What is Contemporary Dance?

..Honestly, it sounds like a fairly simple question. We have watched and experienced contemporary dance enough times to form a visual of it. It is loosely used all around us and has been given a rather permanent face thanks to the reality shows – jumps, tricks, turns, pointed feet and sorrow. The moment a sad/romantic song comes on, you know its going to be contemporary dance. But what exactly is the form about?

The Green Table - C

(The Green Table: Kurt Jooss)

It developed during the mid to late 20th century as a natural evolution of modern dance and the need to incorporate elements from different dance styles across the world. Because it employs aspects of technique from jazz, modern and ballet – it is often seen as being limited to only that. However, contemporary is not actually a fixed or structured form of dance, its boundaries are far reaching and malleable. It allows current influences and cultural developments to become a part of it’s expression. Its doors are open to the influence of all dance styles across the world.

People often confuse modern dance with contemporary. Afterall, both advocate that the origin of movement should be organic and real, and less about aesthetic quality or showcasing of technical prowess (like ballet). The difference between the two lies in the history. Modern dance originated in the early 1900s with Isadora Duncan, who wanted to rebel against the strict structures and irrelevance of ballet. Other iconic figures like Martha Graham joined in with their fierce stand against the form and fueled their performances with raw energy and passion. Over the years, modern dance grew as more and more dancers subscribed to the freedom it offered.

Modern dance, however, is an amalgamation of different schools of choreography and style, each with it’s own set of principles. Graham, Cunningham, Dunham, Horton etc – all developed their own unique style. Contemporary dance, while owing it’s roots to modern dance, isn’t really that definitive. In my opinion, ‘contemporary’ isn’t really a dance style but rather a never-ending wave of evolution and transformation that allows dance to change, grow and remain relevant.

This doesn’t, ofcourse, mean that any dance form can be termed as contemporary. One cannot mix hip hop with salsa and call it contemporary. As mentioned before, it does owe its roots to ballet and modern. Certain concepts like contact-release, floor work, fall-recovery and improvisation are employed by contemporary dancers all over the world. Lets just say it may not be definitive, but it does have a frame of reference.

It is still new in the Indian conscience, and not surprisingly, most people are confused about what it means. We have come to associate it with something like this:

While this is entertaining to watch and can be considered a part of contemporary dance, that is not just what it is. We have come to associate contemporary with tricks and flexibility, which is closer to gymnastics than the dance form. Thanks to it’s imperfect and elastic nature, contemporary dance is a sponge for the current happenings, cultural and political developments and social changes. It reflects the state of the “now”. Basically, it is a very relevant form of dance.

In the end, though, the beauty of contemporary dance lies in the freedom it offers to each individual to be interpreted differently. Every contemporary dancer has a different definition and experience of the dance form, and best part is that not a single one of them is wrong.

 

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Choreographic fables

My very first creation as a choreographer was titled “Earthworm”. I am not sure why I decided to call it that – maybe I was just trying to stand out. But it was the first name that popped up in my head. Earthworm is the only choreography through which I have not tried to say anything in particular. It is simply a collection of movements and arrangement of movements that I found fascinating. At that time, I was deeply inspired by Ohad Naharin’s “Virus” and his choice of music. I considered that piece as my bible for the project and asked all my dancers to watch it repeatedly.

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I was also influenced a lot by Sharon Eyal’s “Killer pig” and her use of canon, repetition and different directions to create an impact. Her movements were small, subtle and very powerful. We had learnt a part of her repertoire when I was in Italy in 2015 and Killer Pig was one of them. I don’t ever remember being so confused in a dance class before. Even though the movement wasn’t very difficult, their arrangement was. The combination was so primitive and internalized, and it was repeated by the dancers many times throughout the choreography. Every time I start to get too overwhelmed by the process of choreography, I watch this piece and remind myself to keep it simple. It works best.

