Categorizing Dance: A Classic Case of Contemporary Confusion


[This article was commissioned by MARG Publications, Mumbai, and first appeared in a special issue of their arts journal focussing on Contemporary Dance in India. The issue – edited by Astad Deboo and Ketu Katrak – was published in July 2017, and is available here. The photograph above is from Those Who Could Not Hear The Music, and is taken by Sajal Ghosh.]

What are the parameters by which one can define the contemporary dance space, rather than the contemporary dance form? How does this very approach to definition differ markedly from how one would go about defining classical dance space? Can this illuminate prevailing confusions and tensions about the term in any way? What does classical dance have to gain by an engagement with how contemporary dance views the moving body, physical space and accompanying ideologies, values and political positions? How might one choose to present and perceive the trained body in transition? How does one confront the challenge of letting go of physical knowledge to foreground a vulnerable body capable of becoming both form and content? In this article, I try to address these questions by drawing upon on a series of personal experiences and issues.

February 2013: Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas ruffles feathers and raises eyebrows in the Indian dance world when she declines the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in the field of “Creative and Experimental Dance”. She contends that her body of work has all been in and from Kathak, and therefore the category for which she has been awarded is “incorrect” [i]. In a related interview to The Hindu, Leela Samson—then chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi—says “the words ‘creative’ and ‘experimental’ are applicable to every thinking artiste—no matter what title you give their art”[ii]. This does not explain why a separate award category with precisely this title exists.

August 2014: Preethi Athreya, a dancer-choreographer working in the contemporary dance genre for more than 15 years, is conferred the first award in the new category of “Contemporary Dance” under the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar. In December 2015, an award in the same category is given to me, a dancer trained in Kathak who works with dancers and actors together, and has one contemporary solo piece to his credit (incidentally choreographed by Preethi Athreya).

May 2016: The Navadisha conference in Birmingham[iii] is designed to discuss the state and status of South Asian dance in the UK. A UK-based Indian classical dancer, understandably upset by the harping on making dance “contemporary” and learning from contemporary choreographers and dancers, asks why classical dancers should always feel that they need to judge and prepare their work by the yardsticks of contemporary dance. A young Odissi dancer from Delhi had asked much the same question at a choreography seminar-workshop in Kolkata (May–June 2009)[iv] that brought together choreographers from various forms and backgrounds to talk about choreographic concepts and process. She stated “hamare pas bhi bahut kuch hai” [we too have a lot to offer]. Both these instances exemplify and continue the “us and them” binary that has proved a constant tripping point for any sort of discourse between the classical and contemporary in India.

The three instances underline a fundamental uncertainty about categories of dance as well as a reverse-resistance of sorts from the Indian classical dancer towards contemporary definitions and demands—whatever those may be. It is difficult to miss the irony in the latter. Arguably much of what is known as Indian contemporary dance is rooted in a discomfort and break with the classical traditions that became something to define contemporary dance against. This identity of “not that” has ceased to be a concern with the Indian contemporary dancer, who has entered a different level and degree of physical and political discourse that takes an independent identity for granted. The tables seem to have turned: it is now a section of classical dancers who feel a strong pressure to identify themselves as “not that”, not contemporary dance.

Equally, there is a pressure on classical dancers to prove themselves relevant to present times. The argument that all art exists simultaneously, therefore we are all contemporary, is a feeble one. We may be contemporaneous—inhabiting the same time-space together. But does that make us all equally contemporary—of the same time-space? And does being of the time within a certain context mean that you are of the time in another? And does being of the time automatically indicate relevance to today?

As someone rooted in Kathak training and performance experience, and deeply interested and invested in contemporary dance in India, these are some of the questions and issues I am grappling with. Any questions, thoughts, analyses I propose come completely out of my individual experience—only one of a multitude of possibilities in this complex country where it is difficult and problematic enough to define the classical, never mind the contemporary.

