Sunday, December 13, 2009

The visual pleasures in music

Whenever I listen to music, I also watch it. I take particular pleasure in watching hands fly over mridangams, or fingers run through the frets of an instrument at amazing speeds.

Here is a great video of U. Shrinivas, a fantastic mandolin player, that exemplifies what I'm saying.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A practical theory on why dance/theater became so stylized

Because of large audiences! It allows meanings to be clear (assuming you know what the meanings of certain gestures are to begin with) and, for those packed theaters, allows those that are in the back to know exactly what's going on even if they can't see the expression on someone's face or make out what they are saying exactly! (Think: Shakespearean theater).

Of course, this is before mics and the invention of the proscenium theater and film and small intimate spaces. Is stylization so necessary now? Does it take away or add to a performance?

Rasa theory would certainly state that it's necessary, for more than the practical reasons. Rasa theory demands that one not delve too fully into a character or emote naturally because then you break down that fourth wall - the one where the audience and performers know that it is a play that is going on, an important aid in achieving a "spiritual high" when experiencing art.

However, currently, it is realistic acting that everyone is trying to achieve. Noh theater, bharatanatyam dancers, Shakespeare, Bollywood, etc: things that have been stylized for years and years are now making its way into the world of "realistic" acting. I wonder though that this is little more than the West's hegemony over the East. When stylization is scoffed upon and misunderstood by Western audiences as poor acting or performing, (I myself am guilty of this!) and Easterners are concerned with "being as good as the West", there seems little other reason for it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sarvam Sarvatmakam, Part 2

I propose that art and science are two sides of the same coin. Both provide hope, inspiration, and need each other to survive. There is the obvious: science behind the oil points that allow it to last longer and the simpler science in the very dyes and clays used to create the first works of art. There is art in the layout of a computer's motherboard, and the word used to describe a breakthrough algorithm or proof is "elegant". One would not work without the other, in the same way that our lives would not work if one disappeared. Can you imagine a life without art? The trees bleak and gray (would color even exist?) and our homes replaced by boxes (but then would we be able to conceptualize a square?). We would despair and die.

Both science and art stem from our ability as humans to reason. When an engineer puts together something revolutionary, he has to think about how all the components - the computer program, the voltages running through the wires, the hardware, it must all come together harmoniously to serve a greater purpose. You have many who come together for the creation of something like this: programmers, electricians, and so on. A great choreographer must do the same. He or she must utilize dancers, musicians, and create something where the sum must prove far greater than its parts.

Both must push the boundaries of ordinary thought to create anything worth watching or using and the final result is something that eases* us through our lives.

*The function of art will be discussed at a later point, such as Aristotle's viewpoint that catharsis is the result of watching a tragedy, or Abhinavagupta's theories on rasa theory bringing us closer to the truth.

MY EVIDENCE!! And watching the codification/creation of "high art" happen...

YOU TUBE COMMENTS THAT PROVE MY POINT!!!! (with the last post)

robismellow (33 minutes ago) Show Hide
I think what is amazing about this is that they have elevated "street dance" to a deeper level. As far as the music issue being discussed - choreography doesn't have to match the rhythm of a piece per se, though I would argue this does. Just my two cents about my favorite new video.

analogWeapon (1 hour ago) Show Hide
being a musician myself, i like to think that i have a decent sense of rhythm. i think this is a case of something just not being my style. like i said: not saying the dancing isn't skillful; it just doesn't express the feeling of the music at all to me.

lingh89 (2 days ago) Show Hide
what refreshing music! This steps up the dance to a higher level.


These interesting comments on youtube also point to a second opinion I have - the codification of art into a "classical" style or a "high" art. I think it's happening right now with hip hop. As the dance gets more and more widespread and hits the stages rather than the streets it has obviously become more and more creative. It's hit the point now with themes and messages and various complexities within the music and dance that I like to think of as "the beginning of the end". It's a complete cycle:

1. Formation of the art
2. Art form is derided and thought of as "low"
3. Art form spreads like wild fire anyway
4. Art form grows and grows until people decide that it's more than just movement, it has meaning and implication and is experiential the way "high art" is.
5. Art form gets codified.
6. Art form becomes considered "high art".

