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Navadisha International Dance Conference 2016

On 21 May 2016, Shobana delivered a keynote speech at the Navadisha International Dance Conference 2016, New dynamics in South Asian Dance, at mac Birmingham.

Below is an edited version of Shobana’s keynote speech:

An edited version of the conference keynote speech delivered to Navadisha 2016 – New dynamics in South Asian Dance

Birmingham, 21 May 2016

My brief for today is how do I go about choosing dancers to work with and my reflections on a career in dance in Britain.
The choice of dancer collaborators (for that is how I think of them) for any choreographer depends on the vision they have for dance itself, and I am no different. What I have found in my experience is that choreographers take a bit of time to find out what kind of dancers they would like to collaborate with. It is part of the same journey that they make to find out what they really want to say and how they would like to say it.

All dance works show the values and politics of the creator. This is inevitable, no matter what the individual work is about. Decisions about theme, range of dynamic, gender, partnering, composition, choice of music, the use or not of historical dance values, and, above all, the choice of dancers – these all reveal the core text of a piece of dance. It is in fact the biography of the maker or makers. If I was making classical work my answer to the choice of dancers would be easy and I would finish my keynote talk in a couple of minutes and leave you all in peace to have an extended coffee break. But, alas, that is not the case and I will be bending your ear for some time.

I think the primary thing that influences my choice of collaborator is the fact that I am a contemporary choreographer. This is a much-debated word and has been used by so many in so many contexts that I would be asking for trouble if I tried to define it.
When I use the word about myself, I generally mean that I am on the side of change. Change is not a fixed thing (it would not be called change if it were!) – it is more like an excursion without a fixed destination that one decides to undertake. How far one goes and how much one decides to be changed is a personal choice. For some, a little way from the historical base camp is enough. Others are happy to go on moving and hang the consequences. For the constant traveller there are some irritants. Friends who knew you at the beginning might say regretfully “Hey, we don’t recognise you anymore!” or there are always self styled arbiters who might point to invisible lines on the ground and say “Well, if you pass this point, we are going to revoke your passport”. Contemporary, I would say, is when the identity of the artwork is of greater concern than the cultural or racial identity of the artist.

Contemporary is also a useful indicator when one is thinking about the role and value of history and of historical dance cultures in one’s work. Indian dance asks this question of you with more emphasis than most. Bharatha Natyam, for example, which is the dance that I am most familiar with, is probably the most invested in terms of politics and history. For me to have dance classes as an urban middle class girl, a huge social upheaval had to take place in the early and mid 20th century. I have the pioneering genius of Rukmini Devi as well as the rise of Tamil cinema, which produced dancer celebrities like Kamala Laxman, to thank for that. My mother, like many mothers who grew up in India as it struggled for independence from the British, believed that this new Bharatha Natyam was different from the old Sadiraatam. Whether it was or not is a debate for another time! She was also a great fan of Kamala. So although dance played no part in her education she wanted it to be part of mine.
Bharatha Natyam was part and parcel of the defiant self-assertiveness formed as a riposte against European models of classicism. It also sought to redress the low opinion of dance and dancers held by the colonisers and anglophile Indians. Speaking about the setting up of the iconic arts training institution Kalakshetra, Rukmini Devi described her intentions thus: Kalakshetra was to be in ‘Recognition of the priceless artistic traditions of our country and of imparting to the young the true spirit of Art, devoid of vulgarity and commercialism.’ 1

Under colonialism, the artistic traditions in dance had been under threat. The traditional patrons of the dance had declined and the dance was reclaimed, rehabilitated, re-invented and, in that process, also inevitably changed.

Today the website of Kalakshetra, which is now a premier dance college still bears witness to those patriotic and defiant times: ‘(Kalakshetra) … exists in order that youth may be educated, not to become artists alone, but to have the right attitude to life, the right attitude to art, in order that they may be of great service to our country.’ 2

That was a period in history, and it would be difficult to replicate those rather didactic sentiments now. That particular period in history probably had the same dynamic effect on Bharatha Natyam as the Tanjore quartet had had much earlier in the 19th century. Art, and especially dance, before the camera began to record it, has always had a dynamic and changing history which constantly affects its functions, values and properties. Mapping these movements allows us to understand the art better and also prepares us for future periods of shifts and re-balances.

My attendance at dance classes to learn the new Bharatha Natyam did not mean that orthodoxy had been restored and equilibrium reached. My mother’s generation had an ideal of dance as a noble pursuit untainted by the economics of earning a living. When I chose to be a dance professional in Britain and not a noble hobbyist, there was inevitable upheaval and yet more change.

So my relationship to historical dance culture is a continuous dialogue rather than a fixed entity. Does this mean that I do not value any rule-based historic dance? Of course I do, but I have a perspective towards the functions and values behind the rules while giving them the utmost respect. I am aware that rules come out of aesthetics, that people create culture and aesthetics, and that culture is sensitive to historical and political change. Culture is also not monolithic but often has competing ideologies within it.

