movements and expressions. At the same time, giving them the freedom to convey what is natural to each of them brings out their individuality and broad vistas to express and explore themselves and their art.

When I choreograph a contemporary dance piece, I work with the content. The fact remains that I am trained in more than one style of dance and influenced by all of them. I do not consciously blend modern and classical dance forms. The first step is visualization of the entire dance piece in my mind. The second step is finding the viable physical application of the imageries that I have visualized. Therefore, the transition between forms of dance is smooth and natural and is guided by the clear intent of the expression of the theme and narrative. The movements and narrative become interwoven.

For instance, in my most recent choreography, Flight from the Shadow, the starting point was the visualization of a man who loathed his own shadow. Afraid, angry, frustrated, and disgusted with his shadow, he tries to get away from it. Using the phrase “afraid of my shadow” as a launch pad to begin the movement-exploration, I encouraged my dancers to try numerous ways of expressing it until the most convincing, communicative and aesthetically fulfilling imagery was discovered. More movements were explored the same way and added to the repertoire to choreograph the entire piece.

Contrary to the common belief, modern dance techniques have rules like classical and traditional dances. When I choreograph a contemporary dance piece, rules are constantly and repeatedly made and broken to allow room for expression.

Returning from London in 2002 after working with leading contemporary dance choreographers including Shobana Jeyasingh, Wayne Mc Gregor, and Laurie Booth for seven years, I found the Indian contemporary dance landscape experimenting slowly but steadily. Over the past ten years, contemporary dance scene in India has progressed remarkably and found its identity. More and more contemporary dancers teach the art form and perform professionally. A growing number of enthusiastic, young, and talented contemporary dancers are experimenting with novel ideas and incorporating innovative methods into their choreographies. In addition, dance schools that teach different modern dance forms and techniques are mushrooming all over the country. Today, the contemporary dance scene in India is a vibrant creative space.

Now western contemporary dance companies find Indian venues a coveted platform to showcase their works. As they tour India, they get acquainted with and appreciate our classical and contemporary art. The day Indian Contemporary Dance will be recognized globally as a fully developed dance form, just like European, American and African contemporary dance, is not far away.

Art is not about sticking to the tradition or breaking away from it; Art is the non-linear recursive process of a quest for the divine, sometimes reached through new paths and some other times through ancient ones.

So when I try to answer the oft-asked question about my dance style, I grope for words. As Martha Graham so expressively stated, “The body says what words cannot.” Dance in all its forms is nothing but myriad expressions of the Soul.

Contemporary dance in India

1st March 2010

How different a dance form is Contemporary dance in India?

Assuming that the question means – how different is it from the rest of the world; among the answers we received, one was that contemporary dance in India is Indian.

How does one define “Indianess” in relation to contemporary dance? Does it mean the usage of elements of existing Indian dance and martial art forms or themes from Indian stories be it folk, mythological or historical or borrowing motifs from Indian classical or folk dance costumes and jewellery or jazzed up Indian music…..What exactly is Indianess?

So, by just whipping a dance piece with a slice of classical dance, a dash of martial art form, a pinch of folklore, a sprinkle of yoga and acrobatics, could one call it Indian Contemporary dance or for that matter contemporary dance? All beautiful explanations of metaphor and philosophy still do not satisfy either a professional or a layman for the simple reason that it is not visible.

I would like to approach the subject from a totally different angle and from my own experience. I will not delve too much into the history of dance either of India or of the West. It is though very important to recollect that contemporary dance or Modern dance (as it was called those days) in India started around the same time when classical dances were being revived. It did not receive the same impetus as the classical dances did, but now there is a lot of work happening in the field of contemporary dance, all experimental like before. Indian contemporary dance choreographers never rebelled against the Indian classical dance forms like in the West to create something new because of which there is no specific dance technique in India called Contemporary dance like Bharatanatyam or Kathak or Graham or Cunningham.

I would like to stress on dance technique because that is what is lacking in any experimental work. Communicating an idea through contemporary dance is a whole different story. It is simpler to work within a given frame work of a particular dance technique rather than when there are no specified boundaries. I have worked in both the circumstances. I have had to make and break my own rules when it came to the latter. That’s where innovation and aesthetics step in.

Every creative artist working in the direction of creating contemporary dance is still in the process of finding a unique dance vocabulary and for me the wonderful part of the journey is the journey itself. When I worked with leading contemporary dance choreographers of London including Shobana Jeyasingh (Shobana Jeyasingh dance company), Wayne Mc Gregor (Random dance company) , Laurie Booth, the process of creating a movement or my own story was very interesting and challenging.

The starting point of creation for me is sometimes from the known and the end result may or may not be similar or familiar. A strong base in any dance style be it Indian or otherwise helps one understand that the basic concept of energy that emerges from the centre, is common to all dance forms. Once the creator or dancer understands such many concepts practically (I insist), then the whole idea of dance itself becomes enjoyable.

Didn’t Bharata in his Natyashastra say that he has mentioned and explained as much as he knows and from there everytning is open to further exploration? Didn’t Martha Graham say that finally everything boils down to good dance or bad dance?

In this context it is vital that incorporating ideas and movement vocabulary that were born from outside our country is not a sin. How one incorporates it and how it is utilized to communicate is the core point and that does not make us any less Indian either in spirit or in the nature of the dance that has been created. If one glanced at history, there have been instances of well known Western Choreographers and dancers who have been inspired by our vast heritage. The whole exchange of ideas has evolved dance beautifully in India and the West. Take a simple example of the proscenium stage or the use of technology for dance in India. Is anybody complaining?

Chitra Arvind – Artistic Director of Rhythmotion Indian classical & contemporary dance company, India