I tried to incorporate tools such as repetition and reverse as an experiment. At that time I was unsure of what would work. I also didn’t give much thought to the message that I was trying to put across. Later during one of the performances, I was asked – “What were you trying to say?” and I honestly didn’t know what to say. Now, I feel like the piece was just a physical representation of the chaos that exists within my head.

As a choreographer, I like to approach my pieces with a lot of clarity. I know what I want from A-Z. If I start with an open ended approach, I often get confused and am left feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of ideas. Improvisation, though a widely used method to create movement, has never really yielded good ideas for me. At least so far, movement comes to me first as a thought and then gets translated physically. Perhaps this approach comes from me being a control freak, but it has worked for me so far. I once tried to initiate a piece without any clarity; I led the dancers into a space of structured improvisation to see if it generated some fitting ideas. There were some workable things that came out of it but mostly I discarded it all.

Choreography is a strange process. It simply cannot be forced. There are people who say creativity is a craft and becomes better with practice. While I agree with the argument, I also think that it applies more to the process of movement creation rather than the ‘getting the idea’ bit. That still is a mystery. Sometimes an idea is so explosive that you just know what needs to be done in order to materialize it, and sometimes it is just a feeling that needs to be explored as much as possible. There is one, fixed way to approach it. There is no one way that works for everyone or even all ideas. For me, it seems like I am constantly inventing and re-inventing my methods.

As a choreographer, I will always be a learner.

Feeling roadblocked as an artist?

Lately, I’ve been feeling extremely frustrated and upset. But it isn’t a feeling I am not familiar with. As an artist, I have gone through this phase many times. It never gets easier or better though, and I always end up throwing a tantrum and shedding tears while slumped against the bathroom wall.

I feel roadblocked when, despite having ideas, I cannot find a way to materialize them. I  think about my idea, write about it, talk about it, dream about it – but I can’t make it a reality because there are so many variables that I can’t control. It’s extremely frustrating when you can see your destination, but cannot find the means to wade through the blockages along the path. I struggle with finding the right dancers, fixing a suitable schedule, making sure I have all the equipment for the final product etc. But most of all, I struggle with finding an audience for my work. I simply don’t know where to take my work.

When I get an idea for a project, it’s like a freshly lit fire. The more I dwell on it, the bigger it becomes. My reason for investing all my creative energies in this idea is simple: I am passionate about it and I want to see it materialize. But unfortunately, that alone is not enough for an artist to survive. We need an audience to subscribe to our work and consequently some remuneration. What does an artist do when he/she don’t get that? They quit.

Most of us have come close enough to the point of tipping over before mustering the will power to take a step back. But there’s no denying that it gets tough more often than not. I’ve seen a lot of artists trying to juggle their full-time job and passion, hoping to find a break through in the latter so that they can quit their jobs. But that never really happens. In the times we live in, financial security is an unavoidable need. Our country, unfortunately, cannot provide artists that security. Artists fizzle out without reaching their maximum potential because there is not enough infrastructure, opportunities and revenue to support them. We have reached a stage where artists are doing work for free, just to keep themselves alive in the industry. I don’t think it is possible for us to see a worse time than this for our community. The performing arts are dying.

Performing arts in our country are mostly supported by the Ministry of Culture, that has set up various bodies across the country to support the arts: The sangeet natak academy, Indian council for cultural relations and seven zonal cultural centers to support the arts in their respective zones. But most of their funds go in the upkeep of the existing state infrastructure, which hardly leaves any funds for the promotion and welfare of artists. Their grants and schemes offer meager amounts and are hardly enough to sustain an artist for a few days, leave alone an entire month. As a matter of fact, the Ministry of culture does not even utilize 100% of it’s allocated budget because of it’s refusal to modernize it’s procedures and become more accessible to newer, upcoming artists.

