Matching step by step

Matching step by step

Through a twitch of the eyebrow, a half smile, an intense look in the eyes, expansive hand movements and nimble footwork, a dancer manages to communicate a lot with the audience. Dance, like all other art forms, is often a sublime experience for viewers as well as performers. What we see on stage, however, is one of the many narratives that the art form has to offer. A lot is to be learnt and absorbed from the stories that unfold backstage. Prior to International Dance Day (April 29), we chat up artists on a gamut of subjects, including the origin of genres, constant influences from other realms and why it is necessary for art to take a stand.

Bharatanatyam dancer Nupur Daithankar-Bag, along with Maharashtra Cultural Centre, curates Urja, a dance festival, in which she invites Indian classical dancers to perform in the city, so that budding artists are exposed to different styles. When artists travel to perform, one thought that is uppermost in their mind is infrastructure. Light and sound, besides backstage arrangement, build up the excitement amongst the audience and if executed flawlessly, it takes the performance a few notches higher. 

“If you are a dancer, or have studied dance, then being handy with the nitty-gritties of how to do make-up, knowing photography, videography will complement your passion. I have many dance students who are now involved in photography and approach me with assignments for Urja. I think it’s great because these skills give you an edge. In the past, the technical crew wasn’t educated enough. But with trained professionals entering this field — backstage décor, photoshoots, lights, music arrangement —  the difference is there to see. I agree that being there on the job teaches you a lot more than just studying the technicalities. But a dancer, who also knows how to do music arrangement, wins a few brownie points,” says Daithankar.

At many of her performances, she ensures that there are people in her team, who are well-versed with the programme and know how it’s going to progress. “I prefer working with a person or a team, who knows what my performance is going to be. Even if there is a seasoned lightman at the venue, I would still prefer to have my student over-viewing this aspect,” says the danseuse adding, “When Alarmel Valli performed for NupurNaad Festival, she got her own lightmen. They oversaw the arrangement. When the performance is reaching the climax, that’s the time, the light and music play an important role. They can make or mar a performance.”   

Daithankar is also encouraging her students to review art performances, stitching Bharatanatyam costumes and so on. “I realised that there aren’t too many art critics reviewing our shows. We need critical feedback, apart from a mention of ‘so and so programme was held’. There are a few of my students who have a felicity for writing. One of my students has done MA in Nritya Alankar and studied fashion designing, so I have asked her to design and stitch costumes for our performances. We don’t have enough people who design Bharatanatyam costumes in Pune,” points out Daithankar, adding, “Dance isn’t and shouldn’t be limited to what one sees on stage.” 

Ballet dancer Yana Lewis came to India in late ’90s to participate in her guru BKS Iyengar’s 80th birthday celebrations and then she stayed on, travelling across India. “In my travels, I came across so many dance forms, they all have so much substance. At the same time, I was asked about Western dance forms, so I thought I should take workshops,” says Lewis, who now runs The Lewis Ballet Dance Academy in Bengaluru. 

At her workshops, Lewis decided to teach about the ‘integration’ point between Ballet and Bharatanatyam. “My intention was to learn how can we work together, how can one form help understand another. I wasn’t looking at combining forms, because I am quite a purist —  Bharatanatyam is Bharatanatyam and Ballet is Ballet,” she says.  

Elaborating more on Ballet, the dancer-teacher says, “Ballet is done by professional gymnasts, Ballroom and Contemporary dancers. It has the most intricate techniques because you have to follow symmetry, lines. You have to begin learning Ballet early, by the age of four. I started when I was two. But I have taught people here in India, who are mature adults and they are now working with a ballet school in the UK.” 

The 57-year-old artist has been dancing almost all her life now. But she continues to learn from every class she teaches. “If you ever start thinking that you can stop learning, then you shouldn’t dance. Dancing is forever. If you start learning at 4, by the time you are 18, you are in a professional ballet college. I went to a full-time ballet school, when I was 10,” says Lewis. 

A Ballet dancer has to start with Pre-primary, Primary levels, followed by Grades I-VI,  Intermediate Foundation and then Intermediate. After which, the dancer has to complete Advanced I, Advanced II and take teaching exams. “This is a long, long journey for most. If your foundation is strong and you have the right building blocks, you reach the senior level. To be a professional dancer, you have to train at least three to four times a week before you can enroll in a full-time Ballet school. In college, I used to do Ballet for eight hours daily,” says Lewis. 

