Dancers are experimenting with form and medium as they try to find new ways to reach audiences
When Chennai’s December season went virtual last year, dancers got a chance to experiment at recreating the sabha experience while performing in empty auditoriums. It was a first attempt and it brought dance recitals back, but one feels that it will take time for the experience to be improved and perfected.
And among dancers too, there is a growing awareness of the potential of the digital space and its phenomenal reach. They are beginning to realise that this new medium calls for some serious creative thought.
Priyadarsini Govind says she was happy when dance was included in the 2020 Season’s scheduling by the sabhas. But she adds that online festivals will work only if curated well. “We cannot replicate a live performance where we draw energy from the audience and show them with our eyes where to look. We have to work with the camera person so that the camera can show what the dancer wants the audience to see. It’s a new skill to learn. In my opinion, nothing can replace anything.”
Priyadarsini Govind | Photo Credit: G_Moorthy
According to the dancer, an in-person performance is a study of contrasts, which may not work in the digital space. Priyadarsini gives the example of a dark background that on camera looks like a dancer is suspended in mid-air. Costume colours and eye make-up need to be reworked. As she says, “Online, everyone is a front-bencher.”
Priyadarsini points out that repertoires too may have to change. “I would like to create new compositions for the camera. I am inspired by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam’s choreography to Tchaikovsky’s music created so many years ago. I feel that artistes like Shobana who understand both mediums can do wonders.”
In the absence of live recitals in the near future, dancers will have to learn how to control the final product much better. The standard two-three camera recording will have to change in order to better mimic the dynamic eyes of the rasika. Some dancers are already testing the possibilities. Vaibhav Arekar recorded an existing dance-theatre choreography ‘Venugan’, using three cameras, including a moving one. “I hired an auditorium in Pune,” he says, “and presented the same choreography twice over, shooting from different angles each time. We used regular stage lights to capture the feel of a live performance. It was a 10-hour shoot for 75 minutes of content.”
Sushant Jadhav, who has prior experience with films, was the artistic director. Vaibhav says it is crucial to educate the team. The camera persons attended three rehearsals. While retaining the original choreography, Vaibhav says he was mindful of the camera while shooting and so he would consciously face it.
It was, however, an expensive exercise. Vaibhav considers it a keepsake for posterity and is sending it to some festivals around the world. “When will I go to Australia next? The festivals help my work reach people I may never meet.”
The next new genre is that of dance films, a genre that will grow over time, expects Vaibhav. “We have to record properly. I tried doing it at home, but it didn’t work. It needs funds.” He hopes that entertainment companies like Netflix will get into it.
Rama Vaidyanathan has also been experimenting with the camera. “I have three static cameras and one on a gimble that moves with me to replicate the moving eyes of the audience. I choose angles in which a movement is captured at its optimum. For ‘thadinginathom’, I choose a side angle where the arm in front, back and the araimandi view is optimum.”
Rama makes an interesting point when she says that because of the level of scrutiny one faces online — a recording may be wound back and watched again and again — the piece should be crisper and combed for the smallest of details. “I feel the level of discernment shown by the audience has gone up. I see it in the feedback I get.”
Bharatanatyam, says Rama, is not designed for the camera, and has to be choreographed differently. The dancers need to factor in the loss of spontaneity and the absence of vibrations from a live audience while recording. On the upside, subtle gestures like the twitch of an eyebrow may be easier to convey since it can all be captured on camera. “I took three hours to record and 30 hours to edit a 90-minute margam,” she says. “I believe in recording non-stop. This is a totally new skill that I have learnt on the job.”
Whole new skill
Not all artistes are, however, open to online performances. Rukmini Vijayakumar says she cannot perform without audience vibes. She is conscious of her placements, the lines and diagonals in choreography, which are lost in digital recordings. There is, however, some of her content online. ‘Yes, I started making small pieces — Mallari, Pushpanjali… I choreographed it differently. It’s a whole new skill. Where to take the eye of the audience… we have to guide the camera person. Unless we control, it becomes a dead medium.”
) Rukmini Vijayakumar
For the December 2020 season, Shijith Nambiar and Parvathy presented a beautiful mood piece, ‘Saagara Sayana’, a journey of a river, its origin and meandering until it merges into the ocean, the Ultimate Truth. Yet, Shijith is vehemently against the online medium. He thinks one cannot convey spiritual concepts without the live energy of audiences. He is also wary about too casual an attitude from viewers. “We don’t compromise on the dance, but we don’t know how it is received. This is not something to see while cooking, jogging or driving a car.”
Shijith Nambiar and Parvathy
The sheer push of economics may overcome these reservations. Bharatanatyam has adapted over the centuries and survived — from temple to courts to proscenium. And this may be just another step in its evolutionary journey.
The Chennai-based author
writes on classical dance.
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