Sunday, April 20, 2008

What is Dance?

Dance...what is dance? In a philosophy class that was conducted at Attakkalari, this question was raised. And the end result was an assignment we had to submit. We were given a week or so to complete the assignment and hand it in. I spent most of that time wondering how the hell I would ever manage to answer this question - What is dance? How was I going to define something so large? Why was it so difficult to define something that meant so much to me?

Artists are sometimes so aware of their creativity and so confident about their creative potential that they disregard the need to address things from an intellectual perspective. I think it's very easy to say - Dance is life. Dance is energy. Dance is birth and death. Dance is everything and in everyone.

But really...what is dance? What have the wise ones who dedicated their lives to making sense of so much in the world that we take for granted? What have they said about dance over the centuries of methodical, logical and philosophical thought?

Can you imagine...Dance as a topic of aesthetic concern first appeared in philosophical literature in Plato’s Laws, where it figured as an educational device – a way in which public dance festivals are to celebrate and enhance civic order. Plato’s idea was that dance was that sort of body movement which should be expected to confer an improvement of physique, manners or morals.

Writing a little later than Plato, Aristotle observed that dance steps can be used to imitate emotion and character as well as action, and the question how this can be so became a part of the resources of aesthetics through the repeated revivals of his work.

In the early 18th century, the system of fine arts found little room for dance. In the pure aesthetic that Emmanuel Kant developed in his third Critique, dance hardly appears, perhaps for the same reason that he denied true beauty to the face tattooings of the Maori, saying that one cannot separate the patterning from the human reality of the face, so that the aesthetic judgment becomes confused with sentiment. Kant clearly did not think much of dance!

A quite different way of looking at art developed in late 18thcentury romanticism. Art and language, according to this train of thought, could have only arisen among humans through the development of significance in undifferentiated body movements – in effect, in dance. A Cartesian thought, at some level. This leads to something else that I have doubts about. Are other beings, e.g. animals like monkeys, sea mammals like dolphins, insects like butterflies - incapable of dance? But this calls for another whole different blog entry!

In the 19th century, dance was seen as exploiting the movement potential of bodies whose beauty comes from health and efficiency, as opposed to an enhancement and celebration of social graces. By the end of the century, athletics, gymnastics, movement education, and dance went hand in hand. This convergence gave rise to an alternative tradition in artistic dance, and the rival claims of ballet and of this alternative were vigorously debated under many ideological guises.

The central figure of this alternative tradition was Rudoplf Laban. In terms of immediate artistic impact, the key figure was Isadora Duncan(one of my idols...for those of you interested in dance, read her autobiography!!! One of the most inspiring reads ever!), whose practice and writing combined a body liberating aesthetic with a powerful ideology of democracy, nature and feminism(and by feminism, i don't mean the pseudo/hyper feminism we associate some forms of feminism with, today).

The next transformation in dance in the West came about when dance achieved a recognizable identity under the figure of Martha Graham. Graham had a method and theory that were dance and nothing but dance, radically opposed to the whole theory of human movement and motivation of which ballet rested.

In the years since 1940, the shifting relations between ballet and modern dance in America have continued to be a many sided topic for profound aesthetic reflection.

In the 1960s, Merce Cunnigham emerged as an important figure, who was reacting specifically against the way Graham’s technique could become as constraining as ballet. Cunningham’s work explored questions such as whether a movement is a dance movement because of its character, its context, the attitude of its performer or spectator, or all or none of the above.

The testing of the limits of the arts in the 1960s tended to dissolve the distinction among the arts, and what emerged and survived could not contribute in any special way to the aesthetics of any one particular art, such as dance. Meanwhile, teachers, students, performers and spectators still continue to concern themselves with what is distinctively dance.

Having spoken about the west, I’d like to talk a little about the history and evolution of Indian dance too, briefly. Being a Bharatanatyam dancer, I will confine my exploration of the history of Indian dance to this particular Indian classical art form very briefly.

Just as the west made an evolution from Ballet to Contemporary, from Isadora Duncan to Martha Graham, Bharatanatyam too, evolved greatly over the ages. The earliest accounts of Bharatanatyam seem to point towards the fact that it was first performed in temples by men and boys dressed up as women.

In the 16th century, the Tanjore Quartet edited the Bharatanatyam format into its present form. By this time, Bharatanatyam was performed by women in temples. These women were called Devadasis or the servants of god. It was in the medieval times that devadasis came to be known also as courtesans but not before that. Prior to that, they were dancers who performed in temples sometimes as a sort of offering to the gods.

