TAKING DANCE TO ITS AUDIENCE - the ‘Chaali' experience
by Bharat Sharma
Project Director
e-mail: sharmabh@hotmail.com

Mar 2001

The relationship between and its audience is fundamental to the survival of the performing art. By taking dance to its audience in varied cultural settings, this project seeks to develop the public sphere of dancers, choreographers, groups and teachers. This project aims to fill a critical gap in the field of dance in India viz. The need for having support systems to supplement creative processes of artists. By evolving Highway Performance Circuits, the endeavor will provide a reach for dance in the community.

A 6-month study was undertaken prior to the launch of trial run. Field research included an analysis of audience perceptions across regional, linguistic/cultural and urban/rural boundaries; survey of repertoires of dance groups in India; identification of dancers / groups and program for trial run; networking individuals and organizations in south India to host residencies; evolving strategies to access audiences; and planning logistics.

A need was felt to have a name for the initiative to facilitate easier communication. ‘Chaali' is the first basic ‘walk' exercise in the traditional dance form Mayurbhanj Chhau from Orissa that takes the dancer from one point in space to another. ‘Chaali' now represents the core idea behind the project - of extending the space of dancers through travel on highways.

The trial run of almost 40 days began on January 24, 2001 and concluded on March 5, and covered approximately 5000 kilometers. It was undertaken along the coastal corridor of Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, and through Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The 37-event circuit (with 18 performances and 19 workshops / lecture-demonstrations) traversed national and state highways, roads under construction and by-lanes, and passed through metropolitan cities, state capitals, small towns and villages.

Performances were mounted in varied spaces - well equipped theatres, open air spaces, black boxes, makeshift stages, an art gallery and a tourist complex. The light and sound equipment that was carried in Tempo Traveler van with the 10-member artistic team helped in maintaining basic standards of presentations, although uneven floors and electric connections were a problem to contend with. For each performance, substantive time was reserved for technical rehearsals.

The quantum of audience varied from place to place. In state capitals - Panaji, Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai and Bangalore - audience ranged from 150 - 400. In other cities, smaller towns and villages, like Udupi, Coimbatore, Heggoddu, Sulliyapadavu, Borim, Dharwad, Palolem, Mysore, and Timbaktu, audiences ranged from 150 to 2500. The aggregate attendance for performances was approximately 8000 and for workshop / lecture demonstrations approximately 850.

The profile of audiences was diverse. In state capitals, audiences were mostly urbane, educated, cosmopolitan and relatively informed on developments in dance. In other venues, the composition of audience closely reflected the profile of organization that hosted performances, especially those of art institutions. In Palolem, audiences included international tourists, in Varka visual art lovers, in Hubli and Udupi people exposed to classical dance, in Heggoddu and Mysore to modern theatre, and in Kochi to contemporary dance, and in Coimbatore people interested in philanthropic activities. In Sulliyapadavu , Borim and Timbaktu audiences were village and tribal people, and there was sizable presence of the young and children.

Despite receding attention span of audiences, presentations were found to be novel. People who came preferred to sit through the entire program. In many cultural settings, applause after performance is not part of a theatre-going habit. However, survey after performances revealed that responses were mostly positive. Outside state capitals, people mentioned that they were seeing contemporary dance for the first time.

In general, people preferred group work to solos. Physicality, in terms of using expansive space, was found attractive. Presentations transcended language and stylistic barriers while preference was towards choreography with a clear narrative. Different programs were scheduled for each venue and dancers adapted their repertoire for changing spaces and tastes.

Workshops played a crucial role in furthering the goals of the project. Since dancers were adept in more than one discipline and privy to their own unique approaches to dance pedagogy, artists structured offerings according to needs of participants. At places, it fostered dialogue with local artists (such as with theatre groups and dancers), in other cases inputs were shaped around issues related to work of voluntary organizations (such as those working with people with disabilities, street children and NGOs). Local dancers mostly wanted exposure to techniques (such as traditional styles, improvisation and composition).

Attendance for workshops was better when it was held after performance and it gave scope to answer questions of participants. Attempt was made to make workshops participatory. Lecture-demonstrations helped in introducing methodologies of each dancer / group, and provide historical context to choreography in India. For the artistic team, it provided an opportunity to sharpen skills in articulating ideas, and make new friends.

In Kundapura and Madgaon, the participants were working children and college students respectively, and workshops concluded with informal performances. In Panjim, Hubli, and Kochi participants were dance students, in Heggoddu students of theatre, in Udupi general audiences. In Panjim, Kochi and Dharwad special workshops were held for educators interested in dance therapy.

The trial run provided time for the travelling team to reflect upon their respective artistic journeys. Through internal discussions they were able to place themselves in contemporary dance scene in India. Each dancer /group shared their methodology, craft and technique with the other. By the end of the trial run, virtually every dancer learnt each other's repertoire.

The residencies for the trial run had a focus on Goa (10 days) and Karnataka (15 days). Each state had a character of its won. Contemporary dance got its first exposure in Goa through the imaginative organizational work of Crisologo Furtado, the coordinator, and support from all events by Alliance Francaise de Goa. The coordinator setup performances in diverse spaces, cultural settings and social groups. Residency in Goa was self sufficient and provided inputs to evolve a model.

In Karnataka, the performances / workshops were primarily set up through networking art institutions that had informed, responsive and captive audiences. Performances were set in established theatres - both open air and indoors - and most of them were equipped. The voluntary contribution of each individual / organization with regards to issues related to presentation, publicity and audience management reflected an evolved theatre going culture in the state.

The trial run surprisingly got wide coverage from the media. Vernacular newspapers, like mass circulating Prajavani and Udyavani in Karnataka, gave front-page photographs that went a long way in generating interest in the performances along the route. The Hindu, Times of India, Indian Express, Malayalam Manorama and Deccan Herald gave substantive coverage inThiruvananthapuram and Bangalore. Star News covered the event for its national television broadcast.

Since the core idea of the project was to develop local ownership for events, organizations(s) / individuals(s) in each residency made commendable effort to access audience, and provide for presentation costs, hospitality and technical assistance. In terms of resource mobilization, the trial run was able to cover the expenditure outside the subsidy acquired under the research funds. It pointed to a latent cultural economy that had potential to be developed.

This partnership between ‘Chaali' and the network of individuals / organizations was unique and bodes well for sustaining the Highway Performance Circuits. It needs continued assistance from all quarters - from people who believe that dance ought to go to its audience.