Other avenues such as private corporations, do not feel the need to include promotion of the arts in their CSR programs because of it’s low ROI. Given that the audience for performing arts is shrinking, they have an even lesser incentive to invest in them. Most of the private bigwigs are moving towards cinema because of it’s massive outreach and profits. Even when they do fund festivals, they promote performances by well-known artists to attract audiences and media attention. I personally have gone through a similar experience where my dancers and I went all the way to Bombay to put up our piece – “Earthworm”, with a lot of hopes and expectations. However, the limelight was hogged by a famous performer who was specially called in to give a concluding performance. We ended up being just one of a 15 odd performers on the list. The show belonged to someone else.

There are bilateral agencies, funded by foreign governments and private funds, such as the British council, Goethe institute, Swedish council etc that are slowly gaining momentum across the performing arts landscape. They support and promote cross-cultural exchange of artists, ideas and performances. Some of them even support performances within India, but their outreach is extremely limited and hence their support is availed only by a select few individuals or organizations. The Gati dance forum is one such example of an organization supported by these agencies. Foundations such as Tata trusts have been offering support to the performing arts for the last 15 years, but they too, hardly have any visibility and only a select few artists are even aware that they exist.

Overall, I probably know more about some random app, which is of no use to me that recently released on google play store, than I know about these agencies, trusts and foundations that offer grants for performance making and sharing. Unless one sits down to dig information out of their websites, no one really knows they exist. There is not a single database that covers all the grant providing schemes and/or sponsors in our country, so that an artist can conveniently apply for one. 

Why don’t these agencies, trusts and foundations make themselves well-known and accessible to artists? Why are they repeatedly supporting the same artists/organizations (tata trust has been funding attakkalari for 15 years)? Why is an effort not being made on their part to market their presence more so that more and more upcoming artists can realize their potential?

We have arrived at dismal junction in the history of performing arts in our country where artists have started to refer to themselves as being a part of the “entertainment industry”. Well trained dancers are turning towards ad shoots, corporate shows, weddings and school performances to earn their livelihood. These are platforms where they’re treated like expendable commodities and are not compensated fairly. Nothing is streamlined or well-regulated in the industry, which leads to a lot of abuse and exploitation. Due to lack of work and money, artists don’t bother to follow professional channels of communication and go along with verbal word, which leads people to not take them seriously.

Most of the artists are freelancers as there is hardly any company that can afford to have artists on regular payroll. They survive on a project-to-project basis and more often than not undervalue themselves. There is no body that regulates and ensures the welfare of these freelancers. There is no where they can go in case of exploitation. Subscribers of bollywood dance are increasing both domestically and internationally, leaving no room for other forms like Indian classical, ballet, contemporary and folk. Even ICCR is now sponsoring bollywood extravaganzas to be performed overseas. Experimental artists who want to work on new and original ideas are practically abandoned. Their ideas won’t sell without commercialization.

As I said before, I don’t think the performing arts industry and specifically dance can see a greater low than this. People with new and original ideas are slowly diminishing, and no one cares.

Research: http://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/ey-creative-arts-in-india/$FILE/ey-creative-arts-in-india.pdf

Granted l Dance Film

I had been toying with the idea of this piece for a while, ever since I saw a poster of a short dance film contest. Inspiration to create something always hits me like a running train. Then I just have to do something about it. I’m so happy to have managed to finish this film in 15 days and for it to have come out the way it did. I truly believe dance films is a virtually limitless form of expression. You can reach out globally and present your work to n number of people.

Aye Sinamika – New choreography (Updated link)

When I first heard this song, I didn’t like it much. Then I heard it again, and it seemed better. Before I knew, I was deeply in love and couldn’t let this song go. I’ve been obsessing over it for 6 months. I had planned to choreograph this at one point, but hoped it wasn’t one of my fleeting obsessions. The choreography didn’t actually start with this song; it started with a different song and ended up with this one because my instinct kept telling me to use it. Anyway, enough rambling…I think the video is decent. Critique and feedback is always welcome.

Aye Sinamika (Choreography) from Aparajita Burjwal on Vimeo.