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Tradition and Innovation

In Dance

Sketches from Ram Gopals personal Scrap-book Reproduced: Classical Dances & Costumes of India by Kay Ambrose ________________________________________________________________ Tradition and Innovation in dance Dr. Rohini Dandavate July 10, 2012 Innovation in traditional dance is often a topic of debate and controversy. While some seek new experiences others resist change. However history records that changing social and political contexts, the need to attract audiences and above all the basic human urge to move beyond parameters drawn by traditions, has inspired dancers to innovate and experiment in their genres of dance. Innovation is the introduction of new things, methods or services.

Innovation and experimentation in dance is seen either in the technique or in the kind of music employed, or in the themes, stage lighting, costumes and sets. For example Sergei Diaghilev, who started the original Ballets Russes, was a pioneer in adapting new musical styles to modern ballet. George Balanchine, the founder of New York Ballet, as a choreographer, generally de-emphasized plot in his ballets, preferring to let "dance be the star of the show," as he once told an interviewer. Martha Graham popularized modern dance by introducing a different technique that used jarring, violent, and trembling movements. She believed that movement originated in the tension of a contracted muscle, and continued in the flow of energy released from the body as the muscle relaxed. This method of muscle control gave her dance an angular look unlike the smooth, lyrical bodily motions of other ballet dancers of that time. In the context of dance innovation in India, one is reminded of Chandralekha, a choreographer who fused Bharatnatyam, Yoga, Chau and Kalaripayattu, Astad Deboo, a practitioner of modern dance who collaborates with artists across many genres, Mallika Sarabhai, a Bharatnatyam dancer who often fuses multiple disciplines of arts to promote social change and Daksha Sheth, who draws from her experience in Kathak, Mayurbhanj Chhau, Martial art of Kalaripayattu from Kerala, aerial technique of Mallakhamb (malla denotes a gymnast or a man of strength and khamb which means a pole. Mallakhamb is pole gymnastics) to combine tradition with Contemporary Indian Dance. This list of names is not exhaustive. There are many more dancers and choreographers in India who have experimented across genres of dance, drama, music and sports. The collage given below displays a few examples of innovative works in dance:

1.Daksha Sheth

2. Mallika Sarabhai

3. Astad Deboo

4. Chandralekha's choreographic production Sharira

Universally, innovation in classical dance forms is inimical to traditionalists and tension between tradition and innovation continue. Across all cultures, there are artists who have moved beyond the codes of the traditional genres and illustrated their own imagination fusing both conventional and unconventional methods in dance. Garry Stewart, Artistic Director of Australian Dance Theatre, known for his innovative choreography said Nothing is completely in its own bubble of new existence that it always emanates out of something that we already know. True to these words, it is observed that often dancers and choreographers experiment and innovate based on their expertise in one genre of dance. The difference in their work stems from their motivation to explore new concepts and the way in which they integrate novel methods. The works of Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham appropriately explicate this point. These dancers and choreographers created a new language of dance based on their training in classical ballet. Tired of conforming to the norms of the European tradition of Ballet, these choreographers experimented in costumes, lighting and technique while presenting themes and plots linked to the existing social, cultural and political conditions during their lifetime.

Loie Fuller:

Fuller choreographed dances in which she used silk costumes illuminated by multi-colored lighting of her own design. She held many patents linked to stage lighting using chemical compounds for creating color gel and chemical salts for luminescent lighting and garments.

Isadora Duncan performing bare foot.


Duncan believed that movement originated in the solar plexus. She moved away from the rigid ballet technique and integrated natural movements in her choreography. Duncan was particularly influenced by the Delsartean system of expression, which emphasized "harmonic poise," "artistic statue posing" and "plastique." Her Grecian inspiration and American love of freedom inspired her to create a different technique seeking connection between movements and emotion. Delsarte developed an acting style that aimed to connect the inner emotional experience of the actor with a set of gestures and body movements based on his observations of human interaction.

The dancer Ruth St Denis was influenced by dance dramas of eastern cultures. Intrigued by the image of Goddess, she read about the Indian and Egyptian concept. In her production Radha, she translated her understanding of the Indian culture in the portrayal of the story of the mortal maid.

Ruth St. Denis Source:

In the book The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin describes Martha Graham, as one of the centurys most gifted integrative thinkers, whose thought had far reaching results. Martha Graham integrated harsh angular movements filled with emotion and anxiety in contrast to the fluid technique of ballet. She replaced the traditional costumes with long skirts or leotards, and dropped the use of the plain backdrops, and utilized three-dimensional sculptures as stage props for dancers to touch, hold and interact. She collaborated with Lewis Horst and he composed music for the dances she choreographed. Unlike the ornate style of classical ballet she focused on the power of communication in dance. Her costumes were designed in a way, which would force audiences to notice the movement of the body and the emotion. For Martha Graham, as Roger Martin said, composition, choreography, costumes and sets were all part of an interdependent, integrated whole. Her innovation gelled elements of theater, emotion and motivation. Initially the changes she introduced shocked and confused audiences. But later her repeated efforts of demonstrating simple American realities through her

