'World, dance with me',
says Anusha Subramanyam
Anusha Subramanyam is a choreographer, teacher, dancer and dance movement therapist, and is one of the best-known faces of Bharatanatyam in the UK. She has toured extensively in Europe, visiting both mainstream venues and alternative sites such as hospitals. Having graduated from Kalakshetra, Chennai, she has been teaching Bharatanatyam for 15 years, revitalizing, restructuring and reinterpreting Bharatanatyam in a contemporary context. She has worked with special needs groups, such as children, adults, teachers and other associated professionals, evolving various methodologies of training through conducting workshops of her own design and formulation. In her therapeutic workshops and exercises, she has explored and incorporated the rich potential of Indian classical, folk and contemporary dance forms as well as yoga and other body mind conditioning techniques.
Anusha Subramaniam recently toured India in November - December 2002 and the US in the first week of February 2003 as part of the Dust ensemble.
did you get interested in movement therapy?
It started as a young girl…my mother is a dancer, musician and an excellent teacher. Her journey went from being a professor to a schoolteacher to a primary teacher to being an educational consultant. I loved dance and always felt a sense of freedom and joy. This realization I wanted to translate for everybody. My dream is to see the whole world dancing.
In 1986 or 1987, there was a clear demarcation that dance meant Bharatanatyam. There is that even now. For me, dance is not Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam is dance. Dance is much broader. I used to wonder how to translate that to movement to somebody who could not hold a mudra properly or who is physically or mentally handicapped.
In 1989, a group of dancers from the US came to Delhi. They did contact improvisation, and it changed my world of movement. I could see that you could just move. You could create dance and ideas. You could make a finger dance, your nose…You could work with anybody…Prior to that, I had been doing lot of movement work using Indian folk dance, the concept of expression, drama rather than only Bharatanatyam movement.
I was working in Delhi with an international organization called Very Special Arts and they work with the arts in special areas. My mother did a lot of work with them and I used to accompany her. I started connecting that with Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam has the strength of emotion; you can easily take an aspect from it and use it. If I have to show anger I just have to use the eyes.
This inspired you to specialise in movement therapy?
My passionate belief is that people must all be creative. Creativity is within us and needs to be explored and expressed. When people come and tell me they can't be a dancer, I don't believe that. I think everybody can dance and must dance, or sing...and that kind of led me...
I started working in movement within special needs very seriously after I finished training in Kalakshetra in 1986, and until 1994, I worked in Delhi, Madras as well as in Coimbatore. The Very Special Arts was based in these regions. I worked with Balavadi and Anganvadi workers as well with my mother. In 1992 a group of drama therapists came from Britain. They did a workshop in the British Council, which I attended. They saw my work and said what I was doing creatively was similar to their work process. They suggested that I train as a drama therapist in UK. I was not sure if I wanted to do drama therapy. I was interested more in the movement work. At the same time I had joined the Spastics Society of Northern India to train as a physical therapist for cerebral palsy. Even though I was doing movement with special needs work, I wanted to know more about the etiology of who I was working with. It is very important that I know exactly what the physical capabilities are, what is correct, what is wrong for that body and also the mental abilities. Just knowing that there is some mental difficulty doesn't make sense. Like for schizophrenia, very simply, it's not very good to do lot of imaginative work with them because they are very creative anyway in the sense that they can make up stories. That might not be the correct approach with them.
Where did you train? What sort of experiences did you gather during the learning period?
Once I knew what I wanted to do, I started exploring where I could train as movement therapist. A friend of mine, Tripura Kashyap, had trained as a therapist in the US. That was one option. Also, my in-laws were in Britain and I had written to them. Finally, I decided Britain was the better place. It felt like home; I had grown with its history and felt more comfortable there. Fortunately, I got the British Council scholarship and a P N Berry scholarship - it's a medical scholarship. I trained at the University of Hartfordshire for a two-year course. In many ways, the best time of my life. It was in some ways called a part-time course but I made it full-time for myself because we went to college for two and a half days a week, and the rest of the week we were supposed to work.
