To the dancer poised at the threshold of an empty space, what does freedom mean? Is it the wherewithal to move horizontally, vertically and diagonally (or not move at all), unrestrained by temporal, stylistic, thematic, melodic or rhythmic concerns? Is freedom an idea situated in the form - specifically, in the absence of it; or, does one find freedom in how one conceives of one’s creative practice? In the context of contemporary dance, if freedom is the absence of a specific form – or more optimistically, a suggestion of infinite possibilities, how does one discern, and make meaning, as a choreographer and as a viewer? And as we derive meaning, how do we find and pinpoint rigour in what is created? Finally, what constitutes rigour in a contemporary performance practice?
These questions originated two years ago, after I attended a private screening of a film on contemporary dance in India. As the only classical dancer present at the informal conversation that followed, I was asked if I found classical dance restrictive, in its clear allegiance to a particular technique and style. Didn’t contemporary dance afford dancers more freedom, doing away with boundaries on the path to absolute self-expression? Despite my insistence that I personally did not feel restrained by Odissi and found in it a world much larger than the one I inhabited outside the dance, my questioners remained largely unconvinced. Their doubts may have stemmed from a persistent detail in the trajectory of contemporary dance practitioners in India – there is a whole generation with roots in classical training and performance, and they chose to move beyond classical form in the process of finding their voice as choreographers. But while this is an individual and deeply personal discontent, specific to its time, it is a little over-reaching to interpret it as an endemic limitation of classical dance practice.
How does one view contemporary dance, and understand it? There is no conclusive answer. Contemporary dance can be ‘liminal’ and problematically enough, its liminality can function as a convenient disguise for physical and conceptual ambiguity. In the understanding of freedom as form-resistant practice lies the nebulousness of the contemporary. Intent and meaning in contemporary dance are subjective processes. Does this subjectivity, by default, validate all creative expression that might flourish under the umbrella of the contemporary? There is a thin line between self-expression and self-indulgence, and it can be censorious to point out where one dissolves into the other.
How does a dancer practice the contemporary? When the tangible discipline of a form is non-existent, or is yet to be created, what does one rehearse, repeat or revisit? Add to that the predilection for movement responses that are not ‘comfortable’ or easy to arrive at, and the notion of a ‘free’ form is further contested. Performance maker Sujay Saple shared his views. “With the act of exploring freedom comes great responsibility. There is an instinctive recognition of that which is rigorous. I am not trained in any particular form, and I do not aspire or ascribe to any form. When I create work, the idea is to de-historicise the body and bring it into a neutral space. Which is not to discount what the body has learnt, but to take that a step ahead. The rehearsal process is like a laboratory where performers re-explore their own bodies, journeys and practices in a new context. The need to do this is specific, so high, that the rigour just comes. In the pursuit of freedom, how do you search for an indigenous language? That is where the rigour lies,” he said.
In the classical dance world, a common and cruel stereotype of the contemporary dancer is that of an amoeba-like creature flailing its limbs in space and writhing across the floor. Besides the difference in form, the disdain for the contemporary, among traditional practitioners, has a lot to do with dissimilar notions of the amount of time one needs to invest in the honing of a performance practice. Some years ago, I remember being horrified when a contemporary dancer friend asked me if she could take a drop-in Odissi class. I was thinking along the lines of – yes, only if you can keep dropping in for ten years. It felt presumptuous to assume that one could absorb something about a dance idiom in one class. It took a lot of unlearning to dissociate commitment from time, and to appreciate that even the most fleeting engagement with a dance idiom can have significant personal meaning.
While learning can be a continuous process, contemporary dance’s peculiar relationship with time, especially in the case of younger practitioners, also emerges from the nature and duration of formal dance training available within India. The average length of institutionalised contemporary dance courses is one year. Their influences can range from ballet to modern dance technique to classical dance to martial performance to contemporary dance technique, based on the stylistic leanings of their parent companies. When students graduate from the course, it is up to them to find their own affinities with or through form, or work on other ways of enhancing their skills as contemporary dancers.
How crucial is it, to have form? How can you begin to be at home in it, and yet arrive at unconditioned and challenging articulations in movement? “The kind of training you have had trickles into the kind of movement you might create, regardless of whether you consciously respond to it. My starting point may be very particular, but I don’t feel like I have to be loyal to a form in what I am doing. However, all movement has to come from somewhere and you have to push the envelope to find it. The rigour begins when you start thinking about something, and begins to reflect in your work when you have invested enough time and thought in it,” said dancer and choreographer Avantika Bahl. Contemporary dance in India has few anchors, she felt. “Sometimes, it can be overwhelming to have so much space and no defined framework. To be able to streamline that feeling, it is nice for the body to have something to go back to.”
Ligament, the online dance journal, has been launched to reflect the keen rise in the interest to contextualise, reflect and voice the goings-on around contemporary dance practices in the South Asian region. It has been envisioned as an avenue that is aimed at prompting and encouraging a sustained engagement between contemporary dance practitioners, thinkers, writers, artistic practitioners from other mediums, stakeholders and the wider public. Over the past editions of the Attakkalari Dance Biennial, there has been a continuous effort to create a space for writing on dance; and with this squarely in mind, Ligament has been conceived as a platform to facilitate the much-needed articulation and thinking through this evolving language. We hope to accomplish this by looking at this artistic practice through the perspective of historical threads that helped shape, through practice and creation of work, which is adding and solidifying the ever-changing lexicon and its presentation, or even through research and scholarship. The endeavour is to make this an open, creative and vibrant forum that invites ideas, contributions and suggestions allowing for the collective development of this artistic practice in the South Asian context; as well as mapping its links and impacts on contemporary dance as a whole. On one hand, it is about looking at contemporary dance as a growing repository of our present realities and on the other hand delving into our rich heritage of physical and performative traditions in an attempt to seek continuum and elucidate the now. In an attempt to ravel the medium of contemporary dance, We aren’t simply interested in text as a mode of expressing, reading, examining and looking at contemporary dance but to reflect the dynamic and interactive nature of the movement arts, we are also looking towards image, sound and video and the practitioners of these mediums to create and catalyse conversations. We hope that dialogue and discourse enabled through Ligament opens various entry points into the ongoing shifts in contemporary dance for its lovers, practitioners, enablers and its future.
- Jayachandran Palazhy
Artistic Director, Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts