Performing Arts

An Italian-born Odissi dancer on finding common ground between the East and the West

Is a universal dance beyond geography, languages, costumes, themes and denominations no more possible?

During the evenings of the East-West Dance Encounter onstage, the gap was striking: the Eastern dancer all dressed up, ornamented and protected; the Western one naked, exposed, vulnerable. The former, with devoted and submissive eyes, expressed a longing for her beloved; the latter, with wide-open eyes, expressed uncertainty, anguish and desperation in relation to the unknown. In both cases, body, space, energy, directions and music were used. But, the emphases were different. Here the face, there the legs; here bright colours, there black; here the beat, there the off-beat; here the expected, there the unexpected. In both cases, long years of training lay behind the conditioning of the body. The best among the Western dancers, for all their physical fitness, cannot move the neck, the torso or the fingers the way the Indian dancer does. The best among the Eastern dancers, for all their training, cannot raise the legs, keep balance or conceive a step out of the rules.

A conditioned medium

Many questions, doubts and proposals emerged during the closed sessions. Is the form or the content to be changed? Can a free dance exist in a traditionally settled society? Can the dancer keep out of social context?

One of the first discussions I had with my guru, at the very beginning of my arrival in India, was about my external appearance. At that time, I used to let my hair remain uncombed. My dress was casual. My exterior reflected my inner mood. The freedom to choose whether to be an aesthetic object to be used by the male-dominated world or a liberated woman was part of my cultural background and was reflected in my attitude and behaviour. My guru’s arguments were completely different: there was no question of being or not being an object, of being or not being used, of accepting or not accepting the role. There was only one model to which the woman had to conform to. And the dancer, as a woman interpreting the model closer than anybody else, had to adhere to it even more.

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Guruji had rejected more than one student whose style of life was not in accordance with this model. This did not apply to the local Oriya girls, whose life is still more or less according to the rules, but to women coming from a more open and exposed context. Faced with this contradiction, what should a woman do: change her life or change her dance? I changed my life.

In my own experience, at that stage, it was more revolutionary to accept a tradition than be against it. I had already been naked and exposed during the years of vagabondage, of experimentation and political struggle, during the years of rejecting and rebelling that have been part of my story as well as that of a full generation of young people in the West. The present choice is not imposed on me, and I am ready to go beyond it as soon as it becomes unrelated to whatever I project into it. If you have found yourself once, you know you cannot be any more lost even in a period of darkness or absence of anchorage. When the moon is completely dark, the new one starts to grow. If you are open to this dialectical approach, there is no question of old or new, traditional or modern. It is just a matter of being yourself.

The human and the goddess

But what does the symbol of Sita mean to a woman who has to follow this example compelled by her surroundings and not through her own choice? And again, what does it mean for a woman who rejects this model in her personal life but is still using it as the content of her artistic expression? On the other side, there is the complete abandon and freedom of the Western exponent. In the process of alienation from the old and the traditional, everything has been discarded, the bad and the good, with the result that often the artistic expression has become too abstract, too technical or too extreme and abstruse. In one word, too “void”. True, it reflects the aridity of our modern life, but that should not be an excuse for not trying to convey through the artistic medium an emotional alternative.

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At this point we could say that the broad categories of East and West are no more to be referred to, because as cultural contexts, both can lead to one or another kind of conditioning towards the individual and his expressional needs. The focus should shift towards the artiste as a human being, the genuineness and sincerity of his involvement and dedication, the truth and coherence in his life and work. Shiva is eternally dancing his cosmic dance; it is not Odissi or Bharatanatyam, it is not of the East or of the West. It is the universal dance of creation and destruction, life and death, which modern man can understand in terms of energy, atoms, particles, magnetism and matter. It is sometimes joyful, sometimes wrathful, sometimes water, sometimes fire, sometimes at peace, sometimes full of tension. Can’t we be inspired by this example of dynamism and freedom instead of only trying to copy his postures?

Is a universal dance beyond geography, languages, costumes, themes and denominations no more possible? I am sure if dancers with different technical experiences but animated by the same honesty towards our search could work together, a sort of rejuvenated and universal dance could emerge, comprehending the old and the new, the East and the West, the discipline of the body and the freedom of mind. In the present reality of multinationalism and intercommunication between states and disciplines, art, in general, and dance, in particular, is still too linked to regional idioms and divided by geographical borders. The horizons should be opened and the cult of the prima donna should be replaced by the cult of the truth and the essential.

The alternative solution

This East-West Dance Encounter should open the doors to more and more encounters among dancers where, more than shows and talks, there are shared life experiences. Theatre practitioners have already taken several steps towards this getting together. Can’t we dancers, too, have regular platforms for research and mutual enrichment and understanding? I know that for some the myth still works. They do not find any discrepancy. They are still accepting the role assigned to them by society and do not feel the urge to question. They are still happily living like puppets in somebody else’s hands. But those who honestly feel that traditional training based on blind faith and silent execution does not help one to live in a conscious and responsible way, and that the sophisticated and untouched world of classical dance does not reflect the needs and urges of the world outside should be given the opportunity to share these feelings in a common effort to find an alternative solution.

The continuity between life and art which has always been responsible for the formation of any artistic expression seems at present to be lost behind empty schemes and repetitive formulae. A tribal man uses his art to talk to god. Whom does the modern man address when he repeats the same gestures on a modern stage? And whom does he speak to when he creates new gestures that nobody understands? Both risks are there: from the East, the same and mechanical repetition and deception; from the West, the abstruse and, at any cost, new or the empty displaying of technique and perfection. And in the middle is a common ground of the coming together of artistes as human beings, open to each other and ready to give and take – not for the benefit of any bank account but for a mutual, spiritual and human enrichment.

This article first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.

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