MAKING DANCE; A CHOREOLOGICAL APPROACH
by Preethi Athreya
Natya Kala Conference 2001- December 17
This is an investigation into the practical/theoretical study of dance for which dance-specific methods are essential. The sources of these concepts are both the dance practice itself which embodies concepts, and dance theoreticians who articulate practice both verbally and in dance-specific symbol systems.
The choreological approach regards dance as an embodied art in which making, performing and appreciating with intention, impression and interpretation are seen as interdependent processes rather than distinct and separated roles and responsibilities.
Dance is seen as the interlock of various strands such as the body, movement, space, time and sound. The strands have their implication on the synthesis of the idea, the medium and the treatment. The choreological approach locates itself at the interstice of semiotics and phenomenology.
Taking this essential complexity into account, a central study is the movement material with its mediation through the performer. Experiencing, experimenting, documenting and analysing are choreological methods that facilitate the understanding of the complexity of dance processes. These are seen as ways of complementing, occasionally superceding, and possibly confronting the separation of practical dance study from the theoretical study of dance.
The word ‘choreology' means the knowledge and scholarly study of dance, core knowledge in them and about them, and diverse scholarly methods essential to that study. Choreological studies is a branch of choreology. Choreologists are essentially practical scholars in the sense of being practitioners in one or more of the interlocking domains of dance. They may be found practicing as choreographers, teachers, performers, notators, reconstructors, researchers, critics - essentially wherever cognitive and corporeal knowledge is required.
Dance practice is one of embodiment. Embodying is something that fuses the performer and the movement and all the participants in the event. It is much more than physical bone, muscle and skin that carry motion. Consciousness, intention, perception and kinesthesia are aspects of embodiment. The embodying person has a perspective distinct from the person standing outside, though the two perspectives are interrelated. Articulation of this interrelationship requires both corporeal and cognitive understanding.
In trying to deal with the problem, dance scholarship often adopts methodologies from other disciplines. With reference to Indian classical dance, most written and verbal reflections on its expressivity and impact depend on the structure of the music or lyrics to which movement is adapted. While knowledge of music and text is vital to a semiotic understanding of a dance performance, this by itself is incomplete without taking into account the dancer's presence and interaction with space, sound and movement which is an impact dependant on the particular conditions of a particular performance. By this, each performance, by each performer, each time, is unique and distinct.
This becomes especially important when talking of classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam that have undergone several transformations over time. Together with traditional depictions of mythical stories, there also exist productions the choreographic intentions of which cannot be pinned down solely to literature, music or any linear narrative system. Some examples of this in the last decade would include Leela Samson's ‘Spanda', the Dhananjayans' ‘Jungle Book', Chandralekha's ‘Yantra', C.P.Satyajit's ‘Mounakkural', Sheejith Krishna's ‘Marthyan', Bharata Kalanjali's ‘Rasasamudra', to name a few. This is by no means an exhaustive list. It merely gives a random account of trends in the classical dance language.
From this position, the aim is to discuss, debate and arbitrate the body's own multiple constitution as a cultural phenomenon and not just a physical vehicle of meaning. It is about seeing how the body is constituted within the total world of theatrical performance. Therefore the body's relation to spatiality, the relation of spatiality to motility, the relevance of theatrical arrangement (mise-en-scene) to the way in which the body is constituted in and via the stage space are also relevant to the inquiry.
A Triadic Perspective
Creation, performance and reception are conventionally associated with separate roles, namely, a choreographer, a performer and an audience member. This tradition encourages a problematic assumption that choreographers create (and do not perform and do not appreciate), that dancers perform (and do not create and do not appreciate) and audiences appreciate (and do not perform and do not create). Anyone familiar with the choreographic process will not need to be told that choreographers dance in the studio. The choreographic process includes working with movement material on their own body. Choreographers are aware of the performative element as much as the creative element. The making process requires them to stand back and look at what they have made and are making. At certain points they become their own audience.
Dancers have to make the corporeal image appear through intended, imaginative felt action. They have to imagine what they look like by relating how they feel to how they look. They have to function as critics of what is emerging.
The choreographic intention is present in all participants including the audience member. We all draw our focus of attention to the dance event. Intention is not only located in the choreographer who wants to ‘say' or communicate ‘something'. For the present purpose, intention is defined as a consciousness through which we open ourselves through perception to the world, to others and to ourselves. Thus the event becomes ‘our world' and we locate ourselves within it. There is always an on-going transaction between creation, performance and reception.
The diversity of dance knowledge and ways of coming to know dance dictates the complexity of methods currently practiced in Choreological studies. Practical knowledge, commonly exemplified in knowing how to ride a bicycle, how to swim, how to execute a brahmari, is one form of knowing. Contrasted to this is knowing in your head where a brahmari starts and finishes, knowing about what should be done rather than knowing in the body itself. This is another form of knowing essential to choreological studies. Intuitive grasp of a work through an awareness of the whole is a kind of knowing associated with perception - knowing that something has a particular feel to it or smell to it, or texture or sound or look, if you attend to it.
Because choreological studies is both a practical and theoretical discipline, the methods used are centered on the concept of the practical scholar. Currently, the four perspectives used are Experiencing, Experimenting, Documenting and Analysing.