Seeing a lot of innovative work within the classical being passed off as contemporary, I am quite suspicious of how the latter term is bandied about with little regard for actually defining it. The most cosmetic changes producing the most mediocre (or, indeed, downright frightful) work seem to be sufficient justification to use the label. On the other hand, there is little understanding or parameters for what constitutes contemporary dance, a confusion that is plainly evident even in the awards that are given out in that category.

Anything or anyone who does performance work that does not snugly fit into previously defined compartments, is automatically passed on to the category of contemporary (or creative and experimental) dance, regardless of how the artists concerned view their work themselves. Aditi Mangaldas’s website lists her work under classical Kathak and contemporary dance based on Kathak, a case of creating yet another category in the hopes of avoiding the imposed limitations of a pre-existing one. Also, the label classical Kathak, quite common today, runs the risk of being an exercise in tautology or an open invitation for more sub-categories which can confuse the issue further.

A total escape from labels is impossible, and would be unhelpful and ultimately self-contradictory, even stressful. But we need to move away from an insecure mindset of watertight compartments, where porosity and promiscuity are considered alarming symptoms of ill health and cultural pollution rather than organic behaviour of cultures and the arts. To illustrate: groundbreaking Kathak choreographer Kumudini Lakhia’s work is often referred to as contemporary. She herself is cautious in her response: “I trained in Kathak. My mind and body can only think in that language. Every choreography or dance piece I have created draws entirely from Kathak. I use no modern movements from the West or other Indian dance styles. If my work looks contemporary, it is because my mindset is contemporary.”[v] I could not agree more, but this does not make her work contemporary dance. In her work, she “plays with nuanced Kathak phrases, spinning infinite variations on them by using multiple levels, directions and rhythms”, holding up kaleidoscope-like mirrors which suddenly bring one face to face with magical possibilities of the self-same thing. It embodies what Aditi Mangaldas asks the gurus of the Kathak Kendra to recognize—the multiplicity in classical arts.[vi]

The spaces of contemporary dance are equally multiple and contested. Could there be ways of defining the parameters of this space, rather than defining the form? This distinction is in itself a departure from the classical, where defining the form is paramount in claiming an identity.

In her keynote speech at the Navadisha conference, choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh stated her belief that to be contemporary was to be on the side of change. Rules come out of aesthetics, people create cultures and aesthetics, and culture is susceptible to continuous change.[vii] But is change by itself enough to classify a work as contemporary dance? The innovations ushered in by artists like Kumudini Lakhia have affected a sea change in how Kathak is performed, presented and perceived. Lakhia is very clear about her intentions as she remarks: “I only knew that I wanted to present Kathak as a dignified, formal performance.”[viii]

Lakhia’s difficulty was that she could no longer relate to the values, thought processes, and the attitudes of her gurus.[ix] She has no conflict with the form itself, with its fundamental physical principles, socio-cultural assumptions and associations. It is the manner and aesthetics of presentation and reception that concern her, and this is evident in the care with which each of her pieces is designed as a composite of Kathak movement, music and spatial design. While recognising that some aspects of her work have political colour, she claims a place for her work within the world of Kathak: “what emerges from a traditional Kathak training has to be Kathak. And what I did looked like Kathak.” Compare this to Chandralekha, for whom the point of departure was that “art and life seemed to be in conflict”.[x] Such contradictions set up resistance to accepted norms, worldviews and ways of doing things at various levels—personal, social, political, communal, philosophical, aesthetic…and everything in between. Kumudini Lakhia’s work is never interested in challenging or posing a resistance or rupture to what the Kathak form stands for, what is expected from it, or what a Kathak dancer should be able to deliver in the same way that Chandralekha reacted to the socio-cultural place, status and consumption of Bharatnatyam and the Bharatnatyam dancer him/herself.

