SEEING THE ELEPHANT (DANCE)
(Natya Kala Conference 2000)
by Bill Bissell


Nov 2000
Bill Bissell lives and works in the United States where he administers a funding program for dance in Philadelphia. He is also a free-lance dance writer and an independent arts project manager.

As someone who attends a range of Western concert dance programs with consistent regularity, I am disenchanted with my own viewing limitations. I have become too critical to enjoy a great deal of contemporary dance being made in the United States and find less and less pleasure in the art form in which I professionally work as both an advocate and administrator.

Frequently, if I must choose between attending a performance and having a relaxed dinner or simply staying home in order to watch a particular television show, I decide in favor of one of the latter, more suspect, sources of comfort. Sometimes I turn away from the dancing gods and let myself be seduced before other altars of pleasure to recover from mentally exhausting workdays. As well, like most cultural workers, I am saturated daily in the routine of analyzing cost / benefit ratios of programs within an industry that frequently removes viewing pleasure from the art my administrative efforts are intended to support. But I am also afraid of being disappointed.

In a prior life I lived as one of those driven “modern dancer types” where everything revolved around class, rehearsals, and the next performance. The movement preferences and esthetic tastes that I acquired in my dancing years still color how I approach looking at choreography. As I have grown older, and perhaps as a result of my separation from being a practicing artist, I have found that my training as a dancer, choreographer and teacher has not always helped to keep my view of dance fresh. In fact, it has become more difficult to enjoy performances. Yet it seems that in direct proportion to my disenchantment with contemporary modern and ballet choreography, I have become invigorated by the work of choreographers working either in cross-cultural or non-Western idioms.

Over the last several years, I have come to appreciate non-Western and traditional dance forms in a way that significantly counteracts the “art fatigue” I feel toward much contemporary Western dance. This, however, has not always been the case. In contemplating this writing assignment, I came to realize that the many contradictory issues that converge around the activity of looking at dance make it difficult to clearly discern a specific reason for liking or disliking any particular kind of movement. It also isn't easy to explain the factors of why we become bored by what we see. I am convinced that my training in dance didn't necessarily prevent me from approaching classical Indian forms free from prejudice. I think, in fact, that it was in large measure my own identity as a dancer, physical as well as social, which kept me blind to non-Western movement practices.

I remember seeing Balasaraswathi in New London, Connecticut in 1976 or 1977. I was impressed by what I had read about this great artist in inspiring commentary by Deborah Jowitt in The Village Voice. I wanted to appreciate what others recognized as masterful. Unfortunately, while I ended up respecting this artist's performance I did not know how to find delight in her authority or passion. I was just beginning my dance training that summer and the vocabulary and performance values of Balasaraswathi were too different from my own limited ideas about dance. I could not cross the boundaries that divided our worlds.

In 1981, after training as a contemporary dancer for almost five years and at the start of my professional career, I saw the Kerala Kalamandalam perform an evening of Kathakali at the Spoleto Festival/USA in Charleston, S.C. Though this form was also beyond my emotional or critical sensibility, I did leave that performance impressed by the larger than life theatricality of Kathakali and by the intense rigor of the performers' training.

In hindsight, at the Kathakali performance, as well as Bharatanatyam performance by Balasaraswathi, I realize that my inability to accept not knowing about these forms kept me from experiencing their compositional power and sensuality. I was too young in terms of my artistic sensibility to understand the idioms on their own movement terms so I struggled to “understand' them intellectually: to know what the dances meant, to decipher the coded layers of what appeared as esoteric choreography, to place them in a textbook space (today's “world dance”) rather than see them as art forms engaged in similar issues of choreographic craft-movement patterning, repetition, spatial definition, performer focus, and movement qualities such as speed, duration, and force.

I viewed the forms with respect but I found no real enjoyment or satisfaction in their expressive intentions. This bothered me then, and now, when the reverse is true, I am wrestling with how to understand my prior feelings. Today I find more pleasure-usually-in non-western dance forms (or choreography infused by non-Western movement influences) than I do in “traditional” contemporary dance and I think that some of my reluctance to “get” Indian dance during these earlier years has to do with the fact that one's dance training inevitably creates cultural blinders.

While embarking on an artistic career may involve opening outward to new ideas and practices it can also result in shutting out unknown influences, including consideration of other dance genres, vocabularies, cultures. The esthetic narrowness that is part of training is something that does not age well, feeding conservatism that feels comfortable and which accrues around matters of taste and esthetic preference as one grows older.

Why didn't I simply receive the Indian forms and let my viewpoint be directed by the same kind of close reading of compositional form and inventive gesture that I brought to modern dance or ballet? At the least, why didn't I respond more fully to the emotional power of Kathakali or the rhythmic sculpture of Balasaraswathi? Did I simply not find this kind of dancing pleasurable? I think my changing relationship to “foreign” dance forms has more to do with the relaxing of esthetic boundaries that accompanied my dance training, and also the need to overcome my fear (one, I think, shared by others) of not knowing enough about the culture to enjoy the dancing that was in front of me on its own terms.

