SIX – OR MORE – DEGREES OF OTHERNESS

Paris. December 2012. DESH – Akram Khan’s award-winning solo – is in Paris. Among the outreach events programmed at Théâtre de la Ville is a documentary that covers the creative process of DESH across three countries. With quiet intimacy, the film records Akram’s essays and experiments in the studio, the furrows traversing his face as he explains his cousin’s interrogation of the term ‘third-world’. It captures, as beautifully, the Bangladeshi countryside, the raggedy clothes of the children following Akram’s scooter, the fatigue in the labourers’ eyes…

During R&D in Bangladesh, though, the DESH team had met and heard aid workers, orphans, shipbuilders, fishermen, craftspeople. Also, freedom fighters; world-famous musicians; a Caméra d’Or-winning film director; civil activists; a textile conservator who revived the industry of natural dyes in the country, one crushed by colonial rule.

None. Of. Them. Exist. Not in this film, anyway. Not even the ones whose stories were borrowed and reshaped for DESH. No, in this film, Bangladesh consists of a vast, overwhelming nature. Of millions of voiceless people who must endure. The feisty, enterprising, resolutely engaged citizenry that brought back democracy to the nation, time and again, does not exist in the filmmaker’s lenses.

Therein lies the rub. There are rave reviews, universal praise, and a spate of awards. But there is little regard for Akram’s greatest accomplishment, the key to DESHThat his body, his dancing self, has become the prism refracting tales of a multitude. That this is what Akram Khan does through the solo: he takes himself – and viewers – to many lands, remembered, inherited, imagined. He introduces viewers to a host of characters – almost none of whom he knew earlier, most of whom he now embodies – whose stories may be unknown but whose heartbeats and fears are familiar, close to our own.

DESH (Akram Khan Company): credit Richard Haughton

(AKRAM) TRIES TO ERASE THE BARRIER OF OTHERNESS, THE MOST COMMON AND EFFECTIVE OF DEFENCE MECHANISMS WE, AS HUMANS, USE FOR DISTANCE AND DETACHMENT. FROM REFUGEES. FROM RACISM. FROM POVERTY. FROM ECOLOGICAL DISASTER

He tries to erase the barrier of Otherness, the most common and effective of defence mechanisms we, as humans, use for distance and detachment. From refugees. From racism. From poverty. From ecological disaster. If it’s happening to an impossibly distant Other, it cannot affect us. Akram bridges that divide. He becomes, turn by turn, a son mourning the demise of a parent; a teenage, rebellious incarnation of the same son. He becomes a martyr he never knew existed, who reflects Bangladesh as it struggles between resistance and despair.

But this rare act of humility and generosity never gets its due amidst all the acclaim over ‘autobiography’. An immense feat of embodiment, the refracting of a people, is forgotten. Bangladesh, which Akram wanted to honour, vanishes again. The Other is revised, once again, to a comfortably single digit — all that the public narrative ever has space and need for, really.[i]

 

Of Labels and Other Demons

London, November 2016. We are at a discussion titled The Persistence of Exoticism at Sadler’s Wells: Sadler’s Wells’ Artistic Programmer Eva Martinez, visual artist and performance maker Choy Ka Fai, dramaturge Tang Fu Kuen, choreographer Arko Renz and I. It is an event programmed within Out of Asia 2 – Sadler’s Wells’ follow-up to its 2011 festival by the same name – and, tangentially, an extension of Choy Ka Fai’s SoftMachine project: “a response to the persistence of mystification and exoticism in representations of contemporary dance coming from Asia” [ii]. Mingling photography, live performance, video, and interviews of more than eighty dance practitioners from thirteen cities in just five countries, this cross-arts initiative provides a partial but precious account of the state of contemporary dance in Asia.

SoftMachine was directly prompted by the first edition of Out of Asia, mainly by a promotional video subtitled The Future of Contemporary Dance, which, Ka Fai explains, seemed particularly problematic as it featured not emerging artists but highly established names, at least half of whom are European by upbringing and location, and Asian by descent or collaboration.  Akram Khan’s remark that the Asian body is inherently spiritual is another trigger Ka Fai mentions.   How could Asia – which contains nearly fifty countries, every major world religion (including Communism), and a few hundred languages – be distilled into such a homogenised brew?

