I'm curious...Thoughts on the Performance of Culture

I am very curious about the Perception of Identity in Cultural Performance.
Originally trained in ballet and modern dance, I was aware of the high-class influences which shaped the refined gestures of ballet technique.  Thanks to several PBS programs, I was also aware of the historical development of modern dance.  The vigorous frontier-ism of this emerging perspective was uniquely American, yet it is not solely American.  Modern dance (now often referred to as Contemporary to separate it from its early form and to honor the wide array of influences in its development) now exists in many different cultures, influenced by elements of those cultures which have been woven into its original threads.  Inherent to the form of Modern dance is its embracing of the individual experience as impetus for movement generation. As such, concepts of change and development are integral to its methodology.
South India’s Bharatanatyam developed differently.  Centuries of devotional performance by women dedicated to the temples had devolved by the late nineteenth century into entertainment and, in many cases, prostitution, due to colonial influences on economics and gender roles. Yet, the appreciation (read respect) of this art form was rectified in the 1930s when, through India’s movement toward Independence, it was linked to the fertile cultural offerings of pre-British India and became a symbol of homeland pride.  This alliance to historical glory, in conjunction with the strict guru-shishya system of education, has enforced tight restrictions on the definition of classical Indian dance and, argueably, eeked minor advancements in the name of progress.

Yet, there have been changes. Women now take on the role of primary teacher and nattuvanar, responsible for the training of their students and directing their public presentations. Group performance is now common, as opposed to the traditional solo format.  Often the groups' placement onstage is organized to create geometric spatial patterns representative of the physical architecture of bharatanatyam poses, and dancers' bodies are utilized in movements which visualize mathematical structures within the Carnatic music which accompanies this classical dance.

The identity of the performer has also opened up since the 1930s. Rather than women dedicated to temple life, the dance form has been embodied by individuals outside of the devadasi class. Interpretations have been performed by men. Bharatanatyam has been performed by dancers residing outside of Southern India. And, it has been learned and performed by artists outside of continental India and outside of familial Indian heritage.

Why this raising of an eyebrow, specifically, at non-Indian performers? Is it residual over-sensitivity to European colonialism of the East? Where are the questions and distrust initiating from? I ask this because of a specific performance I had of my own work, a solo I was developing. I began the showing by presenting an Alarippu before I performed the experimental, main piece. I felt I would need to prove myself; essentially, to prove I had been educated properly in the classical technique before the audience would accept my dismantling of the traditional form. Yet, this was completely incorrect. Most viewers gave feedback that they had no need to see my classical education, they wanted to see where I was taking it.  I also ask this because, while I enjoy the physical and emotional experience of performing Bharatanatyam, I still question how an audience reads my involvement in such a culturally-identified technique.

For this particular performance, I did not receive feedback from any persons of Indian cultural or ethnic background. And, while it does seem that I experience more inquiries as to my involvement in Indian dance when the audience is primarily Indian, I do not want to simplify this situation into such bi-polar categories of classification.  I want to hope we are nearing a sort of 'post-cultural' society, in the sense where one honors and is knowledgeable of cultural traditions yet where strict alliance to one's own culture can be more permeable.

Bharatanatyam is highly codified which identifies it as a classical form. And there is no denying that many years of study is necessary to perform it proficiently. Yet, what else is necessary? Is it necessary to have more of a connection to the culture than entering a class and training in the technique? How does one develop the sensitivities necessary to perform it 'properly'? Can these sensitivities be developed during the course of class or does a student have to have some other connection to Indian culture? Does a student have to be Indian (culturally or ethnically) in order to perform 'properly' and be accepted by the general public as a Bharatanatyam Dancer?  I ask because I want to know what others think.

I am wary of the extreme positions. Should an individual not explore an experience because they are not already of that culture? Certainly not. Should an individual present themselves as educated in an area where they have had little exposure? Certainly not. For me, in this case of performing the classical work of Bharatanatyam and, now, playing with the elements of this detailed technique to work with Modern dance towards a bilingual movement vocabulary, it seems best to continually educate oneself. Through the methods of personal experience, textual inquiries, and dialogue with professionals and audience members about their perceptions of what works and what does not work in the realm of Performing Culture.

To this end, I have composed Surveys in my attempts to reach out to dialogue and conversation. I want to know what you think - to educate myself and to educate the multi-cultural, multi-dimensional world that is dance performance today.

Empathetic Theory

I am little, or a lot, overwhelmed at the moment with balancing my new investigations into the Embodied discovery of bilingual performance and an Academic, evaluative approach. It is the strength of much academic research and writing that the researcher's personal thoughts be separated from the evaluation of a Cultural Expression. Yet, I wonder if there is a theory which accounts for the inclusion of an Empathetic response from the Observer/Participant. Is it Standpoint Theory to generally recognize that an Observer's personal experiences affect their Research Conclusions, or is there something more specific?

After some reading...

In researching what words different contemporary companies use in their marketing material to describe how they utilize Bharatanatyam or other Indian dance techniques, I became quite distracted by ideas on cultural identity. These questions also tie closely with another, more personal, inquiry of where do I place within this mix of dance techniques as a non-ethnic nor non-cultural Indian.

Also connected is a Letter to the Editor I came across in Dance Magazine's 2010 October issue written by Parijat Desai (NYC). I have met Parijat and taken her class, so her name caught my attention. She wrote a response to an article in the July 2010 issue questioning the relevance of continued use of stereotypical cultural identities in Classical Ballets, such as the coolie Chinese dance from Nutcracker, the unseemly Blackamoor in Petrushka, etc. This spurred me on to find the article she referenced which led to the entire Dance Magazine 2010 July issue with several articles concerning representations of Race, in productions of Classical and Contemporary work.

The writings were all quite interesting, speaking to the necessity continuing of cultural representations which now seem quite out of date (Carman 2010). Wendy Perron's (2010) article discussed the integration of dance schools and university programs. Here Eduardo Vilaro comments, “They [the students] already understand what it is to be a global village.” Perron writes, “As more culturally specific forms became available in colleges, they are opening up to students of other cultures”. This I found particularly interesting given my long-term objective of shaping a class in which Bharatanatyam can be taught as a contemporary dance course with respect to its Classical roots. Most standout for me was a comment by dancer/actor Harry Shum Jr of recent Glee fame:

      “I don't consider myself a popper. I don't consider myself a B-boy. I consider myself a dancer, a free-styler, and I don't feel

       that anybody can take that away from me. I put all these things together myself; I made my own salad.”

This issue of race in relation to the style or technique of dance that an individual performs is important for me to understand. Though it seems so relative to the particular performance at hand as well as the specific performer's and how they see themselves relating to the work, I wonder if any sort of categorization can develop.