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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 and images.

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 of movement.

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 illumination."

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!

Friday Frenzy

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 spaces."

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.


Choreographer, dancer, and teacher Tehreema Mitha is The Dance Insider's Washington bureau chief. For more information on her work in dance, go to

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