In this vein of thinking, contemporary dance becomes a space of criticality, a term I first encountered in relation to dance during my work with Chennai-based dancer-choreographer Preethi Athreya. It does not offer an easy space to enter, occupy or engage with, and demands participation and interpretation from an audience. Across, not Over,[xi] the solo piece Preethi developed with and for me is constructed almost entirely from raw material that is always at the tips of the fingers for any Kathak dancer of any worth. However, unlike most work with and from Kathak—traditional, new, experimental—the piece is not preoccupied with what the Kathak body can do with and within the traditional form, or how the form can be extended and even challenged. The focus is the Kathak-trained body per se in isolation, connected to but distinct from the Kathak form. A body with a full understanding of, but not in service to, Kathak. There is no sublimation of self here, something that is an unwritten expectation in classical dance—the form is paramount and the performer surrenders to it. The critical self in Across, not Over is very deliberately present.

Across, not Over: Belinda Lawley
‘Across, not Over’ at the Alchemy festival, Southbank Centre, London. May 2016. Image: Belinda Lawley

Across, not Over does not attempt to underline any virtuosic skill that the body has been trained in. In fact, it does quite the opposite—it presents a vulnerable body, shorn of the armour of form, tenderly (and sometimes tentatively) dwelling on and discovering flints from that armour that it thought it knew, but had never taken off and taken apart. In fact, the deliberate and specific discovery and enjoyment of each movement in the body, performed for the body’s own sensorial delight becomes both content and form. The only concern here is the body and the mechanics of movement. It is not in service to anything else, not responding to any external impulse. In Preethi’s words, the entire choreographic process and aim is “an elaborate construction of nothing”.[xii] And that “nothing” by itself embodies (literally) a potency and aesthetic capable of standing alone without reference to or reliance on theme, music, lyric, poetry…any externally suggested meaning. It is self-born and self-sustained, opening itself to multiple readings and interpretations depending on the point of view and entry of the spectator. This is very different from the habits that classical dancers train in, where movement is always a response to an external impulse—be it text, lyrics, mood, music, rhythm, emotion—and never for the sake of movement itself. What is to be communicated often dictates what is to be performed and therefore demands from the spectator the ability to read in a certain way. A shift away from this immediately makes dance work of any kind more accessible, more secular, more body-focussed.

In December 2013, I began to work with German director Helena Waldmann as co-choreographer on Made in Bangladesh, a project with 12 dancers from Bangladesh. Helena is trained in Applied Theatre, but has worked exclusively with dancers for over two decades. Dancers, in her opinion, are more open to play and abstraction than actors, and contemporary dance itself allows for multiple readings that embrace the ambiguity and complexity of the socio-political issues her work deals with.[xiii]

Made In Bangladesh, November 2014. Image: Wonge Bergmann

Made in Bangladesh [xiv] was inspired by the exploitative patterns of the garment industry in Bangladesh that supplies low-cost ready-made clothes for international brands across the world. The piece juxtaposes these patterns with the conditions that exist for European dancers in the art industry, and finally questions a fast-paced, frantic culture of capitalistic consumption, where quantity is far more important than quality, fair conditions for the creators of the work do not enter the equation of economic concerns, and the mad rush for the next new thing on the market leaves little room or time to notice the collapsing world we leave behind.

Helena’s choice of Kathak as the language for the piece was a very deliberate one. First, she wished to work with a dance vocabulary that was natural to the dancers rather than impose any foreign contemporary technique. Second, she found in the structure of the Kathak form and training, the possibility of communicating the idea of constant pressure. Very quickly in the choreographic process, we realized that none of the more lyrical or expressional aspects of Kathak would work for this production. What worked was a stripped-down-to-bare-bones explosive exposition of pure technique: stamping footwork, endless pirouettes, strong linear movements of the arms, the screaming of the bols (mnemonic syllables set to rhythm patterns), and the constant presence of a rhythm and counting structure that very soon become dictatorial. We consciously shied away from mimetic depictions of narrative (though it was no easy matter to pull the dancers away from this tendency), and invested clear meaning in the abstract body. Suggestion is often more powerful than representation; what you read is so much more powerful than what you are told. So when, after 22 minutes of relentless, repetitive, remote-controlled movement and video, there is the first moment of silence and stillness against a backdrop of a heart-wrenching visual, the shock is a hugely palpable and disturbing one. This is reminiscent of Chandralekha’s unequivocal statement: “The internal relation between the dance and the dancer and the external relation between dance and society are questions that cannot be taken lightly.”[xv]

