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Flash Report, 7-23: Room
to Room with a View
Dancing in the Millennium: Day 2, Day 3
By Tehreema Mitha
Copyright 2000 Tehreema Mitha
WASHINGTON -- It seems
almost unfair, with so much going on at the Dancing in the Millennium
conference, to be reporting on a few specific presentations. I have
visions of me running frantically from room to room trying to hear
it all and make notes and then coming to write and not being able
to remember even one thing coherently. So maybe it's just as well
that I stick to telling you about my few clear experiences, and
leave you to imagine the rest!
Talking about dance choreographed
for the camera Thursday, Sherril Dodds discussed the effects that
the properties of the camera have on the choreographic process.
The choreographer has to keep in mind the mobilization of the spectators
in this viewing as opposed to the way that audiences observe dance
from fixed positions on stage. To properly utilize the medium the
choreographer needs to leave the dance open to be observed from
all angles, from the top or from floor level. This adds new dynamics
to the perception of dance, as do other components of filmmaking.
The senses of time and space become more fluid as the camera focuses
on even small gestures, making the viewer intimate and almost in
contact yet at the same time playing with the direct choreography.
Dodds discussed the "relocation
of postmodern stage dance practices to the television media," and
the "properties and formal components of the screen." There is a
lot of casual and fragmented viewing of television. People put the
television on, but not always to watch. The narrative along with
the flickering presence of the light and colors is part of daily
life in many homes. Dance videos do not have a text or sub-text
and need to draw attention for a concentrated span. To use this
medium to the maximum, Dodds suggests emphasizing the quality of
gestures; the use of colors and lights to create atmosphere; and
re-thinking time and space to create a fluid body where the television
codes are made so invisible that the viewer feels he is there and
part of the process.
An important element
not so discussed in this paper is the different perception of time
to artists from different disciplines. Working with a classical
Indian instrumentalist used to performing one solo raga for 45 minutes
at a stretch, I was amused to note their horror at the idea that
a solo dance of ten to fifteen minutes could be considered substantial.
Working with a filmmaker, I was amazed to discover how much could
be said on screen in four seconds. We all learned a great deal about
the manipulation and perception of time in our different arts. This
is an important element in making dance videos.
Dodds showed excerpts
from three videos, "KOK," "Touched," and "Lounge," concluding that
through successful dance videos "a fluid body is constructed which
employs and destabilizes the symbolic boundaries of dance and television."
Moving on to a very different
topic: "The Expression of Hindu Feminism in the Choreography of
Manjusri Chaki-Sircar," presented by Trevor Wade. Chaki-Sircar was
early in life influenced by the great Rabindranath Tagore, but her
experience of the world was not limited to India. Married to a professor
of geography, she traveled with him to first live in Nigeria (where
her daughter, and later to become dancer/choreographer, the late
Ranjabati, was born) and then spent eighteen years in New York.
She returned to Calcutta in 1983 and started a company. Impatient
with the traditional image presented by the classical dances in
which the maiden is always depicted waiting and pining for her lover,
who is affectionate but always just a little beyond reach (a reflection
used to depict the relationship between God and Man) Wade feels
that Chaki-Sircar tried to portray a woman who, while adhering to
Hindu beliefs is nevertheless self-sufficient, an equal to her husband
and accepted as a complete being.
Wade said she was surprised
at first when she observed Manjusri's work in Calcutta as coming
from a western perspective; she had expected something more radical
and strong in movement and perhaps themes. But all art must be taken
in its perspective, and in Calcutta, where a high kick by a woman
is viewed as being indecent exposure, Manjusri's work broke many
boundaries. Through her dances she tried to do away with the idea
of the obedient wife, portraying the relationship between men and
women as an extension of playfulness. Her other themes included
mother/daughter relationships (something largely missing from traditional
dances, where the relationship between mother and son are more common);
the community of women and their combined strength and the connection
of women to the earth.
Being familiar with the
work of this choreographer and seeing some of the brief video clips
I have to say that to the untrained western eye, Manjusri's work
would indeed seem lyrical and feminine. It also lacks the fast-paced
movements that are now so much part of modern dance in the west.
Her mixing of the various dance styles of India and stitching them
together in a fluid vocabulary is an achievement that may not be
so obvious to those unfamiliar with Indian dance structures. As
Wade puts it, once you are familiar with Calcutta's Bengali social
structure, you realize that by questioning the image of the woman,
Manjusri was breaching conventional behavior in a way that provoked
many questions about women's relationships in society, and therefore
about the whole structure of social discourse. Wade also holds that
for the choreographer there could be no separation between form
and content, hence her journey to make a new vocabulary, which would
be undeniably Indian and yet in tune with her perception of the
role of a modern woman; free and yet Hindu.
There was some questioning
of this view by others. Could Manjusri's work really be categorized
as Hindu dance? Or would it not be culturally Hindu as opposed to
religiously Hindu? I agree with the former, as the dances are not
devotional. They are exploratory; exploring human boundaries, rules
It was a very different
experience to attend after this a lecture-demonstration by Jody
Sperling and Terry Borton on "Loie Fuller and the Magic Lantern.
