Thinking about dance

Sundar Sarukkai looks at an ancient Indian way of understanding linguistics to understand contemporary dance and asks if it needs to shift outside the proscenium space to be fully experienced.

What are we doing when we view a dance performance? Are we looking at the dancers, their movements, the stage, listening to the music....? What is it to ‘see’ a dance, to ‘feel’ a dance?

There is a difference between seeing a dance (and in general movement on a stage) and seeing an object. When watching dance, we are watching not the object in itself but the object along with the way it is moving. So in a sense dance makes us focus on the perception of movement. One of the great challenges of viewing dance and understanding it lies in this difficulty of actually watching a movement as against watching an object. The reason is that our sight is so absorbed by the object that we often reduce movement to the position of the dancing object at various times. That is, movement of an object from a point A to a point B is largely seen by us to be a series of positions between A and B occupied by an object.

This reduction of movement into an object and its spatial location has also been used famously by the great Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, as the argument to reject anything called motion. His argument is that there is nothing called motion since to understand motion we need only the object (which is apparently moving) and a series of locations which it inhabits.

Nagarjuna’s argument is a very apt description of how many of us tend to see movement. We ‘watch’ movement by watching the objects that move. We perceive movement by only seeing these objects (say dancers) move from one point to another. But this is not to view dance since the greatest challenge in viewing dance is the challenge and the skill needed to be able to watch the movement without getting immersed in the object. In other words, watching a dance is to be able to see the movement of the dancer without seeing the dancer.

How is this possible since our perception only allows us to see objects which have qualities that can be seen like colour or shape? How do we perceive the quality of movement that characterises dance? Is there a property of a movement which we can see, hear, feel or otherwise perceive?

Try and imagine how you mark out the trajectory of a moving object. Let us say an object moves in a circle. We see the object moving but we do not ‘see’ the circle like we see the object. The circle has no material quality that makes it perceptible for us. However, think of how we see shapes of a cloud or of a moving airplane. We see the path of a plane even when we do not see the plane – the exact reverse of watching a dancer on stage! The path of a plane is the trace, the exhaust of the engines of the plane which creates a picture of a diffused path of the plane.

In the same manner, we can train ourselves to see the movement in themselves. The trick to doing this is to be able to perceive the traces which the movement leaves and which can be perceived and felt. I will just give two examples of these traces and many of you might be able to add other forms of these traces.

Every movement leaves a trace, leaves an impression as it moves. In fact, we could claim that if there is movement without leaving some impression or the other, then that is not really a movement.

A movement leaves its trace in these two ways: in our memory and within our body. We are aware that a body is moving when we connect previous memories together in a specific way. So when an object moves I remember its first position and at the end of the movement I put together the different memories and string them together to make a movement. I would like to suggest that this process is very similar to what happens when we listen to a word. According to a very important theory held by many Indian philosophical schools called the sphota theory, the way we understand the meaning of a word is as follows: we have memories of the earlier syllables of a word and at the sound of the last syllable they all come together in an explosion of meaning. Thus the last sound in combination with the memories of the previous sound gives rise to the cognition of the meaning of that word. In a similar way, we can consider the sphota theory of movement as a cognitive awareness of movement which is a combination of the perception of the final state of the moving object along with the memory of the previous states.

But this view does not really capture movement per se but only its materiality – that is, this view reduces movement to its objects and to material substrates of memory. However, the other way of perceiving motion is far more perceptual and this is through experiencing motion via the body. Our body in watching dance (or listening to music) moves. That is the way we experience motion because in watching motion we duplicate it in ourselves. It is a great pity that we watch dance performances imprisoned in auditorium chairs because the way we experience dance is to ‘move with it’. No wonder the body is so central to dance, not just because the body dances but because the spectator watches dance not through her eyes but through her whole body. This is the only way the spectators can perceive a dance and not just see dancers who move.

Sundar Sarukkai


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

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