To conform or to rebel…
- Deepa Mahadevan, CA
e-mail: deepamahadevan77@yahoo.co.in


April 26, 2005
I am a Bharatanatyam dancer. I have been one, heart and soul, for several years now. So, modern dance has been an enigma that I have had to solve. I have always found myself sitting on the edge and attempting to comprehend the import of the portrait they paint. I come from a world of dance where the rules are explicitly stated, and the Gospel of Performing Arts, the Natya Shastra has governed our dance forms since 4000 BC. Dancers conform to these rules and mould their creativities around it.

The dance I had learnt usually dealt with mythological themes. The audience mostly knew the story. The songs were in a language mostly understandable by the audience catered to. Extensive facial expressions and hand gestures were employed to convey the meaning and sentiment to the audience. Thus the music, the words, the body language worked together to convey a sentiment through a story which might already have been known or could be told using the above methods. The audience is aided and taken along with the dancer and appreciate the sentiment or mood the dancer is trying to convey.

Modern dance however has been since its inception, an art made by individuals, who have something to say and intend to say it, in their own way and in no one else's. The dancer might use words or not, can take anything - from mythology to the inner workings of the mind as the theme for the dance; the music can be anything from static sounds from a radio to Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The audience thus is constantly challenged to adjust themselves to every artist's artistic escapades.

Isadora Duncan, Ruth St Denis and Louis Fuller were among the first few to revolutionize dancing. They were art anarchists in the true sense. There were no dos and don'ts in their dance performances. Each one's background, exposure, and period of existence, defined and governed his or her style of dance and presentation forms.

Isadora Duncan, being one of the pioneers of Modern dance found music both a motivating and constricting force to dancers. Duncan's dramatic dancing however made extensive use of static poses, pantomime, clear gestures and facial expressions for conveying the emotion, which she was translating for the audience from the music.

Ruth St Denis was a contemporary to Duncan. She reveled in mysticism and understood dance as a religious experience and also had a remarkable appreciation of popular taste.

As each one found their own rulebook in dance, it was important for documentation and codification of each one's dance. Even though Isadora always dreamt of founding a school for her dance, she was not too successful in forming a method of getting the essence of her dancing to her students.

Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis set up the Denishawn School of Dance. Denishawn demonstrated that dance would have a serious purpose as spoken drama did. This school popularized Music visualization, an idea of Duncan. They believed that personalities were of no account; the group/dancers had no purpose except to reflect the rhythm and structure of the music. Costumes had no purpose than to display the bodies of the dancers. Patterns, space coverings and grouping were as beautiful as possible. As the individuals behind the school change, the content and meaning behind their dances also change. Ted Shawn in his later years also said, “I will always give my accolades to those dancers who, having mastered the language, say ‘something'. For that indescribable ‘something' is the life enhancing element of the art of dance.”

Doris Humphrey, a student of the Denishawn School of Dance believed that dance happens in the frightening moment between falling and recovering, during the arc swept by a body moving between equilibrium and uncontrol. “I see words as a means of conveying facts and the dance as the means of expressing emotion. I believe that feeling should be the function of dance and the words should convey whatever we need to know about place, time, stage of being or any other fact which the dance by its nature cannot express.” She contributed immensely towards theorizing and evolving a system of dance and thus left behind a method or legacy.

Martha Graham invented and evolved a technique as rigorous and complex as the one ballet required centuries to develop. Her works were introspective and concerned with human emotion and motivation. She became dedicated to bringing together décor, lighting, music and dancers to create organic dramas, which, by their use of a complete theatrical apparatus allowed the spectator no escape from her vision. She used the spoken word too. Mythology dominated many of her works. Graham has worked in images, kinesthetic ones. A swirling of the leg, which is bent forward at the hip and down and in at the face calls forth a swirling of the mind. Graham's works don't stem from an interpretation of music but from the drama of an idea. There is an emotional climate that envelops the audience in every one of Graham's dances.

Merce Cunningham worked with Graham for a brief period before going ahead and making his own dances. He dispensed with the use of narratives and characters. He opposes the schools of choreography that dictates that every step must have a specific meaning. The meaning of a movement to Cunningham is intrinsic in the movement and in the person doing it and is not imposed by an external convention. He believes that emotion is always present in dance because it is a human being doing it. He believes that all the arts and disciplines that come together in the theatre should function independently of one another. Although the choreography and the lighting and the score of music were discrete creations, they affected one another because they happened in one place. On the street, Cunningham says one may see an action, hear a sound that have nothing to do with one another, but affects the way in which each is perceived because they coexist. Yet another interesting thought process in Cunningham's dances is the use of ‘Chance'. Cunningham used the toss of a coin while choreographing to decide the sequence in which certain section of the dance would be presented. It might be thought of to be a way to disarm the power of the individual, here the choreographer and so elude the dictates of personal taste.

Nikolais, a modern dancer who reigned in the sixties, believed that the dancers should be strong enough to project themselves through the environment he makes for them. His stage has extensive use of lights and props; dancers rely on the environment for support, which in turn would be useless without them. He draws his inspiration for this thinking from the world around which is ever changing and we as individuals need to strive hard to make a difference. He does not believe that a dancer must assume a character in order to present the matter of dance, which is movement. He believes dance is an art of motion and not emotion.

Paul Taylor danced in Merce Cunnigham's company in the fifties and then went ahead to create his own group. His dance stems from the belief that words can have double meanings, gestures, content also have several layers of meaning, of course all the meaning must be appropriate to dance. He believes in trying to make things clear and not confuse an audience. He uses lot of wit and pun in his dance. Of course, only an audience who knows his language of movement sufficiently well will understand the pun in it.

The ones stated above are just a glimpse of the thought process of a few dancers; there were several others who left their indelible mark on modern dance. Each one is as rebellious from each other as they are to ballet. While you go through what I presented, you might feel some of the ideas eccentric and not logical. But that very nature might give what they are doing the status of an ‘Art'. They said what they had to say and to do that itself needs a lot of courage. To rebel and not to conform needs guts.

Gradually it has been found that modern dancers draw a lot of strength from ballet and depict contemporary ideas and themes through them. This has been a notable trend in dancers from India too. Using traditional dance forms like Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Odissi etc, dancers are trying to work on contemporary themes and issues and are moving away from mythological themes and religious content. It might be true that Indian dance is going through a rebellious period and young performers are crying out for change, yearning for individual manifestations in the dance more than following what was told to them by their gurus. Maybe Indian dance and dancers are bringing about a new way of looking at dance like modern dancers did as a revolt to ballet. The audience participation in these dances is of a much higher degree than our traditional dances as one needs to understand both the thought process of the dancer and the meaning if any of the dance within the duration of the dance performance. I sometimes wonder whether the audiences go for such a performance as more of a status symbol or because they identify with what is being said and depicted.

My understanding would be that nothing stays the same way forever. Change is the way of life. The sooner one gets to term with it, the better.



Deepa Mahadevan resides in Fremont, California. She has been performing Bharatanatyam for the past twenty years and is a disciple of guru Usha Srinivasan.