The patronage of practice
I have come to a place in my practice of dancing where I understand the necessity of quietude. The body must become quiet to dance. Contradictory as that may seem, stillness is what allows dance to come forward in the body, what restrains preconceived images or narratives from taking over the dancing, what removes all that is unnecessary.
The presence created from quietness is not neutral. It is closer to a veiled nude. Nothing is explicit. The body remains present and available, internally and externally. The tension emerges from the dynamic balance of contemplation and activity, thought and movement. Here dance becomes nuance and specificity, a union of actions and thoughts. It moves from the decorative image to the articulation of knowledge, towards a point of view.
I am indebted to philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who in ‘The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering’ for articulating ideas that simmered just beyond the reach of words until I read his book. I experienced the integration of attention, time and practice, the continual balancing of the vita contemplativa and the vita activa, before recognizing it in his descriptions. The former allows for a lingering of attention that gathers the senses, through circuitousness and indirect methods. The latter encompasses the processes of the moving body with the accompanying elements of time and space. Dancing requires both, collapsing theory and practice. My practice is of the body and has required long spaces of contemplation, lingering, circling back, repeating, redoing, reconsidering. The spaces of contemplation allow for a gradual articulation of dance and dancing, of theory which evolves from within the space of a practice to reach outward to encompass context.
The most fertile discoveries derive from sustained time within this process, time that exerts a gravitational pull, with substance and structure that allows movements, thoughts, and realizations to remain in relation to each other, not simply dissolving into separate disparate points. This gravitation gives weight, context, and reference, creating something that lasts, and in this lasting, something that can be examined.
But what do time and quietness have to do with patronage? Patronage has been examined and written about as an essential part of the arts, as involving courts, institutions, individuals, governments. It is known to create relationships that are culture-specific, so any discussion of the way patronage influences aesthetics and even aesthetic theories is mired in complexity. I would like to use my own experience to point in another direction: Patronage gives the artist time.
Over my two decades as a professional dance artist, I have come to understand that patronage is not limited to financial support. That is necessary, without question. Sustainable support offers time and space for a dancer to evolve, to practice and for ways of dancing to develop. Within this space, though, When someone invests energy in you through attending to your development, that too involves something more than exchange, as patronage does. Where attention is focused, tension is created, and this becomes a current of transmission. We are being patronized by our teachers, mentors, collaborators, and the choreographers we work with as we learn. It’s almost as if this attention accumulates in the body, over the long hours of practice. Attention is both the current and the currency of practice, which gives the dancer the energy to invest in their own practice, transmitting that energy forward through self-study and inquiry into forging the precision of movement required to dance. As Jane Hershfield, in her book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, says that as poets do, dancers also practice in order to deepen attention. Attention deepens what it regards.
I first came to India in the early 2000s. I had the incredible privilege to live and learn with Padmasri Guru Kedar Nath Sahoo, in Seraikella, studying Seraikella Chhau. This was a sweet point in my dance life, where my only responsibility was to learn, unentangled from the complex responsibilities that come in later adulthood.
Seriakella was still a small village, bordered by tribal lands, with minimal electricity and running water. Guruji was already quite senior, having had a full career of dancing, touring, and heading the government institute for Chauu in Seraikella. He was kind, poetic, and patient. He had a gentle quietness to him, a sense of time to his being I had never experienced in another human. He was delighted by the small beauty of nature and of daily social interaction. He watched the world with open attention to detail. Perhaps that came from his practice; the vocabulary of Chhau is composed of movements rendered abstract from nature and daily life. It predicates a kind of observation between the dancer and the larger world that smoothly oscillates between the concrete and the abstract. The swaying hips of female characters draw from the slowly shifting weight of elephants walking. The delicate circularity of leg movements drawn from the daily work of women grinding rice, painting rangoli, sweeping floors, oiling the body.
Seraikella is bordered by the Karkai river. It is a winding, sensuous waterway, buttressed by rocky expanses and stretches of sand. It echoes much of what the Seraikella style of Chhau renders in a body: the balanced tension of hard and soft structures, alternating rhythmically; at times slow and sinewy, at others filled with quick directional changes and sharp punctuated accents. Friday’s were haat day, a tribal market where residents from the surrounding villages would bring goods for sale, shop, eat and spend time in Seraikella.
Early every Friday Guruji and I would have tea at the market. This was his morning routine, endlessly pouring over varieties of variegated saag in hues of green and red, choosing vibrant okra and carefully considering the river fish each day. We would watch the women coming to the haat, small figures approaching from across the river, vessels piled high on heads, arms laden with baskets and bangles, bodies draped in vibrant colours contrasting with the landscape’s sand and rocky hues.
