To fight waning interest, classical dance has turned to group choreography, which is attracting new audiences and corporate sponsorships. It is a new lease of life, though perhaps less purist.
Visualise it: The whirl of a single Kathak dancer in a silk skirt versus the pirouette of 20.
Tune into: The footwork of a Bharatanatyam virtuoso versus the synchronised steps of a group of 30.
Visualise again: An intimate 200-seater auditorium versus a 52-feet open-to-sky platform, with a monument in the background.
Now, make a choice between the scenarios.
If you happen to choose: “Move over single-star-on-stage; bring on the rhythm regiment,” you’re probably part of a chorus. It’s a fairly loud chorus comprising dancers, dance gurus, wannabe dancers, impresarios, sponsors, and yes, the spectator, nee the audience. All of them have synced their psyche to make classical dance a spectacle. Today, group choreography is what people want to put their money on, while the solo acts come in as also-rans.
“There are connoisseurs who know the grammar of classical dance, and the mythology associated with it. But there is a much larger community out there that is not aware of this. I want to cater to that lot,” says an emphatic Bijan Mukherjee, founder, Impresarios India.
It is for those who look askance when names such as Pandit Birju Maharaj and Kelucharan Mahapatra are evoked that group dances provide an easy ride for shaking hands with what is classical dance. “If you want to grab the attention of a person who has no awareness of traditional dance, the best way is the visual,” Mukherjee says.
So the recipe for success in serving the ‘visual’ has the following ingredients: elaborate colour-coordinated costumes, young lithe bodies (in generous quantities), top-of-the-line lighting and acoustics, audio-visuals that can dazzle, and synchronised movements. Where then, can there be room for a solo act, with its emphasis on abhinaya (facial expressions), mythology, and technique?
As Bharatanatyam performer and teacher Justin McCarthy observes:
“For major national and international events like the Commonwealth Games and the Festivals of India, large stadia are used as venues. Imagine having a solo performance there. Howsoever competent and charismatic the artist, his/her work is going to get lost in that massive space. Hence the need to focus on movement, rather than expression. And the emphasis on many dancers rather than one.”Justin McCarthy, Bharatanatyam performer and teacher
If group performances brought grandeur centre stage, it also ensured an audience strength going up from 600 to 2,000 in 15 years for Ananya, the dance festival that Sanjeev Bhargava conceived and nurtured with funding from the Delhi government.
“I realised that unless we bring classical music and dance to newer audiences, it will fade out very soon. It needed to be opened up so that the youth, foreigners, and those who have nothing to do with the arts sit up and notice. And I took it literally into the open, with Ananya being staged against the Purana Qila backdrop, and the Bhakti Festival (a devotional music festival) being showcased in Nehru Park.”Sanjeev Bhargava
As for what was on offer, Bhargava says he went to well-known solo artists of the time (Madhavi Mudgal for Odissi, Geeta Chandran and Leela Samson for Bharatanatyam, Bharati Shivaji for Mohiniyattam, etc) and asked them to choreograph short pieces of not more than 15 minutes, which could be woven into an hour’s performance.
“We gave each of them adequate time to create and rehearse these pieces for Ananya, along with a payment. The result is that we have a five-year waiting list for dancers to perform at Ananya, and our seats fill up by 6pm, even though the programme is scheduled to begin at 7pm.”Sanjeev Bhargava
Recalling her experience of performing for Ananya, dancer Geeta Chandran recalls:
“First, we were contacted a year in advance to plan a different repertoire. Second, I had to visualise the dance in relation to a spectacular archaeological heritage background. So the repertoire I created in Bharatanatyam for Ananya was truly special, and I gave it my all.”Geeta Chandran, dancer.