Classical dance tends to focus purely on the first relationship, sometimes to the extent of being blissfully unaware of the changing nature of the world it situates itself in. Viewing an Odissi performance at the Birmingham International Dance Festival, 2016, for instance, I was acutely embarrassed by the recorded introductory announcement for the duet Ardhanarishwara. For five minutes, the audience was told in a bombastic tone that Indians were a master-race who had a solution for every mystery in the universe, and for whom the concept of duality was no mystery at all. In a time when the world is violently divided by conflicts of race, religion, community, nation, class and more, such pronouncements cannot fail to carry a dangerous political position. I very much fear though that the dancers were wholly unaware of any such implications, caught completely within the isolating and sacrosanct view that classical dance can have of itself.

Both Across, not Over and Made in Bangladesh in their own very different ways locate the physicality of the body firmly at the centre of dance. Through the body they also both propose political positions and questions. Across, not Over deconstructs and reassembles physical elements of Kathak to propose a fresh poetics that questions notions of verticality and frontality, the hierarchy of the feet, and a sense of flamboyant performativity—all of which are taken for granted in Kathak. The piece is a refusal to deliver Kathak as per expectations, but not a refusal of Kathak itself.

In context to Kumudini Lakhia’s statement about her work quoted above, Across, not Over largely does not “look like Kathak”. It posits a possible politics of a transgressive Kathak-trained body, and that places it squarely in a contemporary dance view of the world. However, Sadanand Menon notes in an interview that the piece also acts as “provocation to other performers of Kathak to move away from the routine, and relook at their idiom to create challenging work, whatever be the result—classical or contemporary”.[xvi]

The political position of Made in Bangladesh is far more obvious, and the physical form of Kathak is interestingly far more recognizable, making it perhaps easier to claim a Kathak space and category. But the brutal aesthetic of the body, the manner in which narrative is constructed and performed, and the frames of reference within which each scene is placed all read very differently from anything that Kathak is used to, whether in form, content or communication.

That the body can be content in itself and not only a medium to represent something else is quite a revolutionary thought for most classical dancers. Taking ownership of the body and its architecture, understanding principles of movement with a new sense of personal and internal physicality, and a heightened awareness of the body (flesh, muscle, bone, tendon et al.) and its relationship to the space it inhabits and creates through deliberated stillness and movement— these are all experiences that can open up additional avenues of dialogue and play for every dancer regardless of genre.

Post my experiences with Preethi and Helena, I returned to work with Kathak dancers in my company, Ranan. All these dancers are committed to performing Kathak and have no intention of making any sort of transition into the contemporary genre. I was re-imagining Shunya Se—a production from 2003 that takes the five elements as inspiration. The piece has seen several revivals with great changes in choreographic content. But this time I found myself drawing on an enhanced vocabulary to create, select or deconstruct/assemble movement. I found myself using scientific, technical, spatial and physically experiential terms like torsion, dynamic, intentionality and alignment, and paying great attention to detailed choreographic structure, specificity and isolation of movement, and carefully chosen spatial placement. The root questions for the exploration became about connecting specific elements and principles of Kathak to the elemental universe, rather than about trying to convey a sense or representation of space, fire, earth etc. Resonance, lightness, fluidity, buoyancy, balance became focal points of physical discovery. Suddenly, the internal experience of a Kathak-informed body shared equal space both with the external expression of the Kathak form itself and the construction of meaning and narrative through the body. We included intense sessions of non-Kathak training aiming to achieve a deeper understanding and awareness of the principles of the Kathak body.