And indeed, SoftMachine’s multipronged response underscores the formidable diversity of movement idioms, resources, desires, convictions and potential futures pulsing across Asia. A documentary on Manipuri choreographer Surjit Nongmeikapam cheekily pastiches, frame by frame at times, the aforementioned film on Akram — to antipodal, demystifying, effect. There are glimpses of what it means to choose contemporary dance, in vastly different worlds. For some, it is a planet where rehearsals happen in fields or on the concrete floors of warehouses; a tale of constant struggle for studios, venues, equipment and gainful employment, of near-superhuman resolve to pursue a chosen vocation. For others, vying to carve a place amidst the mastodons of classical forms, the weight of a certain exoticized tradition falls first from within, before the West. And for yet others, poised on the cusp of national recognition through graduate courses or government funding, hitherto unimaginable in their sphere, the future lies close to home.

HOW COULD ASIA – WHICH CONTAINS NEARLY FIFTY COUNTRIES, EVERY MAJOR WORLD RELIGION, AND A FEW HUNDRED LANGUAGES – BE DISTILLED INTO SUCH A HOMOGENISED BREW?

Meanwhile, the conversation abounds with information, opinion andcontradiction — naturally, with these many distinct realities. The frustrations and acerbity expressed at distance and disconnect, for sure; but also the pride, the delight in budding networks and facilities, are palpable, shared, and reach across the chasms of oceans or cultures. Intriguingly, some of the choreographers and producers whose work tours abroad regularly are most vocal about Western programmers who visit a country for two days and pick pieces like merchandise from a market stall (sic).

As long-time enabler for choreographers who also tour the East, South and North, I remark that this, however, is not a phenomenon unique to one continent, it isn’t treatment reserved for Asian artists: it is the lot of the dance community with its ever-diminishing funding options, whether in Bangalore, Beijing or Berlin. Programmers from North America and Oceania, and Asia too, are compelled to follow the same template, all too often, when working far away from home turf: focus on the large festivals, or showcases to discover new work, whether in Europe or Africa; reduce the inter-continental canvassing to one or two destinations a year. But stakes vary considerably, and the bitterness is natural: companies in Europe can thrive on tours of their own continent, a luxury many of their counterparts in Asia do not have.

Inevitably, there are new regional hierarchies emerging, and multiple currents within the contemporary. Broadly speaking, there is, to begin with, clear interest in conceptual idioms unconstrained by local performative canons. These pieces – rather contrary to the central premise of our discussion – may travel a lot farther in many parts of the ‘West’ [iii] than in their own lands: at experimental platforms in several European countries, for one. It is a fist-thumping delight to see abstract work and pieces steeped in general concerns find support from far and wide, and truly heartening when choreographers are not expected to reflect some supposed ethnic style or national artistic identity, to be Indian, or Japanese or Korean ‘enough’.

NERVES (Surjit Nongmeikapam): credit: C. Ganesan

IT IS A FIST-THUMPING DELIGHT TO SEE ABSTRACT WORK AND PIECES STEEPED IN GENERAL CONCERNS FIND SUPPORT FROM FAR AND WIDE, AND TRULY HEARTENING WHEN CHOREOGRAPHERS ARE NOT EXPECTED TO REFLECT SOME SUPPOSED ETHNIC STYLE OR NATIONAL ARTISTIC IDENTITY, TO BE INDIAN, OR JAPANESE
OR ‘KOREAN ENOUGH’

But we also bump into an unexpected, troubling offshoot: a suspicion of “cultural anthropology”. That was how one programmer termed work like Surjit Nongmaikapam’s award-winning, raw, turbo-charged Nerves [iv] which seamlessly interweaves folk, classical, martial arts and contemporary vocabulary, but is staged in identifiably culture-specific garb (a brave, meaningful decision in the face of the Indian State’s repressive rule over the region in question). It was also, curiously, a reproof made about Sutra,Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s collaboration with Shaolin warrior monks, though from a slightly different angle: the piece’s kinetics were all martial arts, not Cherkaoui’s idiolect, came the caveat. So, is deculturalization a pre-requisite in certain quarters? And wouldn’t it be just as hegemonic to expect that contemporary dance, or any artistic expression, be shorn of its contextual moorings in order to belong to a larger ‘world’ order?