It was unpaid work and I worked in as many hospitals as I could. I had the time to explore and it gave me an opportunity within those two years to work with all categories. I worked with learning disability, which is now an umbrella term for everything that has to do with mental difficulties. And I worked with geriatrics, children, cerebral palsy, in psychiatry, which I loved very much. It was very valuable learning and in the centre where I worked, they had an ethos of community philosophy, which meant that every member of the unit would contribute. Even the staff would contribute in say, cooking. It was empowerment of everybody. There was no distinction. They would draw up a rota. The day would start in the morning by everybody coming together and talking about something positive that they had accomplished. I realised that a simple thing like tying a shoelace was a major achievement for some. It gave me a very good sense about how one can empower people even with simple things and how simple things for so many people are so important.
How did you put your training and ideas into practice?
I worked on a project called 'From The Heart'. With children in a cancer ward. I used Bharatanatyam very effectively, it has so many components--usage of hasta mudras, usage of expression, usage of story--you could just pick one and explore that. Children who could not move at all could still believe that they were dancing, whether it was just one hand or the eyes. I used a lot of yoga as well, a lot of breath work with movement. It's the sense of going out of your body in one way. Enjoying your body. It was lovely. And the idea of storytelling and imagery worked very well because sometimes children, especially boys, when I asked them, said they didn't want to dance. That was when I learnt a lot about football. England is crazy about football and how I connected with these young boys was to come to their level. I asked them to imagine two teams, say Arsenal and Manchester United and urge them to use their legs, heads, hands or shoulders and imagine kicking or heading the ball. It was wonderful, for what happened was, not only were they moving, it also had a positive effect on their parents. Parents obviously are too protective of their children and say that the child cannot move as he is connected to the machine...but the fact that they suddenly see their child moving gives them confidence, gives them hope. The movement work allowed the parents to see their child again as a person rather than just a sick person. That was important and worked very well.
That kind of a journey was something I continued. It gave me much more joy to see dancers because I feel as a dancer, I'm someone who communicates and I don't communicate only on stage, for me I have to communicate wherever I am. That is very important for me. And this work allowed me to be a real dancer because I was getting people to dance and I felt that the dances I saw with these people in these places were so much closer because it really was from the heart. They gave what they really believed in. In some ways, that feeds me as a dancer because I want to try and be as vulnerable when I dance. I want to be as open and generous in who I am and not try to hide myself. For me I feel that all the work that I do feeds each other.
You prefer this dancing to performing on stage?
No. I cannot differentiate. I feel they're all the same to me. For me dance is so big that if I differentiate, it takes away the strength of dancing that dance has. When I do a margam, it is as much me as when I do something like 'Dust'. At the end of the day it should be a good production. I have to work towards something that is truly good. Technically and in every other way. I think that is the difficulty in contemporary or modern Indian dance because sometimes we think that by just adding a jump here, a roll there and a thaiya thai, it becomes modern. I think all of us have to arrive at something because it needs to be done.
Have you trained in a western dance technique?
No I haven't. Performing in 'Dust' is my first experience…
How did working in this Indo-American dance production help you?
I think 'Dust' is amazing in so many ways. The way we worked…especially with Mark Taylor, the way he taught how to use the body really helped for me because I came into this as an older body, you know when you come into your thirties, it's not so easy…the way Mark brought a sense of the inner body into the work shifted the mind from a movement, to how the movement needs to be done. So it gave a much more sense of intelligence. And Dance Alloy is such a good company. Each of the dancers respect each other and that is very important. I think that's crucial to any work.
How did you get to work in 'Dust'?
Anita Ratnam saw my work. She has been wonderful in encouraging me and admiring what I do. And I met Mark two years ago here in Chennai. He had done a workshop that I had attended. We connected very well and when Anita suggested my name to him, he was very keen and we took off from there.
What are your observations as a performer of 'Dust' in India as compared to the US shows?
It was exciting to be back in India to perform again. We had a very warm reception for all the performances, which was rewarding.
In the west the attention to detail on the day of the performance is crucial. From warm up, to setting of the lights and a technical rehearsal with the lights, sound, being in the space is considered vital. Dancers, light designers have developed an amazing capacity to innovate. The acoustics in the west allows to create an atmosphere.
The Other Festival proved that this is definitely possible here. We need to be as mindful of other details within a production, and not just of dance technique.
You do community education work in the UK. Could you elaborate on that?
It's a work that I've carried on which I used to do in India when I was here. I'm very glad to see that it's beginning to happen here now.