The lecture began with Borton, director of the American Magic Lantern
Theater, dressed in period clothes, giving a brief history of the
Lantern. He was one of the most lively presenters at the conference,
using old paintings, pictures and models of slides.
Borton took us back to
the beginnings of the Lantern tradition, starting in 1740 with the
inventions of the movie and slide projectors. The simple slide projector
initially had a place for a kerosene light and a smoke spout on
top, and glass in front of which the slide was inserted, upside-down.
Before the 1800s oil was used. Later the projectionist pumped hydrogen
into it and inside the lantern was a large piece or bulb of lime.
The two would mix, sometimes exploding and burning, but giving a
very good light! The name "Magic Lantern" came from the idea of
ghosts and goblins, for this medium was banned for many years since
some claimed it conjured visions of unholy things.
This method of projection
become a means of entertainment in the 1790s. By placing the lantern
on wheels behind a screen and adding a focusing lever, operators
made images like those of skeletons appear to be growing larger
and advancing on the audience. In the 1850s 3D glasses colored red
and green were added. By 1890, music had become part of the show.
"Theatre Optique" in France was showing ten slides a second, bringing
the shows into the range of presenting movement. In America the
slides changed every fifteen seconds. By 1895 these shows were like
the first movie presentations in their ability to give the impression
Here Sperling took over.
Sperling, an independent dancer/choreographer, talked briefly about
her academic research into Fuller before giving a most beautiful
and eye-opening demonstration.
"The skirt dance that
originated in the music halls in the 1860s became a craze in New
York by the late 1880s," Sperling explained. "In her 1891 serpentine
dance, Fuller expanded on the popular genre by adding volumes of
fabric to her skirts and applying innovative techniques to their
The above and many other
details came to life when Sperling demonstrated dances imitating
the technique, though not specific dances of Fuller's. She appeared
wearing a skirt that was suspended from around her neck, and made
of 25 yards of white china silk. Held within thin pockets sewn into
the edges of the skirt were two wands that extended the arms and
allowed the skirt to be opened completely for manipulation and whirling
movements that utilized the cut of the skirt on the bias, to the
full. Slides were projected by Borton using an original lantern
from the 1890s.
Sperling explored four
Fuller themes. The first was about the sea, waves, water, and ships.
The second started with a wonderful night sky with clear stars,
moving onto the planets and solar system. The third was all about
America, with the Stars and Stripes, the flag, and images of Lincoln
and other heroes. The last used geometric patterns with many changes
of color and also used the "Tank Slide," holding two plates of glass
glycerin between which something like food coloring is added to
give a wonderful moving pattern.
Though the movements
were simple and limited in scope and space due to the projection
being limited, they had to be fast and furious. The continuous manipulation
of the material is a must and the different ways and combinations
of opening and closing, furling and unfurling, swaying and rushing,
were all explored to the maximum. The effect of this simple choreography
was stunning, the colors of the slides brilliant and unrestrained!
As one member of the audience said to me, it is amazing that all
of this movement and the combination of light, projection and dance
has been there for so long, it makes one wonder if one is creating
anything new. I pointed out that the wonder is in that there is
no such thing as "new" movement; it is the amazing capacity of the
human mind and imagination that utilizes all these factors to produce
a new combination, or new impression of movement. There is after
all no new emotion; only new ways of exploring and expressing it.
What made Sperling's
presentation so stimulating was not only her collaboration with
the lively Borton, but her paper in which she quoted many interesting
criticisms of Fuller by the critics of that time, which sent this
audience into splits of laughter.
What next, you may ask!
Well next we move to a very different aspect of the study of dance;
and actually into another day. So hey, ho, rise and shine -- get
your cup of coffee or health drink and read on!
On Friday I attended
a panel on "Movement: Body and Culture." Four papers were presented,
most of them in highly technical language about which I was glad
to hear others say: "I think I understood about half of that!" It
made me feel more human.
We start with Maxine
Sheets Johnstone and "The Roots of Dance Across Cultures and Their
Pan Cultural Import." Johnstone discussed the tactile-kinetic possibilities
of human bodies. And the process of learning, without a verbal vocabulary,
but through movement, about ourselves, our culture and the world.
This process, starting at birth, is common to all cultures, she
said, since we all learn intuitively. The baby imitates before it
understand what it is imitating, even if just the in-out movement
of the tongue. Then it learns about anticipation through movement.
If a toddler sees his mother moving from one side of the room to
the other, his/her eyes will follow and then await a repeat of the
movement because he/she has learned the possibility of the movement
of that object and that it may be repeated. Then there is the "if
and then" aspect. "If I push this, then it will fall." There is
an awareness of the relationship of objects to each other and of
the object to a movement. These experiences are common to all humans
and as natural as walking and learning to walk.
Johnstone dwelt upon
the substantial difference between "Movement" and "an object in
Motion." Studying kinetic possibilities, she said, does not only
reveal the commonalties in movement and dance across cultures, but
tells how humans throughout the spectrum "make sense of themselves
and the world."
