“Past your Prime -Ageism in dance”
A commentary from across the continent...
by Ramaa Bharadvaj, Yorba Linda, CA, USA
"All the photographs that accompany this article are of dancers aged 45 and above ...
including that of the author!!!"
Okay let's face it! When you live long enough you have seen, heard of, encountered (and if you are unfortunate enough) even experienced them all … those crippling social “isms” - racism, sexism, classism, ableism!
And sure enough according to those interviewed by musician/journalist M.S. Rajan in an article published in Narthaki-On-Line, we, the international audiences, are supposedly responsible for ICCR drawing up such bizarre rules. He quotes Delhi based dancer-choreographer Geeta Chandran as saying “it is body that matters for dancers and audiences abroad, and not the mind.” In other words we had all been delegated to the role of cattle, stampeding with drooling tongues towards lush green pastures ... the greener, the better!
Is it a body thing after all?
ICCR's categorization of dancers into the three age-defined designations of budding artists, performing artists and then all those retirees, is clear indication that they have not read the pulse of the foreign audience, for if they had, they would know that our pulse does not beat in counts of 36-24-36!
To prove my point, I decided to personally test the pulse of the dance community here by forwarding Rajan's article to the presenters, dancers and critics, in my circle, and all those who responded were unanimously either annoyed or enraged. Lewis Segal, the dance critic of Los Angeles Times called this “a bizarre cultural event” and said “Stalinism in the arts is always bad news. Stalinism coupled with ageism and the assumption that the classical dances of India ought to inspire erections rather than reverence is downright ridiculous.” My point exactly! If it is a young firm body that I want to see, I would head straight to Las Vegas, and not to a Bharatanatyam concert.
I must also vehemently disagree with Indian critic Subbudu who is quoted by Rajan as saying “those dancers above the age of 45 can give lecture-demonstrations instead of solo dance performances. Otherwise dancers with disappropriate bodies would invite demonstrations outside the auditorium”. First of all it is presumptuous on his part to assume that dancers over 45 have bodies that are “disappropriate” for dance. I should know! Today I look, feel, and can dance better than any of my 20 year old students. Secondly you don't have to turn 45 to let your body go to the dogs. You can do that at any age, in which case you should not be dancing anywhere … not on stage, not locally, not abroad, not even in your shower, especially not there - that could be dangerous!
With all this focus on the physical, has the ICCR essentially reduced the dignity of Indian dances to that of runway modeling? What about the unique ability of its experts to transform the sensual to the sacred and the vulgar to the venerable? Does it not require a great deal of introspection, self-discovery and growth before dances of such depth can be created or performed? How can anyone in his/her right mind impose an age restriction on a journey so profound?
David Roche, who had for many years produced the famous San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and who is currently the director of Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, found this rule quite inane, and raised another important point which he found to be a “double standard”. “Ramnad Krishnan (carnatik musician) once told me that musicians are mere children until they reach the age of 60” he said. “Up until then their raga interpretations are considered puerile.” Interesting! Wouldn't a similar growth period be essential for dancers as well, especially in an art form that continuously seeks to transcend the physical?
The ICCR officers need to have the courage to find ways to support their own issues without turning them into national statutes for their own convenience. Instead of discriminating on the basis of age, telling a dancer that she/he has lived too long to be taken seriously as a performing artist, why not discriminate on the basis of quality? “We regret to inform you that your application was rated number 15 by our selection panel and our budget can only support 12 touring companies this year.” Simple isn't it?
Catering to the audience:
Let us assume for an innocent moment that this august cultural body has absolutely no hidden agendas whatsoever and that this rule is made in the genuine interest of marketing their “best cultural package” to their international audiences. Since no successful marketing of a product can happen without a survey of its consumers, I wonder if the ICCR has ever ventured into a field study of their audiences abroad? Have they surveyed the event producers and booking agents? Have they talked to the presenters, the grant makers and the critics? And when presenters approach them with specific requests, do they readily listen?
Obviously not, at least according to Anita Ratnam. “They have their own agenda. During the recent Edinburgh festival, while the organizers only wanted Contemporary work from India, the ICCR insisted and “recommended” a package of classical dancers instead” she commented and also added that when ambassadors have approached ICCR asking for her performances, they were told that she was not available, even without her being contacted.
Jonathan Hollander, the director of Battery Dance Company in New York had another story to share. “When I introduced the Jhaveri Sisters in the U.S. in 1993, I had to twist their arms because they didn't want to send Ranjana. They thought she was too old. I respectfully disagreed and insisted: and I was proven right. Jenneth Webster, the producer of Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Festival, agreed with me that Ranjana was the Margot Fonteyn of Indian dance.”
And talking about audiences … who are these audiences that ICCR is supposed to serve anyway? Fifty years ago when this organization was first born their audiences might have been the political dignitaries and international Festival circuits. Their role according to Uttara Asha Coorlawala was supposedly to “show how India at least had "culture" if nothing else. I even have an article,” she says, “on how they sent dancers to perform in France to precede negotiations for French fighter planes.”
Lewis Segal put it correctly when he said, “it is the best older dancers who have lived with their art long enough that can focus their energy and our attention on essential and often revelatory movement statements, or break our hearts by infusing layers of complex emotional, intellectual and spiritual implications”. It is these layers and revelations in art that we wish our next generation to experience - all these thousands of teenagers attending Indian dance classes, week after week, uninspired and unmotivated.
With our social calendar full of dance debut performances we have enough youthful exuberance to last a lifetime. Our eyes and minds long for something more sublime, more substantial and more divine.
So keep your young and beautiful.
Send us your old and your wrinkled
Your aged masters yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
And by the way as a footnote to this commentary I wish to inform you all that on August 25, 2003, I will be celebrating my 27th birthday … for the 18th time of course … and you are all invited!
the Director of Angahara Ensemble in California, is a dancer, teacher,
choreographer and writer of distinction. She is the winner of multiple
Lester Horton Dance Awards for her choreography and performance, and a
recipient of numerous grants from local and state and national agencies.
She has served on dance panels for the California Arts Council and National
Endowment for the Arts. She is on the dance faculty at Orange Coast
College and a visiting faculty for Ballet San Jose in California.
In June 2000, she was featured on the cover of Dance Magazine, the world's
most prestigious dance publication and in January 2003, Ramaa was selected
as a Master Artist of California by the Alliance for California Traditional