However, not everyone has had a smooth ride when it comes to choreography. Kathak exponent Aditi Mangaldas, who maintains a company of nine dancers and three musicians, recounts how some organisers approach her just a month or 15 days before a programme, saying:
“Kuch nayaa dikhaayiye is baar… show us some new work this time. I refuse flatly because I don’t want to put up shoddy, unrehearsed work. But not all dancers are in a position to refuse, since performances are so few and far between for them.”Aditi Mangaldas, Kathak exponent
The general dearth of eclectic curators who encourage risk taking in classical dance notwithstanding, group choreography looks like a win-win for most of the players in this game. Gurus who are past their prime take to choreography as student support on stage gives them “breathing space”. It also helps them “fit in” all those students who may not have the talent to be solo performers, but who have a burning desire to be on stage. Organisers are happy when they see a show of shapely bodies which of course is an eyeful for the audience too. Add to that the promise of new themes, such as gender parity, conservation, health awareness etc, which break the monotony of seeing yet another Radha pining away for yet another Krishna.
A group show is also easier to figure out for the following reason: When a solo dancer performs, say in Kathak… one whirl… she (assuming she is female in this example) is the heroine (predictably, Radha)… the next whirl, she’s the Gopi (the heroine, Radha’s friend)… the third whirl, she’s the hero (no prizes for guessing, that’s Krishna)… the fourth whirl, she becomes a tree… and yet another whirl, she becomes a deer in the forest. One dancer enacts five roles within the span of a couple of minutes. For the uninitiated, this can be quite confusing. However, when these five roles are enacted by five different dancers, as is the norm in group choreography, it becomes far more easily comprehensible. “Almost like reaching out to the lowest common denominator,” as dance scholar Arshiya Sethi puts it.
That being said, there is choreography and there is choreography. As cultural commentator Sadanand Menon observes, group dance has been around in pre- and post-Independence India, in Rukmini Devi Arundale’s and Ram Gopal’s ballets (both having had solid grounding in their art forms), as also the Gotipuos performing together.
“However, by the time we reach the 21st century, we see that people who have trained for just about five or six years are becoming teachers. They stage group shows by putting up garish stage sets, fixing fancy lights, and choreography for them is a mindless display of symmetry.”Sadanand Menon
Speaking about her journey both as a soloist and a choreographer, Odissi dancer Ileana Citaristi, based in Bhubaneswar, says she never dances in her group shows. This is quite unlike many aging star performers who stubbornly hold on to lead roles, while their students do the peripheral ones. Speaking about her fascination for fluidity, geometry and the abstract, Citaristi explains:
“No one has approached me to choreograph a group show. However, I have done Kaala (Time) and Maya Darpana (The Mirror of Illusions) for my artistic satisfaction. But the availability and maturity of dancers is crucial. It is, after all, like giving your baby (dance composition) to someone else to handle.”Ileana Citaristi, Odissi dancer
Continuing on the artistic experience, Chandran adds:
“In a solo performance, the dancer’s spirit soars to its fullest expression. Upaj or impromptu elements come fully alive in the solo classical experience. Group choreography does not aspire for the impromptu. It is rehearsed to the last breath!”
As for the economics, that too seems to work just right. Sponsors—corporates who would otherwise have not been interested—are willing to splurge on classical dance as showbiz. So what better way to bring the art form out of mothballs than to wrap it in group glitz? Besides, parents are also willing to fund group shows, just to see their children perform.
After a hard day’s work at the Shiv Nadar School, where Sneha Chakradhar works as Arts Coordinator (to fund her dance), she acknowledges that she couldn’t have come this far in dance but for the financial support from her parents. The struggle continues, however, as she reflects how after a solo Bharatanatyam performance, she was in the red by several thousand rupees as she had to pay for live music. By contrast, in group shows, they make do with recorded music, which, once worked on in the studio, remains forever.
“To continue dancing and working on group shows with my guru, Geeta Chandran, I need to have another source of income. Dance doesn’t pay well, except when corporates want us to perform. And those performances are usually group shows as there are only a handful of people who understand the finer nuances of solo performances. Also, group shows accommodate a lot of students, so all of us are happy.”Sneha Chakradhar
Long years of training, stage presence, artistic sensibilities that can hold an audience, stamina, and many more factors make a solo performer. It is what any dancer would aspire to become. But for those who are still on the journey to become, there are always interesting options in group choreography. And an audience out there to applaud.
This article was published in the May 2016 Issue of Swarajya Magazine. To subscribe, click here.
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