Contemplations of a Choreographer
by Sam Kumar, Chennai
Contemporary dancer, choreographer and teacher Mark Taylor, has received many awards and fellowships including Choreography Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and a Creative Achievement Award from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. He has taught widely as guest artist at many colleges and universities. As Artistic Director of Dance Alloy in Pittsburgh, USA, he collaborated with leading Indian dancer /choreographer Anita Ratnam to create DUST, a 30-minute work with original music composed by Alice Shields. He shared with me his thoughts about the world of dance and dancers during his visit to Chennai.
Though his group performs mostly contemporary dances, Mark Taylor says that all Classical dance forms - Ballet or Bharatanatyam - is highly relevant today since they remind us where we come from. They are the wellsprings of our current artistic investigations. At the same time, Taylor feels that classical dance should not be performed as if it is something from a museum. Dance is about movement, about life - in fact, movement is the definition of life. Some ballet companies repeat and repeat the same old composition. There is no innovation and these dances are not relevant to our lives. This is also true of some Bharatanatyam performances, he adds ruefully. "It is very important in the classical tradition to have momentum and artistic innovation. There should be room for contemporary improvisation while being true to the classical form", he explains.
Talking about the current scene, Taylor is appalled at the precarious state of affairs of dance in America. He says that concert dance is fighting for relevance since a majority of the population is so tuned to TV, Film or Internet, that it is difficult to get audience. Yet, he finds that dance is thriving in commercial forms. He says that there is a lot of dance in Indian movies. "I see that here people love film dance, it is on TV most of the time. At the same time, the concert dance is losing momentum. This problem is not unique to India but is a worldwide phenomenon", he adds rather gloomily.
Another reason that contributes to the sad state of affairs is the drastic decline in funding. "Dancers are unable to live off their performances. They cannot eat and pay their rent. Dancers are having trouble developing new work that is relevant to our lives". Taylor says that it is everyone's responsibility to make classical dance vital again. He feels that the only way to do is to raise more funding for dance.
He asserts that Arts should be seen as a valuable national resource, just as petroleum, mineral and other vital resources. This is a fascinating point of view, indeed. Artists add value to the culture of the country. Learning art teaches people to live together harmoniously. Art teaches them how to solve problems creatively. It has been scientifically proven that children who have arts as a part of their curriculum learn better and are able to function well in society. Arts mould self-expression that gives value to life, he adds. It is very unfortunate that societies around the world consider Arts as some kind of 'elitist frill'. To some extent, Taylor faults dancers for being insular.
Taylor says that the alchemy of a dance performance lies somewhere between the dancer and the audience. The audience's active participation is vital for the success of the show. He likes to use the Indian metaphor, 'Prana' to explain what he means. "The audience is breathing in the dancer and in the same way the dancer is breathing in the audience".
Taylor has been in touch with the Indian classical dance scene through earlier visits as well as contacts with Indian dancers. He wants Indian dancers to look at how the richness of Indian culture can be made more accessible to outsiders. Indian classical performances based entirely on mythologies are difficult to comprehend by audiences outside the country. He has seen a few Indian dances based on contemporary poetry, which works equally well for him as a westerner. He encourages Indian dancers to articulate current issues in their dance. 'The dancer should be willing to expand beyond things taught by the Guru. There is so much creativity in the way people can think about the subject and communicate it through their dance', he advocates.
Taylor narrates an interesting phenomenon with his characteristic subtle sense of humour. In New York, where he had lived for many years, whenever his work was premiered, everyone came to see it. New Yorkers are always excited to see what is new. But when he moved to Pittsburgh, a rather traditional city, the mere word 'premiere' made people run away. They only wanted to see things that they were comfortable with, which conformed to their sense of themselves. He laments that this is a universal condition.
Taylor feels very strongly that arts should transcend from being merely culturally conforming experiences. "Artists and audiences should ask questions about our lives, looking at what is important in our culture, how can people think differently, etc. They should focus on how we can use our creativity and spirituality to get ourselves beyond the space where we are struck socially and culturally".
