Years ago, in my interaction with the now defunct Martha Graham Dance Company, I was surprised to learn that the Dance Company micro-minutely danced the prima donna’s choreographies without even the change of a single breath. So whether you viewed their performance in Washington D.C, New York, Paris or New Delhi, the dance was exactly the same! And viewing Merce Cunningham’s famous choreography “Rain Forest” performed with Andy Warhol’s helium balloons by two different sets of dancers on two consecutive days, one could have sworn that it was the same evening being viewed twice!
The point I wish to make is that while the western dance culture celebrates choreography as a precisely defined sequence of closely monitored movements, events and experiences, here in the zone of Indian classical dances it is not choreography, but rather de-choreography that we celebrate.
What do I mean? It is necessary to look at the creative process of any classical dance today. The piece selected is crafted by artists in close tandem with the vocal musician and the percussionist. This is the basic process in which classical dance pieces are created. Once the large matrix for the piece is set, it is left to marinate in the mind and soul of the dancer. So, while the choreography happens during the interaction with the musicians/percussionist et al, the process of de-choreography occurs in the stark interiors of the performer’s mind. Movements are altered, ‘abhinaya’ fine-tuned, new meanings are explored, new inflections of the hands, the eyes and the body are tried, chewed upon, mulled, rejected, embraced. It is in this process of intense de-choreography that the ‘dance piece’, is born.
Following this de-choreography, is the re-choreographing that once again happens at a subsequent session with the musicians. This process of ‘choregraphing’- ‘de-choreographing’-and ‘re-choreographing’ is repeated through several cycles until the dancer is totally convinced that the piece is perfect. But it is never frozen or fully done. Another round of de-choreography happens once again during the actual performance. This reconfiguring of a dance in relation to the stage and audience is a key aspect of Indian classical dance. Pieces can be truncated, extended, movements and interludes even repeated, all this is what keeps the choreography of Indian classical dance alive and exciting. And that is the true exciting aspect of viewing any classical dancer — the nail biting precision of total non-precision in terms of the choreography. This is the haloed precinct of de-choreography. Here it is the artist who decides on placement, length, repetition, mood, energy and feel. No external predicated parameters cut any ice. Here it is the moment and just the moment. Thus, the Indian classical dancer pierces eternity, not through sameness, but by vivid texturing and diversity of dancing every piece differently — each and every time!
The lament of dancers today is that cognizant audiences are probably lacking. Today the costumes, sets and tech probably impresses viewers a tad bit over the choreography and the dance per se. This is an extremely sad state of affairs. We need to revitalise our processes of creating vitalised audiences who can enjoy the real experience of classical dance. When we make impassioned calIs for a re-energised cultural dimension to education, we are not seeking formal education to churn out dancers and musicians. No. Our traditional teaching mechanisms are fully capable of doing that—and then some! What we rather want to catalyse is the process of new audience creation to be facilitated. We need new eyes who can feel the ‘adbhuta’ of dance and music, who can become rasikas — and eventually patrons!