E.Krishna Iyer was one of those who raised the social status of Bharatanatyam and greatly popularized it. Rukmini Devi Arundale was also instrumental in modifying mainly the Pandanallur style of Bharatanatyam and bringing it to the attention of the West. Rukmini Devi raised Bharatanatyam to a puritan art form, divorced from its recently controversial past by "removing objectionable elements" from the Pandanallur style. This was publicly criticized by Balasaraswati, one of the last devadasis and other representatives of the traditional devadasi culture.

In any case, Rukmini Devi brought the dance form out of the temples and onto the stage. Rukmini Devi founded Kalakshetra in 1936, a school in Madras for Dance and Music. Out of this institution emerged many great dancers, including such as Leela Samson, my guru. :)

Today, Bharatanatyam is performed by people of all genders and cultures, after rigorous training. There are dancers who used Bharatanatyam and explored it differently, like my own Guru Leela Samson. Others fused it with contemporary styles to create vocabularies of their own. Chandralekha and Shobana Jeyasingh are amongst them. Chandralekha used Kalakshetra trained dancers to create her own vocabulary that used elements of Bharatanatyam, Kalaripayettu and Yoga. Shobana Jeyasingh fuses Bharatanatyam with western Contemporary Dance.

Being a philosophy student, I would love to share Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblances with you. He provies a philosophical mechanism - the theory of family resemblences - that I would like to apply to this discussion about the definition of dance. Wittgenstein did not believe in essences. He opposed Plato's theory of forms, because Plato's ideal form and in his theory of forms, form refers to essence. The form is an ideal essence of the natural object. Wittgenstein belonged to the tradition of "Antiessentialism". He didn't believe that patterns, forms and resemblances cannot be found amongst different things labeled as say "dance". The problems arises when we try to see one of these patterns or common features to define dance. A single commonality is impossible to find.

At the same time, we cannot deny certain resemblances. So we can apply this theory of family resemblances. Taking the example of my own family. My mother and father gave birth to me and my sister. Other than the genetic resemblance, people say I look like my father and have the mannerisms of my mother. Some people say that my sister looks like neither my dad or my mum. But the same people say that my sister and i look almost identical. My sister and I do not have a single feature that is common between us. Our hair is different, our skin is different, our noses are different, her lips are fuller, my eyes are bigger etc etc. But we call this a family resemblance. So some characteristics, but not all, serve the ground for my relationship with her. I cannot point out one single characteristic and expect to find a commonality there.

Its much the same with dance. To define dance is very hard for me. But using Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblances, I can understand a little bit about how to answer this question - what is dance. While I may not find a resemblance between a contemporary dance performance I saw in Israel where four naked women stood on stage and moved, and Bharatanatyam. I may find a link between the Israeli performance and Martha Graham, for instance. In turn, i may see a resemblance between balletic movements in Martha Graham's style, and the aramandi (plie) in Bharatanatyam. So through the theory of famiyl resemblances, I could put them all under the same roof, although through the naked eye, i would see no resemblence between that contemporary performance and a bharatanatyam performance.

Having said all of the above, I must end with this - From a non-philosophical/non-intellectual perspective, I still find it extremely hard to define Dance.

You see, at the end of the day, from a personal perspective (we all know about the common notion that artists are so sensitive and they take things so personally!), I have to say that dance means different things to different people. A contemporary dancer might have broken away from Ballet for the very reason that he/she did not consider ballet to be dance anymore, after having explored contemporary dance. Similarly, a Bharatanatyam dancer may find the Israeli dance performance to be 'making a statement' rather than dancing, and a contemporary dancer may say making a statement is dancing. A ballet dancer, in turn, may say making a statement has its limits as far as dance is concerned..and so on. The argument could go on forever. And it's because we all, as individuals, are different. And as dancers, we are different.

Moreover, there are so many different forms of dance in so many different parts of the world, I think it might be difficult to find one common characteristic amongst them that can be the essence or defining factor that makes something one calls dance, DANCE. To really define what dance is, might mean exploring ALL of these millions of classical, tribal, folk, contemporary, creative, commercial and other forms thoroughly, and I can safely say this is not possible to do.

Also, Dance is not a static entity. How are we to DEFINE something that is never static? It's definition, significance and meaning are forever changing and evolving. Its beauty lies therein.