dances continued to amaze her audience. Though most times a dancers questioning the basic tenets and age old canons of movements of traditional dance styles raises eyebrows, gradually peoples eyes get trained to appreciate new creations with frequent presentation and by understanding the choreographers perspective. Drawing a similar example from Indian dance is the work of the Chandralekha, the legendary dancer from Chennai, in Southern India. Trained under the renowned Bharatnatyam teacher, Guru Kancheepuram Ellappa Pillai, Chandralekha, is often described as an iconoclast, and is known for reinterpreting classical traditions and developing a unique sequence of signature movements. She fused Bharatanatyam dance movements with yoga and Kalarippayyat, a martial art form from Kerela. As described by Ananaya Chatterjea, in her article, Chandralekha: Negotiating the Female Body and Movement in Cultural/Political Signification, the hallmarks of Chandralekhas choreography are her radical re-envisioning of the classical body of Indian dance and her seamless overlaying of the aesthetic and the political in movement. Chandralekha explored the vocabulary of Bharatnatyam during her training and then worked for ten years in womens movement before she made a comeback on to the dance stage as a dancer and choreographer. For her dance was more than just an expression of bhakti (devotion). The dance productions she choreographed were Celebrations of the human body. Chandralekha explored and expressed ideas relating to body and mind, and issues of sexuality, sensuality and spirituality. Her productions Angika, Lilavati, Prana, Sri, Yantra, Mahakal, Raga, Sloka and Sharira, were based on themes relating to time, space, form, spiritual and sexual manifestations of the body, and feminism. Another dancer and choreographer Astad Deboo is recognized for blending the Modern with traditional styles of dance. Trained in Kathak, Kathakali, and in Modern dance at the Martha Graham School as well as with Pina Bauschhe, his choreography combines Indian classical and Western modern dance. Over the

years, he has collaborated with practitioners of the Manipuri martial art form of Thang-ta, and students from the Clarke School for the Deaf in Chennai. His latest production, Interpreting Tagore comprises pieces set to different poems by Tagore and features a variety of practices, drawing in elements of Kathak, Chhau, Puppetry and Sufi whirling. In addition to these names there are many more Indian dancers both in and outside of India who continue to experiment and bring forth innovative works. While some continue to express their ideas using established traditional forms, others chose to use traditional dance techniques as a springboard for innovation and the starting point for advancing their own ideas on issues of the contemporary world. Often unfamiliar expressions make it difficult for audiences to appreciate innovation and creativity. The only way to recognize and acknowledge novel creative expressions is by understanding the choreographers perspective and creative process by asking questions regarding: the idea which inspired the work the approach used to expand upon the idea the creative process used in the new work the strategies employed to translate the idea into dance and the steps used to refine the work and overcome the limitations

Much like Astad Deboo believes, Coming from old tradition and presenting under a contemporary umbrellatradition also moves on. There is a lot of reverence; there are a lot of things that are not dispensed of. [Tradition] is still there. In the field of traditional dance, some will continue to practice, preserve and promote the classical dances in its pristine form, while others will interpret their imagination by expanding their creative expressions using different disciplines. Traditions will continue to be practiced alongside the development of novel artistic experiences.

David W. Galenson, an economic historian and a professor of Economics, in his analyses of the careers of French and American painters of the 19th and 20th centuries discovered two types of innovators: conceptual and experimental. According to Galenson, the experimental innovators are seekers, because they typically innovate by continually seeking to improve without knowing exactly what they are looking for. He called the conceptual innovators finders, because they typically know what they want and they find it. Galenson adds that an experimental innovator gradually gains expertise and flourishes late in life while the conceptual innovator employs new ways of doing things very early on in their career and their creativity is acknowledged soon enough. Though Galensons study focused on painters only, I think his discovery of the two types of artistic innovators are seen in the field of dance too. While Martha Graham and Chandralekha can be included in the group of conceptual innovators, and Loie Fuller, Ruth St Dennis and Astad Deboo, Daksha Sheth and Mallika Sarabhai can be called experimental innovators. Martha Graham introduced specific body movements such as the contraction, release, and spiral. Her theory of contraction, the foundation of her technique, became central to the development of Modern dance in America. For Chandralekha the body was the sole resource(Malcolm Tay) which she used to communicate her ideas on feminism and social activism. The form and structure of her choreography was set to explore body, energy (both physical and spiritual) and self-realization. Like other conceptual innovators both these choreographers formulated a unique language of movement to express their revolutionary ideas. In comparison the experimental innovators in dance used the trial and error methods in their creative expressions. While Fuller experimented with stage lighting, Duncan incorporated the Delsartean system of expression in her work and Ruth St Dennis borrowed themes from the eastern cultures in their creative breakthrough. Astad Deboos collaborations, Mallika Sarabhais use of different genres of art and Daksha Sheths amalgamation of movements from Kathak style, Chau and Mallakhamb added new dimensions in their innovations.


I conclude this discussion on tradition and innovation in dance by quoting Winston Churchill, who said, Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse. Tradition and innovation are equally important. Tradition provides the discipline and base of long established methods for instilling creativity, and innovation initiates and shapes imagination and therefore innovation must develop from tradition. References: Websites: S. Garry. (2009). Garry Stewart on Innovation. Dance Consortium. Retrieved from Rosendorf, Elizabeth A. (2012) Dancespiration: Exploring Innovation in Dance. Corcoran College Of Art + Design, 2011, 112 pages; 1506388 Retrieved from Martha Graham. Retrieved from Terhune, Lea. (March/April 2008).Blending the Modern with the Traditional: Astad Deboo, Span, page 59. Retrieved from wwfspmarapr0859.pdf+&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESj9iYcjwnZaHWl4O 7zbatMT_iROPEtdoGHJIKkhovCTj6nNbt51ZUSL7opQF3GYkjJt5pwNBbGtSMAk2W9MN00781DF4bu10Pd8WT4816sMGAmIO7cYqwMDxSzJ8KFRxl8fA9&sig=A HIEtbSh5cCragKVa9ALVqH1pDP7qwr_rg Galenson, David. (2007). Painters as Seekers/Finders Retrieved from Print: Holland, Suzanne. (2001). The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy. MIT Press, Boston. Ed. Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright. (2001) Moving History: A Dance History Reader, Wesleyan University Press. Connecticut. Martin, Roger L. (2007). The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking. Harvard Business School Publishing,Boston, Massachusetts.