The kind of work that I do in the UK…there are lots of various levels of this community education work. When we say education work, it's done in schools, hospitals, youth or old groups…to go there and conduct workshops. I would do a one-day workshop to demonstrate Bharatanatyam, get people to explore Bharatanatyam…the other kind of work is something called residencies. I think this gives me as a performer and the people who participate much more. Because residencies last say, 6 months or even a year, it gives everybody an in-depth exploration into a movement work. We take a theme… suppose a school is working on mathematics, or geography or history, as a movement worker I will co-ordinate with the schoolwork, the same theme in movements. It doubles the learning process for the student in so many different ways. First I teach them a bit of Bharatanatyam, then we explore movement, the theme, then we create a piece. At the end of the residency, they also perform.
This we do in everything. Even if it is a one-day workshop, I use a theme so that everybody has a focus rather than just exploring movement. For example water; see how water can be explored, it's not just the nature of water but what does water do, what it is important for, whether it's for a bath or whether it's for drinking or dance or growth...there are so many ideas of what water is about or what happens when there is no water. One can explore that simple idea of water in so many different ways.
What method have you evolved for teaching Bharatanatyam in the UK?
For a long time after I went to UK, I was not sure I wanted to teach Bharatanatyam because I saw that everyone would come only for a week. What can one do in a week? Then also, when one didn't teach, one was not sharing. So I decided that I needed to teach. Very clearly in the UK and all over where there is a large Asian community, people don't just come to learn Kathak or Bharatanatyam. They come because the teachers become cultural ambassadors. We sometimes have to teach them how to say 'namaste'...The parents feel that by learning Bharatanatyam, the children will be very cultural. Most parents fear that the Western cultural influence will corrupt their children and by learning Kathak or Bharatanatyam, or one of the art forms, their child will be closer to their 'sanskriti'. In many ways it is correct, in many ways it is not because they then tend to think of the culture as a superficial culture. That creates confusion and a dilemma for the child...
I teach 50 students and it's a once-a-week class. I am trying to get them to come twice a week and we do intensives whenever there are longer holidays. When artistes come to England, I try and invite them for a day or two to do workshops with them. In many ways, for me as a teacher it is wonderful because I am getting them to be passionate about movement. Though I teach Bharatanatyam, I try and get other people from other movement backgrounds as well to come and do workshops with them because I feel that they can be broader in what they learn.
There are days when we do storytelling, incorporate a story in a little dance that they can do. I use a lot of acting in the dance itself. The performance pieces that I create for them are not straightforward Bharatanatyam pieces. We have elements of verbal narrative with dance. Most of the people in the UK are Gujarati who have travelled from East Africa. So they are second or third generation removed. The other large group is the Sri Lankan Tamil group. They are focussed on Bharatanatyam. They want only what they think is the Tamil culture and in some ways it's true. They don't have a motherland, so they think by having everything Tamil, they can create a motherland within themselves.
Organisations like Sampad and Akademi, conduct many conferences pertaining to Indian dance. Are these relevant only to classical dance in Britain?
Akademi is more focussed on contemporary work and is more British. Sampad is much more global. I think what any conference does is bring people together and you talk a lot and hopefully something happens after that.
Has anything special happened as a result of these conferences?
I don't know if there has been any great significance. But definitely there is a change that happens when people meet. It's so nice to see other dancers. And you realise that there are many other wonderful people who are working, sometimes in what you're doing or sometimes in something else. In that way it does make a difference. Maybe if you go into a lot of conferences, they do seem like a lot of talk, but I think in small measures they are very important and make a difference.
It's important that if dance has to change, dancers have to become articulate. And conferences are one way of doing that. It gives you a sense that there is so much thought that needs to go in. But as a performing artiste, too much of talk is also not good. I think one has to constantly find a balance. I can see that slowly there have been changes. Even if it is within me.
Actually a lot of people want to write but their writing is not up to the mark. We speak because we want to share, but a lot of dancers speak loftily, like they are delivering the final word. We all have intelligence; it is nice to share... Since music and dance are so connected, I think we must also find a way of having dialogues with the musicians.
