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Why Classical Dance Must Move From Performance to Experience

Malavika Sarukkai
Feb 20, 2021
The need of the hour is to reclaim the solo form and rediscover nuance.

“In order to understand the dance, one must be still. And in order to truly understand stillness, one must dance”.

– Rumi (13th century CE) 

Space is silent, holding potential. The dancer enters, gives birth to movement and the magic begins. Space is sculpted, energised and redesigned. Imagination takes flight and hitherto unknown worlds come into being as the dancing body takes us into the inner spaces of the heart and mind. 

These magical moments in theatres everywhere have been halted for the time being as the pandemic has devastated the world and impacted our lives in multiple ways. The privileged amongst us, for the most part, have pulled through, but there are millions who have faced the wrath of the virus and seen their lives split asunder. More than ever before, we need empathy – for our planet, for humanity, and for nature. Physical isolation has shown us how lonely and disconnected our lives can be and it has made us realise the value of bonds and relationships. 

During these challenging times, the Arts have been a lifeline – keeping people all over the world spirited and hopeful. Seen in this context, Indian classical dance has much to offer as its span is the vast range of human emotions. If harnessed judiciously, and presented with authenticity, classical dance can touch people’s lives in immeasurable ways, reminding us that we are all part of the same humanity.  

Dance as experience 

In classical dance, the dancer when dancing with serious intent, takes herself or himself into worlds that are deep, expansive and wondrous. When technique, imagination and intent come together, complexity gives way to essence and dance moves from being a ‘performance’ to an ‘experience’. Vulnerability be comes strength for the artist to enter moments of passionate depth. This experience of dance can be astounding – sometimes as vast as a panoramic view of mountains and at other times – as delicate as a dewdrop on a lotus leaf. Tradition then is no longer a set of rules, boundaries or codes of convention. Rather, it is fluid and free flowing – with improvisation moving the artist to spaces previously unexplored. Classical dance becomes a quest– an effortless investigation of the precincts of tradition. By diving deep into an expanding consciousness, the artiste touches profound levels to reveal beauty and truth. Following the intense trail of the dancing body, the audience is invited to discover itself.

Also read: Why the Solo Classical Dancer Needs to be Saved

Dance when presented as an experience is amazing in its ability to draw the viewer through the power of intention and suggestion to ‘aha’ moments. When dance spirit inhabits the artiste, boundaries of culture, language, form and content become partners for a greater cause. And, when presented with depth, classical dance becomes the umbilical cord which connects us with our inner selves and – the world. 

Performance and Experience 

Sometimes, a solo presentation of classical dance can be seen as entertaining, attractive or stimulating, especially when the artiste is an eloquent communicator. Such performances are typically marked by a certain mastery over form, confident ‘tried and tested’ patterns of movements, an easy command of space, and a gesture language which is flamboyant in its confidence. The audience at such times is thrilled to be able to understand, and ’read’ the dance leading to an excitement that pervades the viewer. And rightly so! 

‘Is it enough to make dance clever and entertaining?’ A Kuchipudi dancer. Photo: P Das Arayil/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

However, the true adventure in dance could be a deeper journey which is experiential – where the viewer is led beyond the base camp of the expected, past gorges and cliffs of breath taking beauty of the interpretative, higher and higher to the top of the mountain to experience the exhilaration of space, silence and countless new peaks. This rite of passage involves the artist and viewer to embrace adventure, take risk and set aside the comfort of the tried and tested. 

If solo or ensemble work remains a ‘performance’, we miss out on the vitality of ‘experience’ which refreshes the form and is an essential marker in classical dance. If we prioritise comprehension and subvert the ability to feel, by dismissing it as unimportant, are we not eroding that which makes us human? Is it enough to make dance clever and entertaining? Or are we losing that quintessential vitality of classical dance – which is to be moved, to be transformed, to be displaced from our ordinary selves. Surely, in a world that provides every kind of entertainment, classical dance can be an instrument to show us other realities. If not, we deny classical dance and ourselves the richness of life. 

Also read: ‘I Believe Dance is a ‘Project’ To Enable a Recovery of the Body, of Our Spine’

Solo and ensemble 

The solo form has tremendous potential and eminent artists through the years have been celebrated for their unique artistry. This, in turn has encouraged some younger dancers to hone their skills and pursue the solo form in spite of it being an arduous process involving several years of sustained effort and dedicated training in skill, technique and emotion with no guarantee of financial stability.

Recent years have seen a shift in programming dance. Increasingly, ensemble work has gained popularity and altered choice for younger dancers with many of them opting to dance in a group. In this milieu, new directions have emerged in both, solo and ensemble work. At one level there are successful dance companies and dancers, shrewd enough to secure financial backing or self promote, who package their productions with elevated production values and use social media extensively to advance their work. Others visibly dominate with the sheer number of dancers they present in any performance, using patterns and poses, chorus dancing and thematic story-telling of gods and goddesses, which instantaneously appeal to mass audiences, given the familiarity of these stories. There is yet another level of ‘group work’ which has seen a mushrooming of dancers, often of middling or below par standard, band together with the aspiration to tour. 

The shift in preference to ensemble work has become increasingly palpable in recent times. Large productions have ‘action packed’ dancing, several dancing bodies on stage, frequent costume changes, a busy light design, recorded soundtrack or several musicians on stage with increased instrumentation. Dance then is relegated to impress rather than express. 

In this scenario, save for a handful of artistes who have been able to differentiate themselves, most others form nebulous groups of varying qualities. With no merit based or healthy differentiation which separates professionals from amateurs and wannabe dancers this represents a disorganised sector. This is particularly demoralising for younger dancers pursuing dance with serious in tent as the system has lowered the bar allowing mediocrity to state itself in no uncertain terms. 

Since there is no arrangement among practitioners, organisers or presenters to separate mediocrity and excellence, the dance arena becomes free for all. The landslide in quality and standard of dance in general and the lack of differentiation in particular have tarnished programming, quality of dance and the dignity of serious professionals. 

Also read: How Dance Therapy Can Help People With Depression and Memory Issues

The heart of the matter 

Presenting dance as experience leaves the solo artist dependent on the instrument of the dancing body, intelligent concept, consummate artistry and effortless technique to keep the audience spellbound. Accompanied by musicians or dancing to recorded music, the solo programme can also be enhanced by production values of high standard, together with a sophisticated sound and light design. The need of the hour is to reclaim the solo form in all its beauty and splendour, rediscover nuance and move classical dance from being mere performance to a purposeful experience. 

Whether solo or ensemble, the key question is the role of Indian classical dance in present times and its potential to meaningfully adapt to remain salient, in the face of popular options. My own experience in dancing solo Bharata Natyam has taken me on an inner journey to the heart of the matter – which is relationship. Relationship with the world, with people, with nature. When that happens, boundaries become supple and dance no longer remains a style with codes and conventions but transforms to become an essential language of the heart and mind. Dance reiterates that without relationship, life is empty. Dance is empty. 

Should a dancer choose the path of solo dancing and dive deep, there are untold treasures and innumerable discoveries in the language of dance, expansive content to choose from, astonishing moments of harmony, hidden moments of wonderment and endless inspiration. For in the magic moment ofrasa’ when the dancer is the dance, both artist and viewer, meet in a shared moment of unspeakable bliss. Nothing more. Nothing less. 

Malavika Sarukkai is a dancer, choreographer and mentor. 

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