Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wharton's South Asia Economic Conference

I bet you are all wondering, "What's a South Asia Economic Conference post doing on this blog?"

Frankly I'm proud that someone out there in business is acknowledging the arts as a vital part of the economy.  Well, yes, the Obamas do it but many other intelligent people - including John McCain (and his whack idea of balancing the budget by eliminating arts funding) - do not.  Setting aside the spiritual connection many have with the arts, and the thus absurd parallel that we fund religion plenty, but not art, we also happen to spend the least on art though we make the most money in the world.

It makes you wonder, what is the US's deal?

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, the arts are significantly undervalued within this society.  Maybe because much of it has split from ritual and importance within our lives.  But come on, USA! Let's be real.  If there were no Broadway plays, museums, dance programs, symphonies, etc, etc in New York one would come.  Restaurants make money from being around cultural activities.  There are only so many bar crawls you can go to.  And getting drunk pre or post an event is also only a side highlight of GOING TO A SHOW.  Benefits, galas, auctions...99% of these involve art in some way as part of their event.  And, here's some food for thought:

Why is ambiance so important to a restaurant's success? And how food looks on your plate? That's right, folks: art plays an important role even at the places you eat!

So put a fork in it, those of you who would complain about government support for the arts.  We only need to do that because you are so stingy with your dollars of charity.

Clearly I've digressed from a post about the performance panel at the Wharton conference this year.  But the next one...or one sometime soon - will deal with the panel itself.

Getting sidetracked is all part of the academic process!

Monday, April 26, 2010

The importance of context

In translation of language, context is of the utmost importance.  Actually, in most things context cannot be ignored - we see it everyday in the media how a simple phrase taken out of context within a speech can vilify an innocent person.

However, in history and language, entire phrases of importance - ones which mean the world to certain people (for instance, important phrases in the Bible or Bhagavad Gita) have and continue to be misinterpreted due to a lack of contextualization.

Oftentimes, we just accept the misinterpretation even though it may seem nonsensical or not particularly clever instead of perhaps questioning and probing past the surface.  To this end, I provide you with an example.  The following phrase was said by Jesus, and is quoted from Wikipedia:

"The eye of a needle" is part of a phrase said by Jesus by the synoptic gospels:
...I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
The saying was a response to a young rich man who had asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments, to which the man stated he had done. Jesus responded, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." The young man became sad and was unwilling to do this. Jesus then spoke this response, leaving his disciples astonished.

Now, for a long time this was how this phrase was translated.  Then, someone named Lachman (I think! Don't quote me on the spelling!) came along and said "no no no, this can't be right.  It makes no sense that Jesus would say something like this" and hypothesized that the word camel is extremely close visually and phonetically to the word rope, making the new translation it is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God".  

All because of scribal error!  But this still doesn't quite make a lot of sense...

So finally due to some other people and new research someone realized that around Jesus' time there was a gate or narrow pathway which had a name called "eye of a needle" through which leading a camel through would have been difficult and the correlation makes much more sense.  It's much more subtle and meaningful than the original interpretation, and wasn't a simple scribal error that passed down through was a matter of context and giving Jesus and ourselves more credit.

So simply knowing that Jesus existed during this time and place makes a tremendous difference in the actual interpretation of the phrase.  Alas, context has taken us new and profound well as knowing the name of this gate/pathway...and of course not taking everything an academic says as immediately correct! Especially when it doesn't make much sense!

Just to be clear, this lesson was imparted to me earlier today by Prof. Som Dev Vasudeva. Thanks professor!  And, for a dose of humor: one of my favorite comedy books:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Uttara Coorlawala's "It matters for whom you dance"

The first NYC dance community meeting in 2010 brought a lot of interesting questions, stories, and thoughts.  One in particular stood out in my head: Professor Coorlawala's answer to Sridhar Shanmugan upon being asked this question:

Sridharji asked Professor, "Uttara, there was this one moment in this dance you did where you'd throw three flowers and they'd land in a straight line. No matter where you performed it, for what audience, or what knowledge base, in that moment the audience would be brought to tears.  How did you do that, or what was it that brought that about?" (I admit, this quote is not exact, but carries the gist of what he asked):

And Uttara looked steadily around at each one of us, smiling and said, "Do you want to know what my secret is?" The intensity of her question brought a round of enthusiastic encouragement. Quietly, slowly, deliberately, and with her calm manner she continued gazing at all of us and said, "It was because every time, in that moment, I would be dancing for my guru.  It was always for him."

The clarity with which she spoke, the raw passion within her voice - the room was silenced and everyone stared at her, a few with tears dotted within their eyes.  I could only imagine what power the performance itself actually had if verbally she could capture us so.

I assume that this was what spawned her to write “It Matters For Whom You Dance: Reception in Rasa Theory” on the aspect of audience participation in Abhinavagupta's rasa theory.  I've included an excerpt below that I find outlines or abstracts the article, and this idea, particularly well: (The republication of this article is in Dance Matters, Performing India Edited by Pallabi Chakravorty and Nilanjana Gupta, Routledge 2010 pp117-139.)

"...Performing the same solo concert in major Indian cities and for not-so-metropolitan audiences taught me that performance is an ongoing dialogue between performer and audience.

Audience members indicated their preferences by the way that they attended to the event, drawing closer, becoming restive, still, or discussing the dance even as it was occurring. Some audiences gave love and support, others drained energy into a consuming black hole. Some bore witness to an inner journey adding their intensity and experience into the mix of my body memories. Others withdrew in resistance.

