|In defense of the white male critic|
- Bruno Kavanagh
November 8, 2016
Every dancer wishes for ONE GREAT REVIEW in the New York Times which for the United States has been the arbiter of dance taste and values. British critic and American transplant Alastair Macaulay has been in love with classical Indian dance for decades and his continued Orientalism is constantly overlooked for the prestige of the masthead he writes for. Here is a recent example of his retro "take" on his favourite group NRITYAGRAM of Bangalore.
And here is a response to Macaulay's review from Bruno Kavanagh, no stranger to the expressive arts, and spouse of dancer Preeti Vasudevan.
- Anita Ratnam
On November 3rd, the New York Times carried what can only be described as a rave review of an Odissi presentation by Nrityagram, who'd performed at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre in Manhattan the previous night.
"[Nrityagram's performers are] among the world's greatest dancers" oozed the NYT's most senior dance critic Alastair Macaulay, "I have sometimes found Odissi the single most beautiful dance-form I've experienced." This is high praise indeed from Macaulay - a man not shy of wielding the hatchet when he feels it's merited.
I sent the review to an Indian friend, based in the US (a member of the "Indian classical dance community" if such a thing can be said to exist - which I think it can.). I thought she'd be pleased that an Indian classical form was getting such positive attention from the senior critic of the most influential paper in the United States.
Not a bit of it: "Ugh!" came the reply back to my inbox. "More orientalism...love of the exotic. Cultural tourism - how boring!"
Perplexed, I looked back at Macaulay's piece, which had seemed harmless enough to me, and I tried to see it through her eyes. What could be the matter? I read: "The bodies often become a spellbinding array of different S-curves. [...] Does any other form so celebrate the configuration of a woman's body? All possess what used to be called hourglass figures; the way the slender stem of the waist moves against the larger curves of the pelvis and chest becomes gloriously sensuous." He went on to describe how he - who has seen many performances of Odissi and other classical forms - was "blown away", as were many other members of the audience, many of whom hadn't previously seen any Indian dance at all.
A critic's job is, amongst other things, to capture the spirit of a performance for those readers who weren't able to be there (or didn't know about it, but might want to go next time). It seems to me that Macaulay is doing just that: the (largely non-Indian) audience in New York was evidently enthralled ("astounded") by Nrityagram. Even if they'd seen Indian classical dance before, they could tell that what they were seeing on this particular night was special.
And part of this "specialness", yes, is the fact that the dance and the dancers come from a far away country, and the Odissi form is not as frequently seen in New York as, say, ballet or Martha Graham. This means that, by most accepted definitions of the term, Odissi is indeed "exotic" to a Manhattan audience. Macaulay is somewhat infatuated with the form but, being a serious critic, doesn't leave it there: he goes on to describe what makes the performance exotic (a term incidentally that he doesn't - and wouldn't - use himself). He helps us visualize its unusual sensuousness and grace. He is using words to mediate his ecstatic response to the performance, as an audience-member, so as to make it accessible to readers (not just white male readers, it should be noted: an African American or Latina female dance fan would be helped, through his description, to visualize what he saw that night). Even Indians in the U.S - the much-prized NRI and younger "ABCD" community that all dance companies long to attract as patrons and spectators - could be helped by this. There are many who've never seen Nrityagram, or Indian classical dance performed to an international standard. Macaulay is helping them too - and maybe they'll buy a ticket next time!
But this, apparently, is "cultural tourism"- as if Alastair Macaulay is some character from William Dalrymple's "White Mughals" narrative, leering at his nautch girls while sucking on a hookah.
I took the response to be a defensive one: "Macaulay is not a specialist in Indian dance, so he shouldn't write about it." But this would be, in my view, a mistake: it would be yet another manifestation of the politico-cultural atmosphere that's sending us all into our hermetic echo-chambers, where we only talk reasonably to those who see the world as we do. Other voices are dismissed - often in tones that suggest offence has been taken. This is bad for us all. White men should be allowed to write honestly about their responses to brown female dancers. Indian critics - male, female or tirunangai - can and should explore and share their responses to non-Indian forms. (Has an India-based critic of classical dance written on, say, the New York City Ballet? If not, I for one think that would be fascinating - a specialist in one classical form sharing her impressions of another.)
Let's lower the temperature and hear what we have to say to each other.
Bruno Kavanagh is a consultant based in New York City. A frequent visitor to Chennai, he is the co-creator (with his wife, dancer Preeti Vasudevan) of the groundbreaking educational website www.dancingforthegods.org
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