Guruji asked me to observe their walking. He was a subtle pedagogue, leaving a lot of space around his teachings. Nothing was explicit. It was my responsibility to meet that space with my own curiosity, thinking, and dancing. This exercise was not one of imitation, it was one of observation, of learning to see, of cultivating the muscle of imagination that bridges the gap between concrete and abstract. I understood dancing not as an imitation of life but as an abstraction, something indirect. Something that pulls us further from our assumptions towards new curiosities. It was a lesson in imagination.
I watched every week, in the early morning hours just as the sun started to make its appearance. I watched without knowing what I was looking for. I observed spines, flexible and strong, lengthened, functionally working with the task of walking, and carrying. The figures moved across the landscape barefoot, negotiating unevenness, accepting the surfaces encountered with ease. The effort of the body for this task of moving through space, was met as needed, nothing more or less.
I knew this lesson was to be taken into dancing. Not to imitate, not to place movements on the body or assume mannerisms. It was not to make dances from the pedestrian, create a pastoral narrative or exotic fantasy. It was a lesson on what grounding and centredness mean for a body. It is popular to say this dance or that dance is a grounded form. However, every dance has a relationship to grounding and the nuance is revealed in how this manifests in the particular dance form. Grounding is a process and technique for the body. It is not a given. It is a verb not an adjective.
From 2006 onward my main physical practice has been kalaippayattu. I trained first under Vijayan
Gurukal and now continue under his son Vikas Gurukal at the CVN Easthill Kalari in Kozhikode. Vikas Gurukal’s pedagogy is
gentle but firm, minimal and dense. He offers knowledge generously
but asks the student to assume responsibility, with curiosity, to integrate, apply and practice the information being shared.
Kalarippayattu involves endless repetitions and variations, working systematically through the body to develop balance, strength, flexibility, agility, precision. Through practice, the body becomes radically aware of space, charting directions through cardinal and ordinal points, advances and retreats, strategic level changes, dynamic alterations of speed. One is opened to multiple circular conduits radiating as potential paths from the spine to movements of the limbs that extend through various weapons – sticks, daggers, spears – lengthening the body’s line in space.
The work with weapons teaches that space and the body meet with high stakes; not only through the attack and defence, but simply from the proximity of bodies holding sharp swords. Space becomes charged through a specificity of moving and concentration of attention that weapons practice demands.
The place of practice, the kalari building, is considered a temple with specific codes of behaviour, both structured and pedestrian. It is a space that contains time, contains daily repetition. The floor is pounded mud, uneven from the puncture of weapons on its surface and years of bodies traversing it. The smell of incense, earth, sweat, and medicated oil is pervasive, in a space resonating with the rhythmic sound of metal and wood striking and the melody of the vaithari, the verbal instructions for practice.
One of the very first vaithari directions a student of kalarippayattu hears is ammarnam. Bend and ground. Within the structure of kalarippayattu there are multiple positions when we hear the command ‘ammarnam’. They share rootedness, a gathering of energy through the feet and legs and an expansion of the spine, often on a horizontal or diagonal plane. These base positions are functional and structural, setting a context for the body to remain deeply alive, open and expansive. Grounding, then, is an ongoing technical process rather than an assumption arising out of the form.
Repetition for kalarippayattu is relentless. In Kerala it occurs twice a day, morning, and evening. The practitioner faces that demand by deepening attention. Without this, there is the danger that the movements become mechanical, and the energy of the body deflates. In the space between the attention of a teacher and the practice of a student one must bring one’s own curiosity and imagination.
It is liberating for a dancer to be in a practice that does not move towards stage performance as a final product. Whatever one may call its ‘aesthetics’, they are derived from the body’s anatomical and spatial capacity, prioritizing functionality and efficiency. The beauty of the form comes from its function rather than being placed onto the body to create an image. There is no need for artifice, fantasy, narrative. Instead, there is brutal clarity. This is understandable, since historically kalarippayattu trained warriors for battle, and its original context held real consequences.
In 2009 I was involved in a posthumous remount of sections of Chandralekha’s Sri. It was produced by the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company in Toronto and the work was reconstructed, with rehearsal direction by Geetha Sridhar, an original member of the Chandralekha Company.
It was an ambitious project and a rare opportunity. I was invited because of my kalarippayattu training. I accepted because I was interested to be part of a work that looked towards a definition of the contemporary based in a body not shaped by Eurocentric training or a theatrical approach.
