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Classical dance trend - Entertainment or Engagement?
- Ramaa Venugopalan

December 23, 2019

Entertainment is an activity performed to hold an audience's attention with the purpose of delivering pleasure.

Dance is a performing art form consisting of purposefully selected movements with a symbolic aesthetic value.

Classical means a representation of an exemplary standard within a sufficiently long-established form or style.

Considering these definitions, a classical dance performance can be defined as: A standard form or style of purposefully conceived movements that are specifically selected with the purpose of keeping an audience's attention. This, however, alters the meaning and intention of a classical dance performance.

As I sat to watch an extravagant spectacle of a classical dance production by an extremely popular classical dance company from Bangalore, whose dancers are revered as young stars, I could not but help observe aspects that now dictate the intention of this process, its consequences, and its success factors.

What constitutes a classical dance production? The storyboard and its logical structuring, the trajectory of its characters, the emotional graph of the situations, the poignant moments, and the representation of all these through the grammar of a classical dance form...

An intelligent artiste can weave, structure the components and make it a cohesive unit to tell a story accompanied by composed music and selective poetry. A popular subject or story exists in the viewer's mind as a conditioned representation. It takes a clever, artistic intellect to unravel the layered aspects in these characters and present them through dance.A deeper understanding of the text and a sensitive portrayal to engage the audience are crucial aspects that justify the subject or a story. A second aspect is the selection of the episodes in a way as to enable the audience to journey along with the story, the characters, and their emotional graphs. Even if one chooses to portray the story as is, emotional calibration is a crucial aspect of a classical dance idiom. Thirdly, the music of a production becomes an important vehicle to carry the creative attempt to a logical conclusion. And lastly, the calibre of the artistes and their delineation fosters engagement with the creative unit. When these components are in imbalance, the creation struggles to establish a consistent connect.

What role does popularity of artistes play in the delineation and success of a production? In this age of Instagram and Twitter, anybody with humongous number of followers tends to attract a section of starry-eyed fans and followers, which largely constitutes the audience profile.

Does this audience, which applauds usually at the extravagance and the popularity of the artiste, have the sensitivity to engage silently without applauding for every aspect (usually in the wrong places) and truly appreciate the poignant moments in the production? Or, is it just the periphery, the frill and fancy of energetic dancing that it prefers to watch? When the initial adulation and excitement wears down, does it truly look beyond and engage with the art or is it still the allure of the popular artiste that keeps them glued to their seats?

Artistic liberty is a freedom; each artiste unto their own. When a performer makes a conscious choice to simplify an idea or a story, one wonders if the core or the essence of the story was compromised. On the other hand, treating a layered subject in a deliberately simple manner and weaving moments of depth as a passing thought deprives the artiste of exhibiting their true craftsmanship.

Dancers steer their dance towards a certain trajectory to attract their audience. High energy dancing, high speed, physically aggressive moments, generous mingling of different styles of dance vocabularies, special effects using light, stylised imagery and to a certain extent gimmicks, defines popular dance today. In such a scenario, engagement and observation of nuances is a premium. When the intention of a dance production focuses mostly on the entertainment value, prioritises speed over harmony, noise over silence, the audience tends to forget that it is classical dance and accepts it as just another appealing performance. Is that enough?

The brilliance and calibre of an artiste do not rest in mere casual moments, but in those introspective moments of immersion that reaches the depth of the artistic soul. When compromised to suit an entertainment parameter, an audience can only view from a distance, sans any deeper engagement.

Beyond a certain point, continuous fast paced movements become repetitive, inflicting boredom and fatigue on the viewer. A logical, reiterative approach laden with maturity, clarity, contextual dance vocabulary, adherence to style and depth of the subject, fosters better engagement with the art and the artiste.

The audience has an equal responsibility to be sensitive and sensible. When an audience collectively displays a lapse in engagement without an understanding of the context and the art, one does wonder who the artiste is dancing for and why. The media is a smorgasbord of instant adulatory reviews laden with superlatives, seldom providing an artiste any objective space for contemplation and critique of the content, its execution and its essence. With access to instant validation and adulatory reviews, are artistes themselves pondering about their own creation?

A sold-out show, a frenzy of admirers and followers, scores of Insta-stories, hundreds of photographs splashed all over the media, hooting and disturbing applauses may initially seem like a rush for the artiste, but what deeper purpose can this possibly serve towards the well-being of the art and artiste? The body will tire and age, the fast movements and leaps may no longer work - where then will the artiste turn to or grow further? Which direction will they steer their art to? Will these admirers continue to support these new creations?

The question of the purpose of art then becomes imperative. Art does not exist without the audience, the artiste, the content and context. A generation of young dancers, suave, media influencers, extremely hardworking, is using deliberate movements to keep the audience in raptures, constant applause and adulation. What seems to be quietly seeking some validation is the dance itself. Dance is meant, amongst other things, to enable one to access subtle emotions, experience moments of oneness, poignancy and depth. When the noise outside is blazing away, these subtle nuances are buried.

With this trend of entertainment catching up, one wonders how those introspective moments will find pathways to sprout amidst the blocks of noise and frenzy. Will engagement find its way back into these halls of classical performances?

Ramaa Venugopalan is a performer and teacher of Bharatanatyam from Bangalore, for a little over three decades. She pens her thoughts about dance regularly for Ananya magazine.

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