John Lutterie's "Performance
and Identity" dealt with the "apprenticeship" of the body. A child,
first through movement, learns about himself, the possibilities
of his body and the world. This may begin in the womb, and may be
affected by the culture the child grows up in. For example the child's
first role model is often the care-giver whose own movement and
behavior of movement will depend upon his/her culture. How they
eat, sit, and walk all impress themselves upon the child. This knowledge
is augmented with the child's experience as he/she grows.
Lutterie began by comparing
the movements of Mikhail Baryshnikov and dancers from Twyla Tharp's
own company in the video, "Baryshnikov Dances Tharp." He discussed
not just Johnstone's theory, i.e, learning about our body and the
world through movement common across cultures, but also about how
habitual movement shapes our knowledge of the body and its possibilities;
which is then changed by learning and new experiences. Baryshnikov
moved like other children before he taught his body to move in a
technique that is not natural but has to be acquired. This technique
not only gave him new possibilities for expressing himself through
movement but changed him as a person due to the new knowledge he
gained about the capacity of his body and therefore a way also of
looking at ordinary movements. When he learned Tharp's way of dancing,
he did not forget his ballet training but acquired a new set of
rules that increased his study of possible movement and ways of
expressing; but his body has already been through the experience
of ballet and it shapes the new movements in a way that contrasts
with those dancers brought up on Tharp.
I overheard some rumblings
on this score, as we were leaving the room after the panel was over,
as to whether Tharp's dancers learned her style from the beginning.
One dancer/scholar argued that Tharp had had no technique to begin
with; her dancers were all ballet trained.
Lutterie's point was
that we are engaged in an ongoing apprenticeship of the body. Going
from infancy, to toddler, to youth to middle-age and then old-age,
we have to constantly learn about the changes in our body and differences
of movement and thus our interaction with the world through movement.
We learn from our own body, then from others and then our movements
become personalized through our own particular charter of experiences.
Continuing this theme
of learning movement from those around us was Robert Crease, speaking
on "Divine Frivolity: Movement and Vernacular Dance." By vernacular
dance, he meant "the kind of dance in which people dance amongst
themselves, spontaneously, without professional training, in ordinary
That there is no expectation
of the dancers to perform or acquire any particular standard is
part of the definition of vernacular, Crease said. There was much
discussion at the end of the paper as to whether "no training" was
necessarily a part of vernacular dancing; since dances like the
Lindy hop, swing, and tango may start that way but eventually some
training is naturally acquired. The conclusion seems to have been
that the training was still only to further the spontaneous need
to dance for simple enjoyment of the soul. Of course the term "ordinary
spaces" means without the definition of a stage, where there are
a whole set of expectations from the performer.
Crease defines three
ways most vernacular dancing is examined. First through the expressive
perspective, in which the dancing cannot be separated from its society
and social circumstances. Then the existential perspective, allowing
the subject to free itself from cultural bonds and express his/her
emotions through dance. And lastly the ethical perspective: whether
vernacular dance "fosters or disrupts human society."
After looking at these
approaches in some detail, Crease concluded they overlap if vernacular
dance is to be studied fully and understood. Movements are rarely
new and mostly learned, with some new variations, he said, but can
still feel liberating to the dancer. Yet what is expressive of the
particular culture and what is common to all dance? And if vernacular
dance is a reflection of the society then this denies the role that
dance itself could have to change society and reshape it.
In conclusion (not necessarily
Crease's conclusion, but what sense I am trying to make of this
paper, which makes me go round and round!) vernacular dance is based
on mundane and commonplace movements, yet it can be individuating.
"We can learn about ourselves and expand our range of expression,
without being innovative dancers," he is saying, which is why a
put-together set of commonplace and easily performed movements spreads
across easily from one culture to another. In the end it is based
on common experience of the body and does not need specialized training.
The last paper was presented
by Sally Ann Ness on "Understanding Movement in the Embodiment of
Dance: Being a Person in a Cultural Way." This heading tied me up
in knots; the paper was not for the average dancer who has not studied
Ness's work before.
Ness contends the method
of studying dance in different cultures is shifting from the mere
observational to actual practice by the investigator. Acquiring
first-hand knowledge through practice and by being a part of the
culture, then learning the dance and understanding it from within.
Outside the hall I heard
other scholars disagree with this being a shift, saying that this
was not a new practice and that the method had been employed by
many for a long time. (Editor's note: Katherine Dunham employed
this approach when she started out in the 1930s.)
One audience member questioned
if this could be a legitimate way of trying to understand dance
from another culture, when living in and being part of the culture
would mean many years of participation in the life of the people.
How much objectivity would there be left if many years were invested
in the integration of the scholar into the culture? Ness's answer
was that she was not interested in the judgmental aspect of the
question, but in merely noting the shift of the manner of study.
and teacher Tehreema Mitha is The Dance Insider's Washington bureau
chief. For more information on her work in dance, go to http://www.horsesmouth.org/dancers/ny/mitha.htm.
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