Forever imprinted into my being is the lengthy spine walk section of the work. An ensemble of dancers cross stage left to stage right, crouched, bent forward with spines extending horizontally. The steps are slow and continuous for 24 avartanams forward and 12 backward. Here the body is also folded; deep bend at knees, ankles, hips, the spine forward on a horizontal axis that seems to reach simultaneously forward and back. There was a strength to this body, singular, and amplified as a group slowly carving through space. It was alive and continuous; the low folded position required open and receptive feet to allow the solidness and density of moving the body through space. The image this created is often read as a broken spine or as a force of oppression upon the female body. However, to dance this movement requires an incredible amount of strength and stability, focus and centring within one’s own body, with the group, and with the surrounding space. Physically it is the opposite of what the image offers as a first reading, creating a dense tension that was new to me. I understood then that the body is not picturesque, and even though dance is visual, there is the possibility for the body not to be restricted solely by image: something else is happening within it. Choreo-graphy as a structure and object of thought was being articulated through bodies.
In 2019 I began working with contemporary choreographer Padmini Chettur. We are midway through a commissioned work for five Toronto dance artists, choreographed by Padmini with composition by Maarten Visser. The work is called Chalking. Padmini describes it as follows:
‘What does it mean to align oneself in space and time? Chalking deconstructs a body’s rotational possibilities – turning, spinning – into a vocabulary of tension and resistance, inscribing absence at the very heart of the body’s presence with others. The performance segments and arcs movement – drawing, erasing, and recharting encounters. The composi-tional structure is non-narrative, a material grid that stages the politics of dance, of what it means to align oneself in absence, in the presence of others.’
It has been a masterclass in dancing and dance making, in practice and imagination. In an early creation period in Chennai (2019) I was trying to work out a sequence; to increase the distance between the legs through rotation of the joints and to chart circular paths or lines around the body’s axis through the torso and upper limbs. As I worked, Padmini offered, ‘be careful not to dance an aesthetic’. She asks the dancer to be responsible for meeting the choreography. I was trying to replicate what I thought I saw her body doing, I was imitating without investigation from my own body. I was producing something at the surface level, something from outside myself. This was removing me from the choreographic proposal at hand. At another point, as an ensemble, we were trying to figure out a basic but endlessly difficult challenge; that of dancing together through a number of repeating phrases and their variations. We were not succeeding; the work is dense and minimal, exacting, and precise, and at this point we were nowhere near meeting it. Padmini said to the group: ‘I don’t want to see you (solo bodies) dancing, I want to see space moving.’
The process has been long, across continents and spaces of digital and live. We are a diverse group, in age, training and experience. The question of how we dance together becomes especially heightened when we come from such divergent backgrounds. In this context it is the choreography we all hold in common. In earlier reflections about the work (2019) Padmini writes: ‘Five performers build and unbuild an idea of circularity. A specific language that is at once unfamiliar, yet somehow inclusive of the multiple aesthetics that the dancers represent is articulated. A language that in one way has the precision of an ancient form but one that is rooted in functionality rather than the decorative/narrative.’ There is something deeply humane in our attempts to meet the work from our different places and references. There is a tenderness in our shared concentration of dancing together in this particular practice where it is the choreographic vocabulary that binds us as a group over specific forms or training.
Padmini’s pedagogy of the body forms the practice one must engage with to dance her work. In this way the physical vocabulary of the piece becomes a place of deepening practice. As a result, a rigorous choreographic vocabulary is forged, not borrowed, or collaged, but discovered and nurtured with the body and thinking. This does not appear in a way where the dancers seem to be performing a practice. Something else is happening as bodies seek alignment, circularity, grounding, precision, expansion and togetherness within the structure and form of the piece. This is only achievable over a duration of concentrated time and attention.
The commissioning of this work came at a unique time in my dancing career. 2016 to 2019 were years of intense personal loss in my life, a brutal lesson that inconceivable and unimaginable events can occur without warning or premonition. Moving through processes of grieving are not just mental and emotional but energetic and physical. They are processes that require time and lingering. The body is the site of all consequences, including the final one, death. I understood the vital necessity of staying with my body, grateful for the rigorous practice I had developed throughout my life. Over these years my physical practice saved me in many ways. Throughout something shifted deeply, like a clear line cutting across my experience of dancing and working with the body.
