The tracks of conventional diplomacy are changing around the world with the preeminence of soft cultural power as a potent tool of understanding across geopolitical and social divides between the nations post globalization. Music, literature, cinema, spirituality, visual arts and dance form the core of soft power that is linking nations across the world in times of Asian-Arab conflicts, rise of the Brazil (Latin American), China, India and the Africa geographical bloc — and the shifting power and commercial balances around the world.
The focus is shifting from the traditional power turfs of US and Europe to the developing world — where India is playing a strategic role as a cultural interlocutor, interpreter, collaborator and facilitator to promote a new global understanding of amity and syncretism.
Experts say in the era of soft power diplomacy India has been a contributor to the gradual debunking of the Samuel Huntington myth of clash of civilization myth into one of connections and confluences. An ongoing dance biennale DanSe DialogueS-II — a Franco-Indian collaboration of contemporary choreographies — from April 11-29 (2014) has brought to the country seven performances by leading Indian and French performers and choreographers to tour seven cities opening and enhancing new chapters in understanding in French contemporary cultures in the context of Indian modern cultural movements. The dance biennale which had set off to a modest start in 2011 during “Bon Jour”, a extravagant festival of French culture in India to explore the areas of cultural convergence has a doorway for Indian cultural audiences to look at the contemporary arts waves sweeping through Europe and appreciate their own cultures in juxtaposition with the French haute— considered to be one of the finest in the heart of middle European seats of culture. In the last three years that the festival has expanded its footprints, performers have claimed that their encounters with the “foreign” have been enriching, endowing their performances and perspectives with new insights — and opportunities for relevant assimilation.
The French Embassy in India describes the festival as a “dedication to the people of India to promote the richness and the diversity of Indian and French contemporary dance; fostering collaboration between French and Indian professionals in this field, while popularizing the contemporary forms of expression vis-à-vis the Indian public”.
With about 80 French companies touring the world and supporting culture policies, contemporary dance in France is set apart by diversity of practices. Meanwhile in the last two decades, dancers and choreographers in India have been transforming the strongly rooted classical codes to give new meanings of expressions to the moving body.
The fact that France and India are two very active nations in the sphere of dance is because of their ancient civilizations — the Indian classical and contemporary heritage of dance is rooted in forms that date back to the Indus Valley civilization while the French dancing legacy is grounded in the medieval cultural renaissance of the Italian, British and French courts in the 15-16th century when the ballet made its first appearance.
It is said Catherine de’ Medici of Italy who married King Henry II of France introduced ballet to French courts. In both the countries dance moved on a trajectory of cultural and intellectual progression — with baroque (in France), the temple dances in India, court ballet (France), classical court dances in India to the mass and public performances. In the last 100 years, the cornerstone of dance has been modern— deriving and deviating from the classical roots to express a free and engaging body language an assimilating from the hip hop of the American streets and Latino hubs around the world.
One of the early socio-economic churnings in the western world that opened the body to express itself in more liberal and dramatic ways was the great depression that dug up contemporary dance talent like Martha Graham, Mary Wigman, Hanya Hom, Anna Sokolow, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, who scripted a dance idiom with contemporary imageries and abstract expressions of human experience during the decades of 1930s-1950s and onwards. Around the same time, a group of classical dancers led by Udai Shankar, Chandralekha, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Ram Gopal and later exponents like Jayachandran, Astad Deboo and Navtej Johar to name a few experimented with mélanges of the western and Oriental styles.
The DanSe DialoGues has been striving to keep this spirit of contemporary exchange of ideas alive.
On April 11, contemporary dance company, Compagnie Xin led by young French dancer Martin Harriague, presented “Black Pulp”— a explosive duet choreography about the dark side of love, which is the beginning and the end of human aspirations and emotions as well causing the race to peak and ebb in throes of passion. The choreography was set to American beat poet Derrick Brown’s word composition.
Dance is overlapping with other related genres like poetry and visual arts as well – moving beyond the traditional matrix of musical scores. The performance art is jumping the cultural divides with international collaborations and influences. Dancer and choreographer Martin Harriague says “the dark space of love” in his choreography Black Pulp was inspired by a broken heart.