The end of foreign rule did not mean the happily-ever-after for many people of South Asian origin. Post-colonial migration was yet another seismic change that created the diaspora, which is why we are here today.

And this is the second feature that influences my choice of dancer collaborators.

As a resident of London, I recently received a flyer from a politician who suggested that I vote for him because he recognised and respected my difference as a Tamil. In a fine piece of racial profiling it even assured me that my jewellery would be safer with this candidate. My immediate reaction, apart from musing on the impossibility of owning a hoard of jewellery in tandem with a mortgage in London, was to feel how different that attitude was to my experience of the UK today. The flyer seemed to ignore the cultural elasticity of diasporean life as well as the innate generosity of people in cities as they connect to their similarities as human beings rather than fear the differences. The politician’s vision was of a carefully manicured multicultural garden where the tulips were held in neat beds and firmly separated from the daffodils in the next one. That may make for a tidy design and a certain kind of easy to recognise profiling, but what I notice is what is going on underground – that the roots are doing what they always do. They are twisting and curling and becoming enmeshed with the other roots in search of sustenance in a common soil. Most of the roots in my garden belong to my neighbour in fact! Roots seem to like exploring and are no respecter of fencing, suburban or otherwise. As a dance maker I have always wanted to place my work in that common soil where the roots are doing their work.

So what qualities would I look for in a dancer? I will flag up three.

1. Technique – What I mean by technique is intense and prolonged time spent in training the body in whatever dance form that inspires one. The body is a stubborn entity (at least mine is) and to plumb its depths and realise its potential needs time as well as talent. It’s also a psychological and possibly a neurological state, which the best technicians have. There is a unity of being where even the periphery of the body is shining with dance intelligence and the body talks the technique.

2. Literacy – I think this is a quality that helps one transcend the technique and use it rather than merely replicate it. It’s what helps me when I can communicate a “natya arambha” arms to a dancer as a physically rather than a culturally understood experience. It’s the quality that helps a Spanish ballet dancer impress an Indian dance critic with her “impeccably rendered” teermana adavu. I am not saying that the ballet dancer became a Bharatha Natyam dancer. Rather that she had the physical knowledge and intelligence to understand and deliver a differently coded movement.

3. Imagination – Contemporary dance might require a personal signature but it is a signature that needs the endorsement of the dancers who deliver it. I work with tasks in the studio where the dancer collaborator is a partner in generating material – the first stage of choreography as we build up a bank of raw words and phrases. Later, this bank is used to select, direct and compose. This comes, in my experience, from the facility that the dancer has to respond to ideas through movement, but also to the connection that they see between their dance training and the rest of the world they live in, connections to other artifacts such as film, books, visual art and dance works from all cultures. It’s where dance training opens up a way to critique other artistic experiences and thereby see connections and differences.

To train in dance is an aspirational activity. To train and work in the South Asian diaspora is to be part of history in the making – no less momentous than those other social upheavals that have left their imprint on Indian dance.

In Britain, local and national state funding for dance is a factor in the shaping of the dance biography here. It has meant that the South Asian dance training narrative has been linked mainly to the politics of cultural diversity.

This is in contrast to the narratives of other institutions that deliver dance training. The Royal Ballet School for example is incredibly practical, clear and precise about its aims: ‘Our mission is to train and educate outstanding classical ballet dancers for The Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and other top international dance companies.’ 3

The website of London Contemporary Dance School states its aims as ‘developing highly motivated, imaginative and creative graduates, who will be ready to enter the profession as skilled, flexible, and responsive artists with an understanding of the realities of a career in contemporary dance.’ 4

Rambert School states that ‘It was, and remains, a place of dance innovation based on a sound technical training. Our graduates now can be found all over the world. They work as dancers, directors, choreographers, teachers, researchers and academics.’ 5
Laban invites dance professionals ‘to deepen your understanding of contemporary dance, extend your technical abilities and increase your creative skills to succeed in the competitive world of dance.’ 6

What is notable in all the above is a clear-eyed understanding of the market and the possible economic trajectories of their students. What is also notable is that all these institutions deliver full time vocational training. Understanding and acting on these economic trajectories is what makes the difference between dance as a noble hobby and dance as a professional career.
I am sure that South Asian dance in Britain will continue to make its own distinctive biography. It is rich in advocates but poorer in full time practitioners. Cultural diversity policies might provide much needed sustenance but finally what will make a difference is the dancer’s own desire to give dance training the time and care it deserves – the desire to make a difference and the realisation that dance training is a strength that will take us forward, whether we end up as professional dancers, choreographers, dance teachers, and work in other ways in the dance sector or taking one’s dance education to enrich totally different careers.

Rukmini Devi saw the needs of her day in the 1930s. She broke with orthodoxies of her time to launch something new. I hope that in 2016 we can read the signs of our time here in Britain just as boldly and clearly and execute a vision that captures the aspirations of future British dancers of the South Asian diaspora.

Shobana Jeyasingh 2016©


Photo by Chris Nash

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