Shunya Se, May 2016. Image: Anubha Fatehpuria

We worked in silence or with a metronome, with music composers and designers coming in much later to create soundscores and costumes in response to reading the movement language and intention. A new process of working, a new connection with our histories was born. What category does one place this work in? Quoting Chandralekha again: It is not “tradition” we will need to break as much as the conditions that create isolation, exclusivity, specialisation, competition. It is binary categories which promote narrow beliefs and linearity, against the joys of a worldview and curvature that we need to break. [xvii]

All the three aforementioned pieces—Across, not Over, Made in Bangladesh, and Shunya Se—seem to speak to a far more diverse (in terms of demographic and background) audience than classical dance. Perhaps, the latter still holds up too many (unnecessary and prohibitive) codes of initiation and understanding as passwords with which to enter, alienating many who may know nothing but wish to engage. Knowing nothing is not a crime in a work such as Across, not Over, perhaps because there is nothing to know per se in terms of codes of access.

Not having a sound knowledge of the form with which they were working proved an opportunity rather than a handicap for both Preethi and Helena. They were able to freely apply lenses of watching, constructing and generating without the burden of permissibility or the guilt of blasphemy at any level. Not knowing what is possible is the biggest and most freeing possibility in itself, allowing for an unimaginably large and inspiring creative space and time which one needs to whittle down bit by bit to arrive at both form and content. This ability and confidence to let go of knowledge and work with and from a vulnerable body in constant transition is perhaps something that is beyond categorization. But this is so much easier said than done.

[i] “Roses and Thorns”,
[ii] Anjana Rajan, “A Contemporary Punch”, The Hindu, New Delhi (January 25, 2013).
[iii] Navadisha 2016 was a conference that sought to stimulate, steer and secure the future of South Asian dance as part of the UK’s ever-growing dance landscape. It was produced by New Dimension Arts Management in partnership with Sampad Arts and held at the Midland Arts Centre, Birmingham, May 20–22, 2016.
[iv] Organized by Padatik Dance Centre, Kolkata, and funded by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi.
[v] This and the following quote are from Ranjana Dave, “Kathak Through a Kaleidoscope”, NCPA On Stage, Mumbai (August 2013).
[vi] “Roses and Thorns”.
[vii] Keynote address on May 21, 2016.
[viii] Dave, 2013.
[ix] This and the following quotes are from Kumudini Lakhia, “Innovations in Kathak”, in Sunil Kothari, ed., New Directions in Indian Dance, Mumbai: Marg, 2003, pp. 60, 63, 65.
[x] Chandralekha, “Reflections on New Directions in Indian Dance”, in Sunil Kothari, ed., New Directions in Indian Dance, p. 50.
[xi] Across, not Over premiered at SPACES, Chennai in October 2014 with the support of the India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore under their Arts Practice programme.
[xii] Conversation with Preethi Athreya, Chennai, February 2015.
[xiii] Many of Helena Waldmann’s assumptions towards creating and structuring work were greatly challenged working with dancers trained in Indian classical dance. The negotiation and learning process from both ends is a study in intercultural dialogue and discourse.
[xiv] Made in Bangladesh, which premiered in Theater im Pfalzbau, Ludwigshafen in November 2014, is a dance production by Helena Waldmann and Ecotopia dance productions, Germany, in collaboration with Shadhona—A Centre for Advancement of South Asian Culture, Dhaka, and Goethe Institut, Bangladesh.
[xv] Chandralekha, “Reflections”, p. 50.
[xvi] Joshua Muyiwa, “Unknotting, Uncrossing”, Ligament, Bangalore (March 13, 2015).
[xvii] Chandralekha, “Reflections”, p. 58.

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