Movement Study within choreological studies
The study of movement is undertaken with the knowledge that movement is only one of the strands of the dance medium. The performer as mediator is an ever-present concern dictating teaching and research methods in movement study within choreology.
Rudolph Laban was the first to talk about Eukinetics and Choreutics (1926). Eukinetics is the study of rhythm, phrasing and dynamics in dance. It categorises four basic factors in motion:
Weight: Light or Strong
Time: Sustained or Sudden
Flow: Free or Bound
Space: Flexible or Direct
Another unit of measurement is rhythm which could be directed by the meter of the music (metric rhythm, as it is in most classical dance forms), or by the action (as in the case of mime without meter, eg, abhinaya for a viruttam) or by the use of breath (where breath is the originator and organiser for movement, eg, the inhalation, suspension and exhalation in Yogasanas). The study of effort in movement indicates the laws of harmony within kinetic energy. Actions like gliding, pressing, floating, slashing, etc, have clear dynamic meaning.
Choreutics is the study of spatial form and orientation of movement in dance. Space is a hidden feature of movement and movement is a visible aspect of space. Lines and curves are perceived in the body's projection as well as in the progression of movement.
Laban classified certain principles of orientation based on the body's kinesphere (space within reach of the body) and the body's dynamosphere (the space in which the body's dynamic actions take place).
He suggested an exploration of vertical, lateral and diagonal pathways using (a) the moving body as the factor that determines the center (the body's own cross of axis), (b) using a seated audience as a fixed point to determine center (standard cross of axis), and (c) using a fixed vertical dimension and changing lateral and diagonal dimensions to determine the center (constant cross of axis). The pathways traced by the body can be central (passing through the center), peripheral (making an arc along the outer edge between two points) and transversal (making a direct line between two points).
The movement that enables such spatial exploration is also experimented with using combinations of effort factors discussed in eukinetics. Such experiencing, experimenting, documenting and analyzing of movement helps develop clarity in intention as well as finesse in execution. It also helps distinguish what there is to be perceived in a movement sequence versus things that cannot be avoided (pain, loud noise, stretch, obvious movement changes). In other words, it develops an aesthetic sensibility in the body's usage.
These tools in choreological study are certainly not new to trained practitioners and connoisseurs of classical Indian dance. These ideas of effort and line, as well as the tools of symbolic and perceptual knowing are imparted through concepts such as Rekha, Angasuddha, Saushtubham, Azhuttham, Shraddha, Laya, Lhasya, Manodharma, Rasa, etc. Rather than being taught as isolated concepts, these sensibilities are unconsciously developed in the practice of the art. However, a conscious acknowledgement of these tools of understanding helps strengthen those faculties and also makes room for more creative exploration.
Choreological movement study as tools in choreography
As discussed above, Laban's classification of effort and spatial form sought to encourage experimentation to develop a deeper understanding of the complexity of dance. Many dancers and choreographers have developed their own systems of making movement using these basic principles of effort and spatial form. One among them is William Forsythe, the director of Ballet Frankfurt whose work aided my own creative process.
Forsythe's improvisation technique is a method of ‘writing' dance or ‘inscribing' spatial forms in the kinesphere with the body. He takes the line and the curve as basic forms, using Laban's concept of natural zones for the limbs and their superzones.
Some terms used in his improvisational method are
Create a center
Extrude a line
Replace the line
Collapse the line
Bridge to create a line
Curve to floor
Curve to center
Curve to body
Using some of these directions, I created bits and pieces of movement material, which I recorded on video film as well as photographs. My creative tendencies at the time had moved away from representation and narration. The Laban Center Studios were housed in an old Gothic church building, which was of great interest to me as a space. The high arched ceiling and wooden sprung floors created echoes that I experimented with. I began to test how the architectural form could direct movement. Mirror images, shadow play and different viewing perspectives began to interest me. I had also been working with two percussionists who played the Senegalese talking drum. The music we created was again a counterpoint to the space we worked in.
I decided to make a film to capture this transaction between space, sound and action. I set up a digital camera at various angles to record perspectives that I thought were the most revealing about the choreographic intention.
The issues underpinning my work had a lot to do with where does performance begin and end, who are the performers, what are the relationships between sound and space, how does sound amplify or diminish space, how does architecture overcome the limits history has set for it, in what ways does the moving body, its mirror reflection and its shadow affect the space in the frame of the viewer, are these various ways of representing the body synonymous with each other, etc.
Much of these reflections emerged as the product of research through experimentation and documentation. More than actual methods, these choreological tools became a springboard to explore and deepen my understanding of issues raised in the work.
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Preethi was trained in Bharatanatyam by the Dhananjayans and has been an active member of the Dhananjayans' Bharata Kalanjali Dance Company as a performer, choreographer and staff member. She has been involved in productions like Sita Rama Katha, Sanghamitra and Jungle Book, which have toured the United States and Canada extensively, as well as Tasher Desh, Mounakkural and Rassamudra. She is also trained in Kalaripayattu by Shaji John and works with contemporary dancer, Padmini Chettur. Preethi is a recent recipient of a Master of Arts degree in Dance Studies from the Laban Centre, London where she undertook a year's study in movement language and choreography.