What is contemporary dance trying to say?

Or how to make sense of the dance of the body within the dance of capitalism

Published - April 28, 2018 04:13 pm IST

Contemporary dance as a space of the ‘unexpected’.

Contemporary dance as a space of the ‘unexpected’.

In a peach of a wedding sequence in Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor (2012), a Punjabi teaches a Bengali the nuances of Bhangra. For the shell-shocked pishima (paternal aunt), he deconstructs the rapidly rotating wrists of the two hands, held alternately above either side of the head and abruptly jerked down in front, simply as bulb utaaro, thalle rakho — unscrew the bulb, put it down. The otherwise ungainly, awkward gesture is suddenly invested with a contemporary — and mundane — meaning.

I was reminded of this a few days ago, reading a piece by contemporary dancer Astad Deboo who said, of his latest collaboration with dhrupad musician Bahauddin Dagar, that his dance “means what I make it mean”.

Beyond adoration

This has been one of the issues confronting contemporary Indian dance — what does it mean? What is it trying to say? Is there an easy method to enter it and deconstruct it? The conventional dance forms survive on a clearer mandate — their job is to adore those in power, divine or profane. It is the essence of their storytelling. All beauty, grace and artistic conceit is a factor in hero-worshipping the Lord, the lover, the king. The intent is naïve and transparent.

Contemporary dance, however, ruptures this comfort zone of elitist, casteist, sexist narratives. Devoid of a canon and invested with a de-mystified, de-sacralised semantic, what is its narrative intent? As the quantum of festivals, seminars, performances and workshops around contemporary dance increases, so does the chorus of voices, heavy with a new aesthetic hysteria that screams, ‘It’s wonderful, but for heaven’s sake will someone tell us what it is all about?’

Is it a post-modern art form that scoffs at the idea of meaning and prefers the self-affirming language of form, shape, space and time? Or is it so entirely self-indulgent in its subjectivity that it seems to become as narcissistic as the classical genre it critiques? Or is it so dry and formalistic that it disables a sensuous response, abandoning audiences to abstract images devoid of reference and movements sanitised of social content?

After all, dance vocabularies in the diverse Indian forms derive from nature — animals, birds, insects — and from a repertoire of working class movements of labour, struggle and quotidian everyday life.

Bhangra itself is a rich archive of the body within an agrarian cycle of ploughing, sowing and harvesting. The scaffolding of classical Kathakali rests on the rigours of a martial form like Kalarippayattu. In Chhau, there is the culturally specific gobar gola or a movement simulating the rotating of a leg in a vat of cow dung to prepare the paste that is applied on walls and thresholds. In performance it transmutes into a robust martial movement which celebrates rootedness, balance and a dynamic forward thrust.

Of course, one is not new to this feverish ‘search for meaning’. Dancer Chandralekha was bombarded with this question through the ’80s and ’90s as she interrogated the Bharatanatyam form and its decadent content while infusing it with contemporary energy. The bafflement has only increased over the past decade as newer platforms have opened up for non-definitional performative works which take from multiple sources and wish to free viewers from the obligation to narrativise.

The criticism is, of course, plebeian and banal. It is as if by doing an alarippu, varnam or tillana one stays squarely within the ambit of meaning and comprehension and audiences return suitably enlightened, but that if one abstracts and deconstructs those very same formats to lines, jumps, tilts, rolls or pauses, all meaning breaks down and audiences are left bewildered and the art work melts into a morass of meaninglessness.

Cultural complexity

It harks back to a pre-modern infantalisation of the idea of representation that has been critiqued, for example, in visual art history as a period when art was equated with ‘culture’ and art works stood as cultural markers of specific hegemonies. But under conditions of post-modernism, all such sureties are challenged, as the idea of ‘culture’ gets complex and attenuated and art tends to transform into a medium that no longer needs to reinforce the cultural stereotype or coda, but emerges as a tool with which to recover the reconstituted narrative of our times. It is then a new language with new lexical and indexical premises which transmit entirely new meanings.

Writing about ‘Samabhavana’, a recent dance event in Kolkata, sociology professor Niloshree Bhattacharya explored a new language. She compared the multiplicity of approaches in contemporary dance to sand dunes in Jaisalmer. “The dunes constantly shift, taking different shapes and forms and one is always in doubt in a desert… It is almost impossible to capture such a constantly shifting landscape in a frame without taking into account one's own location… The sheer fluidity of the shifting forms of dance in India and our efforts to frame them… is like trying to capture the fluidity of the dunes and fix it in time”.

Performing body

Rather than leave this unaddressed and confined to a chamber of dark silences, as we are adept at doing here, it is perhaps time to acknowledge that contemporary dance may be that space of the ‘unexpected’, emerging from rigorous practice and aesthetic struggle, which anticipates a new freedom for the body. It critiques the rigid model of body representation that the tussle between feudalism and capitalism has enshrined here – a regimented, paralysed body, trapped in its own effete response to both oppression and change.

The ‘performing body’, however, is no match for the shifting sands of ‘performing capitalism’, which has overtaken the transformative potential of contemporary dance, no longer intent on accomplishing a critical function. This is unfortunate as it opens up contemporary dance to the habits and environment of global capitalism and its spectacle economy. Body, dance, movement, gesture get reduced to virtuosity and technique which becomes its own obsolete trap, making us forget that the original intent of new technique was, in fact, transformation.

Contemporary dance cannot afford to forget this urgent need to be part of transformative urges in today’s neo-liberal cult of performance. Dance can matter only as an effective counter-current, challenging commoditised bodies, radicalising one’s subjectivities and imagining emancipatory sensualities by which the body emerges cleansed and radiant and autonomous in this dark period of vile and violent attacks on the body.

The writer has been associated with the Indian contemporary dance movement for three decades now.

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