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."

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