While on offshoots, it might – again, parsing the title of the talk – be disingenuous to consider the exoticism of an art form as a guarantor of its success or survival, even in its own territory. South Asia, at least, is strewn with the wraiths of intricate, age-old performance arts, sacred and secular, that have vanished or been endangered in the last fifty years. They are threatened not merely by the dissolution of earlier systems of patronage but primarily by the loss of audience as subsequent generations largely prefer cosmopolitan forms of art and entertainment and see little cachet in familiarising themselves with the codes and narratives of hoary street dance forms or ritual theatre like puliyattom and nangiarkoothu Usha Nangiar in Nangiarkoothu ‘KaliyamarddanamAs the word implies, that which is exotic is foreign, external to one’s environment, and the loss of intrinsic worth conferred by the community makes it swiftly expendable — something, sadly, that entire clans of traditional performers who’ve lost their livelihood could confirm.

(AGE-OLD PERFORMANCE ARTS) ARE THREATENED BY THE LOSS OF AUDIENCE AS SUBSEQUENT GENERATIONS LARGELY PREFER COSMOPOLITAN FORMS OF ART AND ENTERTAINMENT AND SEE LITTLE CACHET IN FAMILIARISING THEMSELVES WITH THE CODES AND NARRATIVES OF HOARY STREET DANCE FORMS OR RITUAL THEATRE.

Amidst all this, there is also the growing exploration, deconstruction and redeployment of classical or regional dances, with their coded, now pared, gestural languages and techniques woven into modern narratives, concepts and stage environments: in other words, a contemporary that dialogues with its predecessor forms but defines its own DNA, adhering neither to older prescriptions nor those of a modern ‘West’. These productions may be straddling more mainstream stages at home and abroad, initially in venues or contexts (a country or region-based event) that appealed to their own diaspora, but increasingly, as part of the programme of city theatres and ‘regular’ dance festivals.

INTER_RUPTED (Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company): credit: Nirvair Singh

The late Chandralekha’s Sharira [v], acclaimed by audiences from Bruges to Gwangju to Sydney for over fifteen years, is a trailblazer in many respects, not the least its distinctive personal stamp and the unabashed re-appropriation (and re-membering) of Indian movement art and aesthetics the choreographer had long declared her own. And, today, when Aditi Mangaldas’s Inter_rupted[vi] tours England outside the defining regalia of an Indian festival or network and Yang Liping’s Under Siege [vii]– her foray into the contemporary circuit – gets invited by venues all across the world, there is definite cause for celebration. For such programming decisions, in their own way, are significant steps in countering the narrow labels, cultural crutches and – just as damagingly – absolutist visions of contemporaneity that can hold a choreographer hostage.

WE ARE DIVIDED OVER THE WORD EXOTICISIM … PERHAPS IT IS TIME TO SUBSTITUTE IT WITH SOMETHING ELSE, SOMETHING MORE ENCOMPASSING, LESS COLONIAL, SOMETHING THAT SIGNIFIES ALTERITY

With all our individual ghosts, perhaps we on the panel are divided over the word exoticism, one already loaded with multiple meanings, ramifications and the weight of history. Perhaps it is time to substitute it with something else, something more encompassing, less colonial, something that signifies alterity, in all its variegated shades. Alterity, that mid-17th century word born from the late Latin alteritas: the state of being other or different. Alterity or otherness, which distances and, by distancing, objectifies the other, allowing us to withhold the complex responses normally proffered to a fellow human being. And it is a frighteningly short step from that double act of distancing/objectifying to reducing the other to a monolith, to fitting the person (or the art form) into a grid, and minimizing or distorting, even with the best of intentions.

DESH (Akram Khan Company) credit: Richard Haughton

Otherness, which may be the more rampant disease we are trying to name, is the elephant in the room again.

By Karthika Naïr

 


[i] Excerpts of an earlier version of this passage appeared in the Germanophone dance magazine TANZ in August 2016.

[ii] As defined in the introduction to the catalogue published on the occasion of the SoftMachine Project at Sadler’s Wells (October 3 – December 3, 2016).

[iii] A term almost as limiting as ‘Asia’, especially in the context of contemporary dance — given how dissimilar regional sensibilities can be.

[iv] A short, work-in-progress version of which was programmed by Dance Umbrella 2015 at the Barbican.

[v] Presented at the Purcell Room (Southbank Centre) in April 2010 as part of Alchemy.

[vi] Co-commissioned by Dance Umbrella 2016.

[vii] Co-produced by Sadler’s Wells for Out of Asia 2, 2016.