Finally, in the early eighties, I had the great joy of performing on three separate occasions for the rasikā (ideal spectator) of my innermost desires,  my spiritual guru Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa or “Baba.” As I continued to travel and perform internationally, I realized that my ideal spectator had transformed my awareness of performance; that each performance subtly and profoundly clarified and intensified my awareness of audiences and of dancing. In seeking to understand more on this mysterious and wonderful dialogue between performer-audience, I found it exemplified in live performances, in stories about performers and most profoundly in the theoretical expositions of bhāva and in the ways that dances can be deliberately structured so as to ensure that viewers remain active and alert...

The Ideal Spectator or Rasikā:
In Indian dance, the performer-audience relationship has historically been considered crucial in determining the quality of performances. If a performance is to be deemed successful, there must be rasa. But it is not the performer's responsibility to evoke rasa. The performer's role is to represent the prescribed emotional moods or bhāva with sustained clear focus. Sattva, or the luminous communicative energy (presence serves as a partial synonym) that results from the performer’s bodily activities and mental focus becomes flavoured, as it were, with the 3 appropriate emotions - bhāva. The sympathetic (sa-hridaya) but critically discerning viewer (rasikā) apprehends this emotion not as a cathartic experience, but as rasa (NātyaŚastra, Chapter 27, verses 49-58 hereafter written as NS 27, 49-58). “Rasa” literally translates as that which is tasted, relished. Rasa is a reflective experience of tasting, rather than of devouring or being devoured by emotions. Rasa involves seeing with an inner eye, hearing resonances, and touching inner spaces. Until the poem is read, it has no existence. Unless the spatial aesthetic and symbolic characteristics of a sculpture are apprehended, it is no more than inert stone. An image of a deity in the temple, a moorti, remains just another icon, until the worshipper is transformed in its presence. Without at least one viewer to taste, (even when that viewer is The Unseen Witness) there cannot be a performance.

This leisurely inner savoring of a performance or a work of art is not only a mental practice assiduously cultivated by those educated in traditional Indian arts and literary forms. The intensity of this experience of rasa is the measure by which success is evaluated. Rasa may involve a spontaneous experience of insight (pratyaksha). Very often, a performer in Indian dance will attribute a spontaneous flash of creative improvisation to the presence of rasikā(s). Accomplished and master performers build audience dialogue into their presentations:

After performing a few items Birju Maharaj said he was very uncomfortable and requested that the overhead nontheatrical lighting be turned on, so that he could see the faces of the audience. He spoke in English (which he rarely speaks) for his invited guests who were unfamiliar with Kathak. Once the lights were turned on, he appeared to be more at ease, structuring his presentation according to the responses of the audience and playing off their moods. At the end of the performance, when he was being showered with applause he said in wonder, that it was the heart of the audience that had inspired him, that he had found himself performing with insights and subtleties that surprised him; he did not know from where they came, but that it had to do with ‘the heart of the audience.’ He said that the rasa of this performance would surely remain with him for a week. And the reverse unfortunately holds true too. At one of Balasaraswati's appearances at the Jacob's Pillow theatre, she is said to have cut short her performance. When asked about this she is said to have felt that the audience had been insensitive to her art. However, she declared that she would not be averse to performing for the students and faculty on that same evening after the paying public went home. Apparently she did just that and held them enthralled. So goes this story told by Ted Shawn in one of his ‘curtain speeches’ to educate American dancegoers to performer-audience conventions of other cultures."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sports as Performative Art

Yes, I said it. Do I think it's true? Maybe. Do I think it is a point worth pondering? Definitely.

The literature I've come across has mentioned the idea a few times (mostly referred to by Richard Schechner) but I have yet to see a meaty analysis of the subject so wanted to try something preliminary myself.

Either way he makes a good point - sports can be argued to be a type of performative art. It captures one of the essential ingredients to art: that of a transformation of self and the accompanied visceral, inexplicable reaction to what one sees on the "stage" (field). It follows a set of codified improvisational rules that must be strictly followed and trained extensively within to execute to the best of their ability. If I had to put a name on it, I'd even say it was contact improvisation. The crowd affects the play of the game: if the crowd is disinterested, so too become the players; just as a captivated audience can cause a different kind of energy and take a performance to another level.

Of the same token, the more interested and more of themselves the players give to the game, so too does the audience. A symbiotic relationship of sorts.

However it is also not art: competition within art diminishes the performance. I mean to say a ballet competition will never really be viewed as art, perhaps because the mentality of the viewer is not focused on experiencing the work but rather picking out the technicalities within it. The experience is also extremely temporary when you watch sports - you may feel euphoric highs, but it's often gone by the next game. I'm not sure about the rest of you, but I've never had an art piece affect me deeply and then forgotten about it. It sticks with you.

As a disclaimer, I also don't know if my assumptions as to their temporary nature are completely true for sports, as I've never experienced it. Furthermore, not every work of art is going to make an imprint, just like not every game can do that as well.

What it does lack is the catharsis effect that's referred to by almost anyone who's written about aesthetics. When you go watch a play or a movie you may empathize with the characters, even cry with them - but afterwards you are refreshed, purged, and transformed. When a team loses, that same euphoric high the winning team has is matched by true sadness from the losing team and spectators. That frustration and loss sits with some people for days. This is probably my main issue with calling sports performative ART. It is performative something...but art...perhaps not.

I'm sure there are more reasons for and against but I'd really love to see someone attack it from an aesthetic point of view - psychologists have had their turn with the game and have spewed endless amounts on the mob mentality of it all...but I haven't seen much about the performers themselves. Billions of people daily hold their breath as 1-20 players of every kind of sport imaginable perform for them, their every move enticing and moving emotions, affecting their moods and their days to come. There is just way more to it than the crowd alone!