Padmini’s work is demanding on every level. There is not a moment where one’s attention can waver, the dancer’s or the audience’s. There is no place to hide, there is nothing you can pull from prior knowledge, prior training. It is the most naked I have ever felt on stage. Everything is visible and bare. This piece is not working from a cathartic model, for either the dancer or the audience, but through the choreographic clarity there is room for unexpected emotionality to arise. It is an extreme ask, at times just on the threshold of unbearable, but it is at this brink where something fascinating is happening. At this precipice there is a growth edge of knowledge which takes time, attention, practice and is worth the durational effort. It requires an incredible quietness in the body to allow dance to come forth.
The French philosopher Alain Badiou in conversation with Nicolas Truong says:
‘It is a unique love that requires you to give up your own body in prey to language, in prey to ideas. As you know, every philosopher is an actor, however hostile he feels towards games and simulation…. In philosophy there is always an element of baring oneself: the oral dimension of philosophy captured by the body, in an act of transfer.’
This action of transfer exists within the transmission of practices; ones that are shared with us from teachers, collaborators, choreographers as well as the duration and rigor of our own inquiries, inside and outside of studios. Dancing is a language, a vocabulary, and a mode of thinking. These transfers are not fast, they are often endlessly hard wrought, allowing us access to something unknown through duration and repetition. We need others in our dancing. We need practices outside of ourselves to help access parts of ourselves we cannot reach alone. Dance is not just the shaping of a body, the learning of a form or a specific choreography. Rather, it moves us into understanding that imagination is both a noun and a verb, that practice is a noun and most importantly, a verb.
I’ve traced my career through this trajectory as a reminder: chhau was invented and survived through royal patronage; my being in Seraikela was through the support of both Indian and Canadian governments; Chandralekha’s work entered into my body because the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company was able to access grants from all levels of the Canadian government, and this project with Padmini is similarly supported by government agencies that may or may not be that interested in the impact a piece like this has on the cultural ecosystem. How can I best advocate for patronage for something that is at the stage of becoming, that has no immediate references or descriptors, that doesn’t fit easily within the genres with which we’re familiar, that if it’s good will take hold in a few decades from now, but may never take hold at all? How can I articulate the need to support work that is experimental, that not many want to see or take the time and trouble to understand? Who creates the space and time for visionaries who are working on the growth edge of knowledge in their practices, whether an artist is experimenting in a traditional context or innovating in a contemporary lineage?
If art offers an infrastructure for public, collective imagination what happens with art that makes such demands, as Padmini’s work does, on dancers, yes, but also on audiences? Experimental work does not necessarily appeal to the popular imagination through known categories like ‘Indian classical dance’ so audiences may not buy tickets; it may not come with built-in status, and prestige that words like ‘classical’ convey, so may not attract corporate sponsors.
What I have tried to show is that these innovations, occurring in the undercurrents of cultural ecologies, are what move traditions forward. Mainstream awareness shifts over time and the iconoclastic practices of one generation are adapted as standard practice in the next. Enter a theatre and see the exposed lighting instruments, now a common place, which Bertolt Brecht used as a way to break the ‘fourth wall’ and reveal the artifice of the theater and its materials. Note the ubiquitous use of kalari-ppayattu and yoga as choreographic vocabularies in random dance productions, which Chandralekha used in the eighties to sensational effect. The once revolu-tionary becomes standard practice, the radical experimentation of one generation becoming, about two generations later, the convention. Over time these evolve into gharanas, banis, traditions, lineages. It is a necessary and healthy cycle; experimentation beginning underground and moving upwards into popular consciousness, creating space for further experimentation to develop.
Dance, being ephemeral, doesn’t have the possibility of being discovered in a hundred years, like a forgotten book, or a buried sculpture. It is only alive in bodies and bodies need sustenance. This requires a unique kind of patronage through spaces of supported time, time for training and rehearsing but most vitally, simply an abundance of time. Without patronage and support at this level, it becomes impossible to have advancement in dance. Innovation is hard. One finds something new not because one is searching for it but simply because one is searching. Performance is ephemeral, but patronage is commitment to the process, where learning, practice, and experimentation become tangible and transmittable through bodies over time.
*The ideas contained in this essay are a processing of multiple conversations with friends, colleagues and collaborators over many years: With gratitude to evolving knowledge I thank Gitanjali Kolanad, Phillip Zarilli, Harikishan S. Nair, Travis Knights, Soraya Peerbaye, Padmini Chettur, Aveek Sen, Maarten Visser, Geetha Sridhar, Coman Poon, and Sujit Vaidya.