Dialogue? What's the point, if they are not open to suggestions…
Living in the UK, this is something we face; the dances are less, the musicians want more. They want to behave exactly as the Indian musicians behave in India. So I feel there should be a dialogue. I have dialogues with my musicians. They ask me to send the tape and they will rehearse on that. I tell them that it is not on. They will come and play and I will dance, but what is the point? If we're working together, it has to be as a team. I think at least the few musicians who worked with me, I tell them we'll do things a little differently even in my regular performances, this keeps them on edge. We have a dialogue, I ask them to take the lead sometimes and suggest ideas. Even in a straightforward kutcheri, to get them to have some main roles, so they feel they are also given importance. They have seen me do so many workshops and performances within that context, in hospitals and community centres, rural tours; so they have realised that they can't just sit there and play, there must be something different, there must be a dialogue that has to be created with the audience and the performers. For that, there should be awareness, a different attitude...Now they understand the idea but it is still not complete.
I think musicians need to be involved in conferences, if there are specific topics, or even send them invitations to these...I think this will make a change.
Maybe they are not comfortable speaking on stage…
True. That's also a difficulty. We can tell them they can speak in whichever language they are comfortable with. But I feel that needs to happen in India as well. There are no musicians who come and talk…
Musicians don't attend these conferences…
Probably because they think these are just dance conferences. Even if they can contribute articles or papers on topics, it would help. The dancers should urge the musicians to be more involved. On their part, the musicians should find the time…even to attend rehearsals!! Flautist Moorthy used to tell us that when he worked with Balasaraswathi, they had a regular set of musicians and they all worked very closely. So, when did this general attitude change? I think it changed during that revival period. We've heard stories about how big dancers did not treat their musicians as a team. Maybe as they became more prominent, they took more charge. Lots of reasons…
Do you feel it's a good thing to veer away from established classical dance norms? Do you experiment and innovate from the classical style?
Those days, in '86 or '87, there was a clear demarcation that dance was to do with Bharatanatyam. I knew that I have to be clear in my head what I was doing. I was not teaching Bharatanatyam. When I was clear with that, I could translate it. If I said I was doing Bharatanatyam, then it wouldn't make sense. But influenced by my knowledge of Bharatanatyam, I could break the form in any way I wanted. But it took a while for me to feel good about that because it was a struggle trying to translate that for my teachers. I was a very good student and didn't want to go away from what Kalakshetra said or what my other teachers said. Then I realised that everybody's correct. It's just that you have to broaden your ideas or what your concept is and what you believe in.
I want to think about dance. I'm not interested in Bharatanatyam. Doesn't matter if the world doesn't do Bharatanatyam. It is not dance. In some ways I feel that shift is slowly happening today. It also ties in with the fact that there are few good dancers. I think it is because there is so much elitism in classical dance. People say that if it they dance, it has to be Bharatanatyam. You can go into folk, jazz, film music…it depends on what the body and mind are capable of. People are interested in learning Bharatanatyam because of its elite label.
You approve of the so-called 'fusion' dance that's happening nowadays?
I think it's great. Of course you'll get a lot of rubbish. But then it's a process. I think the performers and the audience need to have a dialogue. The performers should be able to take genuine criticism. What I don't agree with lot of dancers or anybody is an attitude that says 'contemporary' means 'kandapadi' (unaesthetic). I do agree that a lot of modern work is not very good. But I think that's because it's still a process and is still evolving.
Are you talking about the contemporary work in the UK by Indian dancers?
In the UK, the ISTD has formulated a syllabus for dance, complete with exams. Taking into mind the proliferation of dance schools in India and elsewhere, do you have any suggestions on what can be done to raise the level of performance skill among aspiring performers?
Body conditioning systems, theater techniques, voice culture from both the eastern and European traditions. Information is easily available and accessible today more then ever. Dancers must interact and explore concepts of movement and thinking process through workshops. They might not use the movement vocabulary, but the methodology of any other forms especially the western form can inform their way of working better, yet working within the classical form.
You practice Pilates and Yoga. Do you think these are essential for a dancer to improve stamina and flexibility?
Of course. Especially in present time, where dancers want to collaborate and work with new forms, Bharatanatyam technique is changing and is physically much more challenging. Besides, flexibility and stamina, yoga and pilates create body awareness that can lead the dancer to a healthier and longer dance career.