I can identify the stages for every dance style I know. Some go through phases quickly (Martha Graham's modern dance, for instance, sped right through "low" art, maybe spent only a few years there), others remain stuck there for some time (Bollywood is currently in stage 3).

The Modern Aesthetic Permeates Everything...

The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers:

What fascinates me about this video is that they have chosen classical music and given it a modern aesthetic through their use of space and division of choreography.

By "modern aesthetic" I mean they've executed a number of ideas that were originated - and are used endlessly - by contemporary/modern/postmodern dancers.

1) The music is loosely followed, meaning, the rhythm doesn't dictate the entire choreography.
2) The random interspersing of break off points for dancers from the rest of the group, is another common trait, occurring at 1:52.
3) They used heavily another common choreography bit where several distinct movements are going on at once, with random start and end points so the stage is full of a variety of motion.
4) The random walking or "street walking", as I like to dub it, occurs at 2:04, something I've seen in just about every dance show I've been to at some point or another, most notably as far back as Jerome Robbins in his "Glass" or "Water" piece. (I wish I could remember. Maybe the composer was Philip Glass? I'll repost this later when I've figured it out).

This is not to say it's not an amazing or creative video, (I've watched it 10 times already in the past half hour) but a probe into why this happened like this - I've noticed it in classical Indian dance choreography as well. For instance, Anuradha Nehru's group choreography also exhibits these structures. Yet, Bollywood doesn't do this, nor does Korean dance, or "traditional" ballet, really, so it's not simply that the modern aesthetic is popular or that its a trendy thing to do right now.

I think it's a few things. (We are entering the realm of speculation here) - one being that break dancing, pop and lock, bharatanatyam, etc, started out as solo dance forms. It's only recently within the past 10 years or so that they've really had companies intent on group choreography rather than the solo stuff. The modern aesthetic also started out as solo choreography (Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, etc, were solo artists first and foremost as far as I know) so it's only natural that groups developed such an interesting randomized aesthetic. The randomization allows for solo styles to shine through. I also think it has to do with timing - right now, this is the structure of group choreography when watching modern dance - so for hip hop and Indian dance, two styles who are struggling to show they are more than just folk or regional art (as in the case of Indian dance) or are more than entertainment and spectacle (hip hop) using the modern aesthetic is a way of legitimizing themselves and showing they are on the same plane. The ballet music they used, costuming, and theme shown by LXD -- proves this idea even further.

I'd love to see someone research this further. Oh, also, and how Asians became so involved in the break dancing culture.

End speculation.


After mentioning this to one of my professors, Uttara Coorlawala, she further corroborated my observations:

"Yes, it seems to work in a very postmodern way, using the break dance movement.. i.e. the way the moves go thru the music, the inverted bodies close to the floor, the asymmetry of body shapes, the asymmetrical sequencing of movements - yes all these are very postmodern, and modern. In terms of spatial group formations framed by the spectacular lights and flat viewing...

Anuradha's use of diagonals were a lot closer to modern dance, perhaps because of the stage lighting? and rectangualr proscenium space involved??"

Monday, December 7, 2009

Restorative thought...

I wonder where art falls into this? Is art man-made or a natural wonder of the world? It's easy to say man-made at first, but I don't know...the experiential aspect of art, the one that rasa theory claims brings one closer to truth, makes the answer more complex than one would think. Maybe it's like light: both a particle and a wave.

"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"

We discussed this line before class began today, spawned by our discussion of the Bhagavad Gita, and just had to share. This guy says it way better than I do so I won't even give you a preview, just letting you know that this is the quote Robert Oppenheimer said when the atomic bomb went off.

The Bhagavad Gita

A recent foray for a particular quote from the Bhagavad Gita had me stumbling across quotes iterated by famous people stating how much they loved and praised the book. The Indians, of course, did not surprise me, but the number of Western scientists and theologists quoting the Gita certainly did. Names such as Albert Einstein, Henry David Thoreau, and Robert Oppenheimer littered the page.

