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When Dance Is More Than Craft, And So Much More Than Just A Career…

by Sarah Hart
April 25, 2010
Symphony Space
2537 Broadway
New York, NY 10025
(212) 864-1414
When dance is rooted in ritual, then it is also spiritual. And when dance is spiritual, it provides a path of individual self-understanding. And when self understanding compels self expression – then dance is a tool that can transform culture.

Such was dance at the Engendered Dance Festival 2010 where, in late April, dozens of performers shared their exploration of identity and of South Asian art and culture. Engendered is an annual festival designed to address issues of human rights pertinent to countries of South Asia and to the Diaspora community. The arts have long been a powerful tool of activism in South Asia, said festival founder and director, Myna Mukherjee, but one area of society still fraught with stereotypes, fear, and oppression is that of gender identity and sexuality. Dance is an especially powerful medium for motivating discussion, and ultimately change, in this area because within traditional dance – that is, dance that is an intrinsic part of South Asian religious culture – gender is often expressed fluidly and as something flexible. In some dance traditions dancers perform the roles of the opposite gender, or switch between them; in others gender is expressed as spiritual metaphor as much as a physical fact. As dance scholar Uttara Coorlawala explained, "In this tradition, gender is something you put on." Which is to say, the trappings of gender may be what define us in society at large, but they can be – and, the core message of the Engendered Dance Festival is that perhaps they should be – allowed to be as varied, and as individually unique, and sometimes even as changeable, as the costumes we wear, be they veils, saris, or leotards.

What this festival makes readily apparent is that dance can be a tool of self expression and empowerment regardless the angle from which it is approached.

Some performers at the festival used contemporary choreography to address directly the subject of gender identity in South Asia. For example, the artist Nighat Chaodhry, equally versed in European classical dance as in the Pakistani classical dance Kathak, performed a piece explicitly questioning both the enforcement of purdha (the concealment of women from men) in Muslim culture and the expectations of exposure in Euro-American culture.

A number of other dancers drew on traditional dance but their choreography was contemporary. The most powerful example of this was a piece by Seeta Patel and Kamala Daevam, London-based dancers trained in classical Indian dance. Their piece, "Alter Ego," is a modern creation – a hard-edged exploration of human vulnerability in the mechanical age – the soundtrack was sometimes painfully discordant, poisonous green light infused the stage, and spotlights stabbed at Daevam's writhing and Patel's spidery contortions. But infused throughout, distorted only by pace and context, were the elegant movements of Bharata Natyam dance – a turn of the wrist here, a shift of torso, a solid stance with feet flat and knees bent – expressed especially powerfully by lean, loose-limbed Patel. This combination of styles was a perfect medium to explore the piece's theme of self, image of self, and self consciousness.

Yet another approach showcased at the festival was traditional dance danced untraditionally. For example, the UBC Girlz, a vivacious troupe of young women with dance-competition energy, were adamant in their resolve to be accepted as Bhangra dancers – a status traditionally allowed only to men. The most touching example of this approach, however, was the performance of an artist who, sometimes, is an unassuming and even inconspicuous Pakistani man named Fayaaz. When adorned and bejeweled, however, and clad in flowing garments, he transforms into the glamorous and sensuous drag dancer, Bilji. What makes Bilji's performance so compelling is her evident passion for the dance. Through dance, she has found a way to express herself "as God made me," as she explains in a documentary made of her life. The sincerity of Bilji's dance leaves no doubt that the intersection of religion, art, and spirituality is a deeply personal experience.

And yet, the most powerful performance – the performance that most vividly revealed dance's potential to empower a body and flout social barriers – came in the form of a dance that is wholly traditional and very ancient. Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, originating in a school and community devoted to the profound study of classical Indian dance and associated spiritual practice, brought to the festival a series of Odissi dance pieces that explicitly expressed the divinity in sexuality and the spirituality in sensuality. In these pieces male and female are portrayed as intrinsically linked – energy characteristics which, togther, create a spiritual whole, or a whole being.

Women glowing like flames moved in perfect synchronicity through a series of elaborate, statuesque poses of exquisite grace. They danced as much with their coy glances and gentle smiles as the rest of their bodies; they adored one another passionately without ever touching; and even for one dumb to the symbolic significance of the gestures, the movements were utterly riveting.

Dance has been an intrinsic part of human culture for as long as we know. The Engendered Dance Festival allows us to see dance for what it is really all about: the representation of cultural value, the defining of community, and the expression of individuality within that culture and community. It is a yearly event, and it is not to be missed.
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