“I was in Holland working for a contemporary dance company which had shut shop during the global recession. My lover and co-dancer left me at a time when I was without a job. I asked myself ‘what is left’. The choreography was a conversation I had with myself and my audience on how do I stand up in a moment of crisis. In the struggle and challenge, there is a gift,” Harriague explained to this writer. The dancer moved to Israel and set up his own company.
Harriague’s choreography is symbolic of two trends: Dance is an expression of intimate and everyday reality in the 21st century, an era where the world has let go off its frills to focus on the power of the body and the soil again. “We are witnessing a post-conceptual phase in contemporary arts when dancers and performers are moving more towards the body,” Harriague said.
In France, known as the Mecca of contemporary dance and experimental body language, the traditional ballet and body dancing have been assimilating from entertainment genres like the circus, aerial dancing, acrobatics and gymnastics.
Dancer Olivia Cubero, who takes contemporary dancing from the ground to the walls on a wide techno-aerial stage spanning large facades of building, says dance cannot be confined to a closed stage. “I have been performing aerial acts since childhood,” the petite French dancer said after a “daring and a stunning aerial choreography on the walls of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts on April 23. The show, “The Immense Intimacy”, choreographed by Fabrice Guillot of the Compangnie Retouramont, is a collaboration between light, instant laser photography, aerial dancing and music. The dancer is suspended by an elastic code and two supporting strings suspended from the roof of the building. She responds to several figurative light images on the wall moving her body in the direction of the light, simulating the laser silhouettes on the swathe of the white washed wall.
The site-specific act is an exposition of choreographer Guillot’s aesthetic ideology that arts should engage with people in public spaces. The company has been experimenting with elliptical aerial dance and hip hop for the last 10 years. “I like the movements between the different genres of art,” Guillot said.
“Dance is not just dance. Our next show is more of a circus,” Olivia Cubero added.
Cubero dances in hospitals as well, where she “uses her craft with two musicians” to intervene with positive energy in the lives of terminally-ill patients. Guillot is preparing for new choreography with an anthropomorphic sculpture. “Three dancers, including one from China, will use the sculpture as the central iconic support to dance around it. In the end, the mobile sculpture will begin to dance as well making it a four-member choreography,” choreographer Guillot said. The choreographer has commissioned contemporary French sculptor Vincente Bredef to design the solid shape.
A collaborative act between French choreographer David Rolland and Indian dancers Padmini Chettur and Preethi Athreya used hand-crafted carpets as the props for their choreography. The carpets with floral and hip-hop motifs, especially designed by the dancers, were the visual interpretation of the movements of the dancers. The group of 10 dancers recreated the design on the carpet with their body language, breaking and bending according to the patterns.
“I wanted to create more geometric forms and movements in my choreography. I used the patterns on the piece as a parable. This is the first time, I used patterns as the core of my choreography. There is no special significance. It just gave the dancers more speed and length,” choreographer David Rolland told this writer.
His likes to experiment with cross-oeuvre acts combining dance with visual arts. Contemporary dance is becoming political, Rolland said. “It is becoming more socially and politically engaged because of Libya and Arab Spring. You can create contemporary imageries of Europe and the world invoking political movements,” he said.
Dancer Preethi Athreya, who collaborated with Rolland’s choreography, says the essential difference between European and Indian contemporary dance is that the former is rooted in people’s movement. “In France, the free flowing body movement can be traced back to fall of Bastille and the French Revolution. They were turning their backs to classicism. In India, the contemporary movement is more grounded in the classical forms and in the different body languages of the pioneers who broke away from traditions to create their own classical-inspired movements,” Athreya said.
But the borders are blurring, says Chennai-based dancer Padmini Chettur, who has collaborated with several dance companies in the last two decades. She points to two trends. “One of the trends is collaboration. But what is disturbing about collaboration is that it looks like the only way to fund a choreography of contemporary scale. If you find a collaborator, only then you can find money. We need to think about other sources to find money,” she says.
Chettur is working with her troupe to develop an indigenous pedagogy for Indian modern dance. Even the classical dance of the 1970s is modern dance because it had travelled out from the temples, Chettur said, citing an example.
“Modern dance is all about the body. The way you use your body creates your vocabulary. It is about assimilation,” Indian contemporary dance guru Astad Deboo said, capturing the essence of global contemporary dance.
It is about cultural understanding as well.