Ballet has two forms — Classical, which has its own repertoire, and Modern. “I teach Classical Ballet at my academy. We belong to the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing in the UK. The original choreographies of the Classical Ballet from the decades that went by have to be passed on from generation to generation. The set repertoire from traditional classical ballets include Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty. In fact, Tchaikovsky’s music from The Nutcracker has led to Ballet’s popularity in India. My students say, ‘It’s Barbie’s music, Miss Yana’. I feel sad when the compositions are known for Barbie. But I admit that the doll has popularised Ballet in India,” she points out.

Kathak has had influences from many faiths and beliefs. “Originally a temple dance, it is believed that Luv-Kush are its creators. They are said to be the first ‘Kathe-Kari’ or storytellers. When the katha was narrated by the storyteller, often he would use gestures to make it interesting. That eventually became Kathak or Katha Kahe So,” says Kathak dancer Rujuta Soman.

Continuing with its history, she says, “In the North, kathas and kirtans were performed in the temple. The Vaishnav sect also influenced this art form. And, that’s how you have Krishna Bhakti in Kathak. When the Mughals invaded India, a cultural synthesis took place and Kathak became a milap of Hindu and Persian cultures.”

During colonial rule, it declined and was mainly performed by courtesans. However, the gurus worked towards restoring it to its rightful glory and gave it the status of stage performances. “Now, Kathak has integrated with other genres giving rise to collaborations. Last year, I collaborated with Mame Khan, a folk singer. We have also had Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak dancers performing together. Kathak also pairs beautifully with different instruments like saxophone, drums. Its collaboration with Tap Dance has led to its popularity in the West. Another reason is, of course, Bollywood. It is a cinematic performance, nevertheless it has widened Kathak’s reach amongst the audience,” adds Soman.

Talking about gurus like Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kumudini Lakhia, Birju Maharaj, who strove to give Indian dances the ‘Classical’ status, Soman says they were rebels. “Rukmini Deviji was rebellious. In those days, women were forbidden to learn dance. But Rukmini Deviji gave Bharatanatyam the status of purity, respect. Artists like them gave the future generation of performers the freedom of expression. In their time, Birju Maharajji, Kumudiniji , Rohiniji (Bhate) expressed themselves on many modern subjects like samay (time), energy and Narmada river, women empowerment and so on. Art is not art, if it doesn’t take a stand.”

A trained Kathak artist Aditi Venkateshwaran now is making a name for herself as a Contemporary dancer and is all set to perform and teach in Europe in May and June. “A lot of Europeans are now open to the idea of Indian Contemporary performers. I am excited about taking our idiom to them,” she says. 

Before we talk about what it means for Venkateshwaran to perform in a genre that has come from the West, it’s imperative to understand what Indians make of Contemporary dance. “Pune has a strong Classical base. Gurus Shama Bhate, Maneesha Sathe and Sucheta Bhide Chapekar have been spearheading the Classical dance scene for years now. The Contemporary voice is recent not just in Pune, but also in India. Of course, there were dancers like Uday Shankar, Chandralekha and Astad Deboo who were ahead of their time and experimented with the form that they felt was Contemporary. Around five years ago, when Contemporary started to make an appearance, there were many apprehensions on the part of viewers. One common feedback was, ‘What you are doing is nice, but we found it abstract’. The apprehensions still exist but the audience is now open to watching these performances,” she says. 

By definition, Contemporary is something which is ‘here’ and ‘now’. “I speak for myself when I say that Contemporary form is a rebellion. Indians have a strong vocabulary of Classical dance. There is a structured, disciplined way of performing them. I don’t think Contemporary will reach that level because artists will be finding their own voices,” adds the former radio jockey.

Contemporary is individualistic, relevant and real. But it shouldn’t be random, says she adding, “When the audience says, ‘We didn’t understand the piece’ then I feel that the artist should look deeper into their  form. Dancing for yourself, in your studio, is fine. But when you are performing for an audience who has paid to watch you, you have to communicate effectively.” 

Coming to the subjects explored in Contemporary vis-à-vis Classical, Venkateshwaran says, “Often, Classical dances take you back to mythology, history, traditions. These aspects may not be something that I might be living in every day. But I live traffic, I live population, pollution, abuse, inequality — subjects that Contemporary dance explores. Dancers are finding their way around various art disciplines like poetry, photography, theatre, videos, paintings. It’s interesting to see how colours react to movement and vice versa. Anything that comes under the universe of art is now talking to each other.” 

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