The language of postcolonial theories or multiculturalism had not yet permeated our discourse in the United States when I saw the Kerala Kalamandalam or Balasaraswathi. I didn't want to feel the “wrong” thing or to presume to understand a kind of dancing that was so different from my own. As a result, I was looking at these dances with too many external conditions that had more to do with my own cultural isolation than anything else.

As a result, I realize that instead of getting closer to the performance material, I was trying to exoticize what I was seeing on stage-to understand the material in ways that would keep it at an emotional distance. This allowed me to defer deciding how I felt. Since I didn't understand the dancing I was looking at as an art experience, I pinned it to the intellectual frameworks of cultural studies and anthropology. What was the history of the dance? How did dance represent various cultural traditions, communities and philosophies? Preoccupation with these and other cultural questions were an easy way to avoid experiencing the dance forms as pleasurable or from engaging with them emotionally. These questions only served to reinforce the idea of looking at these dance traditions from the outside, as cultural curios examined from an intellectualized vantage point; they kept me from relaxing and, therefore, being more receptive to the work.

Furthermore, when answers to these questions were not found I remained vulnerable as an “outsider” afraid of my own ignorance-even embarrassed somehow.

In a perverse variation on neocolonial thinking, I assumed I couldn't enjoy these classical Indian dance traditions because I “didn't know anything” about them. I was afraid my feelings might be inappropriate so I avoided them altogether. In an effort to replace direct experience with something that I could grasp intellectually, and while trying to feel more comfortable culturally, I forgot about looking at the dance as a work of choreography. I didn't call on my own experience with movement composition, and so failed to reflect on the elements that are shared, to some degree or another, among all movement artists.

The dimensions of movement that comprise the discipline of choreographic structure are - no surprise - time, shape, dynamics, space, and energy. Incredible as it now seems to me, I was caught in a state of perceptual limbo, where my fear of being ignorant was the real source of my ignorance.

It was during the Los Angeles Festival in 1990 that I finally surrendered fully to non-Western work. Artists from around the Pacific Rim converged in this most multicultural of cities in the United States. I saw a performance by dancers from the Royal Kraton in Yogyakarta, Java and another by Cambodian dancers. I had no cultural reference point for the dance of either culture. Yet I immediately recognized the incredible beauty that was achieved through the nuanced physicality of the movement vocabulary and the powerful design of the dancer's bodies and the architectural arrangement of space.

I was moved to tears by work I had never seen and for which I was intellectually unprepared. The moment was right and I suddenly found myself fully intoxicated by choreographic material - not just the atmosphere - of dances that came from the other side of the world. I finally allowed myself to enjoy my ignorance and to understand the freedom of experiencing a cultural vocabulary of which I had no prior esthetic knowledge. Had my visit to Balasaraswathi's performance and viewing of the Kathakali slowly worked away at me and, at last, triggered my willingness to experience the Javanese and Cambodian dances? My hopeful side wants to answer in the affirmative. Certainly I have to acknowledge that my dance training, now tempered by distance from my own prejudices, had a role in this change. It led me back to the core values of movement analysis, through which I could now find pleasure in Indian dance.

In the summer of 1996 I attended the Dance Critics Association conference at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. As part of a session on the dance scene in India, writer Uttara Coorlawala had assembled video segments of dances from choreographers working in the Indian subcontinent and the Indian dance diaspora. This was the first time I saw the work of Chandralekha, or heard of the artistic debates that marked the current dance scene in India. Words such as “contemporary” and “traditional,” “authentic” and “innovative” were suddenly set in sharp relief. The meaning of these terms expanded as I faced the arrogance of my own worldview. I was challenged by the fact that the same word could change meanings and carry vastly different implications in different cultural contexts. I was reminded of the obvious: that culture is by nature a dynamic thing and never static. Choreographers rooted in India's diverse dance traditions embrace the contradictory tensions of continuity and change and, in so doing, offer an opportunity for us to reflect on the relationship between art maker and social context.

I began to complicate my thinking about Indian dance forms as I learned more about the change taking place within India's dance culture. When I saw Angika by Chandralekha at the Khajuraho Dance Festival, and then experienced the work of Akram Khan and Mavin Khoo in the UK, for instance, I was able to gain insight into their respective approaches to choreography from what I learned about the emergent critical discourse that is part of the current flowering of Indian dance. All of this became possible because I now looked to the dances themselves first, and was able to shift my own viewing relationship - both emotional as well as critical - to the choreography.

So today when I see such diverse artists as Kelucharan Mohapatra perform traditional Odissi, or view Akram Khan's contemporary work, I am engaged by their distinctive sense of craft and rich artistic conversation with diverse cultural source materials. I believe that it is the meeting of choreographic craft with cultural heritage that has finally, brought me to admire, and to feel so deeply about many artists working in India's dance continuum.

These choreographers remind us that there is no lack of artists in the world. Out of all force that pounds and sways and loves beneath the feet of Lord Nataraj, repeated over and over ad infinitum, there emerges through the dancer the refined expression of motion. If only we will listen carefully to the moving bodies, watch more closely to see their voices and wait in stillness in order to feel their breath - then we will know in truth how Ganesha dances.