Is the Rigorous Imprisonment?

First published in Ligament Online Dance Journal, Dec 2014.

Cover image featuring Avantika Bahl, photographed by Rahul Giri.

In this opinion piece, Odissi dancer and writer Ranjana Dave looks at her idiom of expression – the traditional and that of her peers – the contemporary and seeks to explore the meaning of freedom and rigour in dance-making.

dancer poised at the threshold of an empty space, what does freedom mean? Is it the wherewithal to move horizontally, vertically and diagonally (or not move at all), unrestrained by temporal, stylistic, thematic, melodic or rhythmic concerns? Is freedom an idea situated in the form – specifically, in the absence of it; or, does one find freedom in how one conceives of one’s creative practice? In the context of contemporary dance, if freedom is the absence of a specific form – or more optimistically, a suggestion of infinite possibilities, how does one discern, and make meaning, as a choreographer and as a viewer? And as we derive meaning, how do we find and pinpoint rigour in what is created? Finally, what constitutes rigour in a contemporary performance practice?

These questions originated two years ago, after I attended a private screening of a film on contemporary dance in India. As the only classical dancer present at the informal conversation that followed, I was asked if I found classical dance restrictive, in its clear allegiance to a particular technique and style. Didn’t contemporary dance afford dancers more freedom, doing away with boundaries on the path to absolute self-expression? Despite my insistence that I personally did not feel restrained by Odissi and found in it a world much larger than the one I inhabited outside the dance, my questioners remained largely unconvinced. Their doubts may have stemmed from a persistent detail in the trajectory of contemporary dance practitioners in India – there is a whole generation with roots in classical training and performance, and they chose to move beyond classical form in the process of finding their voice as choreographers. But while this is an individual and deeply personal discontent, specific to its time, it is a little over-reaching to interpret it as an endemic limitation of classical dance practice.

How does one view contemporary dance, and understand it? There is no conclusive answer. Contemporary dance can be ‘liminal’ and problematically enough, its liminality can function as a convenient disguise for physical and conceptual ambiguity. In the understanding of freedom as form-resistant practice lies the nebulousness of the contemporary. Intent and meaning in contemporary dance are subjective processes. Does this subjectivity, by default, validate all creative expression that might flourish under the umbrella of the contemporary? There is a thin line between self-expression and self-indulgence, and it can be censorious to point out where one dissolves into the other.

How does a dancer practice the contemporary? When the tangible discipline of a form is non-existent, or is yet to be created, what does one rehearse, repeat or revisit?

Read the rest of the article on Ligament

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