As one who has travelled around the world, Taylor finds that Dance is a celebration of life across the globe. "Social dancing in Latin America is sexually passionate, lively and a powerful celebration of relationship. Indian devotional dances are celebrations of the spirituality in life. Hula in Hawaii is celebration of earth and man's relationship with the environment. Using community dance, villagers in Africa celebrate harvest or the birth of a child", he observes.
But what he saw during his recent trip in Chennai was an eye opener. There was a long procession moving along a busy street with a group of people in the front dancing joyfully. He thought that they were celebrating a festival. To his astonishment Taylor soon discovered that it was a funeral procession. "Being a westerner, this was culturally unthinkable. Yet, as a dancer, I find the custom simply marvellous. Here, people are using dance to express their emotions, sadness. It is a beautiful tradition", says a visible enthused Taylor.
According to Taylor, dance is integrated in human psyche at a far deeper level than generally understood. "The moment one wakes up in the morning, open the eyes and takes in a deep breath - that is movement. Dance is only bringing consciousness to it. Yoga is dance; athletics is dance". He says that there was a reason why music was pushed ahead of dance. Traditionally, in western culture, the body is seen as somewhat scary because of the overtures to sexuality. That is the reason why dance was kept under wraps for centuries. Music, which was considered safer, was encouraged and promoted widely. But many world cultures treat dance as superior to music, he reckons.
As a dancer and choreographer, what does he find as the strength and weakness of dance as a creative form? Taylor has a simple yet profound explanation. "The weakness is that dance does not provide words and people are more comfortable with scripted stories. It also does not provide for complicated relationships. George Valentine, the famous choreographer said that there is no mother-in-law in dance (Laughs out loud). But on the other hand, people relate to the directness and simplicity of dance instantly. They understand dance viscerally, through their bodies, not their brain. There is no need to analyze dance - one simply feels it. This instant access is the strength of dance, indeed, its greatest potential among other forms".
He concedes that some people do find it difficult to understand contemporary dance. His counsel is surprisingly simple - "Just relax and trust yourself to observe and enjoy the simplicity. You should not fear the unknown. Then it happens to you".
On his part, Taylor takes a lot of effort to create awareness about contemporary dance among the public. Frequently his company performs works outdoors - public spaces, parks and streets. Occasionally they create some works that are very simple. They organize demonstration for children at schools because it develops future generation of audience. They invite audience into their studios when they are in the process of creating a new work, so people can understand the form.
Talking about his choreography, Taylor says that when he begins to create a new dance he has completely no idea of the outcome. Usually he begins with an idea and articulates a goal. He thinks of himself as a problem solver. He creates a problem and tries to resolve it. In 'Dust', his problem was how to make a dance that has elements of both Bharatanatyam and contemporary western dance. "The dancers and the musicians are my collaborators. Together we arrive at the final product. We were experimenting, playing games, communicating, thinking and performing. Through a process of trial and error we come up with the dance". He adds that in most cases, about midway, the dance takes on a life of its own, telling him what it wants to do.
Taylor has observed that some choreographers choose a magnificent piece of music but fail to do full justice to it in their dance. This, he claims, will cause imbalance in the production. He tries very hard to work with musicians who are working on the same problems that he is at that moment. In 'Dust', the music and the dance were created together, not one before the other. He adds that dance need not be subservient to music and vice-versa. "One can dance without music. When the dancer is engaged deeply in what he or she is doing, the audience forgets that there is music. And even if there is silence, they may not miss the music".
Taylor declares that professionally he is in a state of transition. He wants to devote more time to teaching. Recently he conducted a workshop with Indian dancers on contemporary dance, and claims that he thoroughly enjoyed it. He would love to do more of it in the coming years. He would also love to bring his company's performance to India every year.
Sam Kumar is a writer and photographer.