Mythili Prakash, a young California-based dancer talks about the absence of professionalism in the performance space. Is it a worthy compromise of quality and dignity of presentation? Is the better choice quantity, at the cost of quality, she asks
The ‘season’ as it is known all around the world generates tons of excitement. And understandably, for it is collectively the largest and most extensive arts festival in the world.
I often wonder about the image this description conjures up in the minds of those who have not experienced it, and how far that is from reality. When one thinks of an arts festival, many things such as the following are assumed – selection of artists based on quality, a ticket-purchasing audience that sits in the theatre (not canteen!), proper introduction to artists, tech time allocated to each performing team for sound check and lights with a capable technical crew, clean stage (in this case, suitable for bare-foot dancing), well-maintained curtains/backdrop, hygienically-maintained dressing rooms, bathrooms and backstage and, (most ironically) payment that covers expenses, including one's own performance fee. Burning question: Why are these standards not maintained in our season? Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect some of the above, given the sheer number of performances in a venue on a given day, and the number of days that make up the season.
But is it a worthy compromise of quality and dignity of presentation? Is the better choice quantity, at the cost of quality?
If we could adopt better standards in our festival season, it would, without doubt, be the most formidable in the world. The solution, I believe, lies in the simple phrase, ‘less is more.' Let us first examine the performance space, itself. The backstage needs to be hygienically maintained. The stage ought to be well swept and clean. Importantly, a proper dancing floor is called for as opposed to many of the existing ones which are slippery and uneven – not merely distracting but dangerous for the dancer! Most of this lies in the hands of the organisers. They should, of course, be supported by a capable hired technical staff, ensuring for a smooth, well-running performance.
Now of course, if we expect high standards from their end, we cannot compromise our standard of performance. This seemingly obvious statement reflects a big struggle in the dance scene – getting enough rehearsal time with the musicians. The quality of the artists may be wonderful, yes, but the fact that two rehearsals prior to the show feels like a bonus is a little disconcerting. Isn't it “teamwork” rather than “accompaniment”? Why has it become the norm to manage with the bare minimum, rather than working to present our best?
Unfortunately, the neglect of ‘less is more' has trickled down to the quality of the audience. Attention spans have gotten shorter (I see it in myself too!). Thanks to the ‘kutcheri-hopping' phenomenon, members of the audience can rarely sit through a whole performance as there are millions of other things going on at the same time. The season is no doubt exciting, a buzz in the air, lots to do and see (and eat!). I love the opportunity it gives me to see and hear so much, and as a dancer – to work on and share new work from the margam repertoire. But it is the casualness in professionalism and aesthetics of presentation that really need to shape up. Of course it is unfair to compare closely our situation here to festivals abroad, in which artists are so well taken care of. But, some basic guidelines must be followed.
Performing artists need to be compensated properly. It is virtually impossible in the season that a dancer would be compensated enough to cover his/her costs. The orchestra is paid its fee no matter what (in some cases even the sabhas are paid!), but for the dancer to receive a performance fee is the least of all concerns. Organisers seem to believe that because we do it out of the sheer love for the art, it ceases to be a profession. How can artists be expected to survive? There is a reality to our profession – our love won't pay for our expenses. And if the organisers don't understand or respect our time and work, it is most disconcerting. We are serious about our art. We need to be taken seriously by our fellow artists, musicians, organisers, technical artists, and audience. Bottom line: If it is unfeasible for the organisers to compensate artists, then clearly it is unfeasible for the organisers to hold a performance festival.
The west has influenced cinema, music, food, clothing and lifestyle. But we have the undeniable upper hand when it comes to our amazing art forms. And the season is the perfect opportunity to celebrate this. Shouldn't we celebrate with sophistication? When will the level of professionalism that the art deserves creep its way into the season?
(Mythili Prakash is a young California-based Bharatanatyam dancer)