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How to watch contemporary dance
- Isabel Putinja, Bangalore

September 5, 2009

When we're confronted with an abstract work of art, be it a painting, a sculpture or a dance performance, we often don't know what to think of it. We don't understand it. So often we don't like it. This is because we tend to like what we know.

When we've been conditioned to think or see things in a certain way, we find it a challenge to appreciate something we're unfamiliar with. We feel we have to understand something in order to appreciate it. We tend to want to respond with our head rather than with our senses.

When we watch a classical dancer performing, we use a yardstick to measure the dancer's technique, and another to appraise his or her skills in abhinaya, etc. But when watching contemporary dance, we have no yardstick - so we feel lost. We don't know what to think, or how to evaluate what we're seeing.

For this reason, the first step to appreciate contemporary dance is to have an open mind. Forget what you know. Don't think. Feel. Ask yourself what you feel as you watch. Is it pleasant? Unpleasant? Do you feel excitement, boredom, disgust, amusement?

In contemporary dance there are often no expressions or abhinaya, no fancy costume or jewellery - this is because the dancer is simply an instrument for movement. It's the movement that counts and not the dancer.

It's also important to consider the context of contemporary dance. Contemporary dance developed as a rebellion against the hierarchy and restrictions of classical dance. It is often a means of exploration, a way for choreographers to make discoveries about movement, about themselves, about life. More importantly, it's about them finding their own voice.

To understand contemporary dance, it also helps to understand where the choreographer is coming from and what they want to say. Read up on the choreographer, get the program notes, go speak to him or her after the show and ask questions.

Finally, don't just see one performance of contemporary dance and then give up. "The more we watch, the more we learn." This is also true of contemporary dance. After you've seen several performances by different choreographers you will develop a yard stick to assess the dance - even though you may not understand it!

Isabel is Canadian but living in Bangalore for the past two and a half years. She is a freelance writer, has learnt Bharatanatyam and is now a student of Odissi. This article was written as part of the dance writing workshop conducted by from July 18 - 24, 2009 in Chennai.

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