At first I couldn't understand it. Every time I had performed the Mahabharata or seen it being performed or even heard the story being told the 739 page story in the following few lines:

Arjuna, preparing for a great battle, looks out onto the battlefield and decides he will not - cannot fight. The sight of his brothers, cousins, family, and friends - the idea that he will have to kill those he loves - becomes unbearable to him. He turns to Krishna, who unflinchingly says that he must do his duty, who then reveals himself as God to Arjuna. Arjuna, overwhelmed and filled with bhakti (a devotional love for God), becomes enlightened in a sense and realizes he must do as Krishna says.

Of course one would regard it with some skepticism after dancing this same tiny bit over and over during different bharatanatyam dramas depicting the Mahabharata! How can you just accept it as "duty" - but the Bhagavad Gita is certainly more than just that. It is a fantastic writing on (and perhaps spawns, though I don't know the history of this subject for sure) non-dualism.

Which leads me to wonder, why is so little time spent in a Mahabharata dance drama on the complexities of the Bhagavad Gita? If dance is (as is described in the Natyashastra) a way for people to understand difficult philosophy, this would be where I would expect most choreographers to spend the bulk of their time - on unraveling and taking the abstract and giving an audience a hook by representing it through the particular. (For that is a great way of thinking that this is what art is, especially bharatanatyam, isn't it? A general idea represented through a particular story or moment.)

I myself just bought the Winthrop translation and am not excited to delve into this book much further. Once I've read it, I'll give you guys the blow-by-blow. Or maybe just the lines that spoke to me :).

Here are some quotes and phrases that spawned me to write this post:

Albert Einstein: When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.

Henry David Thoreau: In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.

Robert Oppenheimer: We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-Gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

the development of hand gestures

According to my professor, at some point in addition to tonality being an important part of the recitation of sanskrit (and thus, the creation of the first 8 or so ragas), they would add specific hand gestures that had to be done during recitations. I wonder if these were precursors to mudras.

More once I've done more research on this...

Universality of Emotions

I wonder a lot if this is true, and if so, it's affects on abhinaya and what it means for a dancer trying to express stories through facial expressions to a global crowd.

But there are a lot of culturally learned ways of displaying emotions as well. Note the recent investigations of an anthropologist who realized that eastern and western emoticons might be different for a reason as well...

And then how does rasa theory play into all of this? Oxytocin seems to play a role in how well we interpret emotions on a very general sixth sense level, and training also allows us to understand micro-expressions extremely well (like Paul Ekman's research).

I wonder if a study can be created to isolate and understand these components in how we understand art?

This is certainly an incomplete post. More to be pondered later.

Other resources:
Paul Ekman
Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Dance and Rehabilitation

An NY Times article on dance and cerebral palsy.

Recent research has many scientists wondering how dance can help muscle de-generative diseases such as Parkinson's and cerebral palsy. It turns out that dance can be more than a beautiful vision or aesthetic experience - it can heal, and not just emotionally.

It makes me wonder what specifically about dance helps them - is it the mind body awareness? Because then yoga would be just as effective. Is it just modern dance or Indian dance as well? Because then it is specifically movement related. I actually think it's got something to do with the awareness you cultivate within your limbs and then how that awareness becomes part of you - something you just stop thinking about. Kind of like learning a language, but with your body. I wouldn't be surprised if it's modern dance limited, because training or work through modern dance is all about oppositional forces and being extremely aware of how each muscle is situated. A normal modern dance class will include phrases such as "go up to come down" or "keep your upper arm muscle rotated in while keeping the palm facing right". But I'm not positive on this point, and would love to find out how specific it is, because I heard a friend of a friend doing similar research but with salsa dancing!

I suppose also there's the motivational energy that music brings to consider, but I think this is of little effect: both pieces are teaching modern/postmodern/contemporary dance. Music for such pieces is usually quite esoteric.