Saturday, May 31, 2014

My Article "Screendance in Indian Cinema" and Thoughts on Film Dance

Last week saw the end of the fourth Naada Bindu Festival—a three-day residential arts retreat at the Chinmaya Naada Bindu gurukul for Indian performing arts in Pune. The festival features a number of dance and music performances, lecture-demonstrations, and other activities. Ramaa Bharadvaj, whose "Reminiscences of a Disciple" personal article on Kamala I posted back in 2011, is the director for dance at the Chinmaya Naada Bindu and she "conceptualised, designed and edited" a journal for this year's festival titled Rasikatvam. I had the honor of being invited to write an article for the journal on the topic of classical dances in cinema culture, and I chose to write specifically about the advantages and distinct pleasures that screendance offers to audiences of Indian dance. My submitted article was edited somewhat and given a snazzy layout for the final printing. Images of the article are at the end of this post and it can be viewed in its entirety here.

I wrote the article as a beginner to the topic of screendance, and as I read some published literature on the subject it became clear that the growing field is rich in thought-provoking theory with ample room for further analysis and scholarship. The sources I found the most exciting and comprehensive and would recommend to anyone interested in this subject are first Harmony Bench's review essay in Dance Research Journal, and then the two books that Bench reviewed: Screendance: Inscribing the Ephemeral Image by Douglas Rosenberg (especially chapters 1-3; brief Google Books preview) and Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image by Erin Brannigan (previewable on Google Books).

Reading these sources has changed the way I view Indian dance as captured in cinema and by the camera, and a spark has been lit in my mind about the advantages and pleasures the format offers to Indian dance forms. I'm not sure that I really got to the heart of my excitement in my basic and dryly-written article, but it provides a basic overview of the advantages of Indian dance on film and some interesting food for thought.
I think what most excited me about reading through screendance scholarship was the mind-shift that dance as captured by the camera can be viewed as a unique art completely disassociated from the live performance. Forget the fact that a live person was dancing in front of a camera lens or that you seem to simply be watching an edited recording of that live body. In truth, that live performance has ceased to exist and you are watching something newly birthed by the choreographic tools of framing, editing, and filming. You are watching a body that has, by the use of film and digital technologies, been "fundamentally fixed, no longer subject to the vagaries of the body, space, or time" which sits "in archival limbo until the point at which it is recorporealized for public performance" when you watch that YouTube video or press play on that DVD. Recorporealized—"the literal reconstruction of the dancing body via screen-techniques," an "edited body [that] becomes the authentic body as it outlives its subject" (Rosenberg).

I realized that my normal way of watching film dance is somewhat passive and I am not fully cognizant of all the technical and creative facets that are part of the moving image I am viewing. I tend to watch it in a way that is similar to how I would if I was sitting in the audience in front of a proscenium stage, and the documentation aspect of that live person standing there many years ago is never far from my mind. I certainly notice editing and cinematography, especially if it's particularly inventive or noticeable enough, but it's usually not in the forefront of my attention. But having read screendance scholarship, I find myself watching these same dances with a completely new lens!

A passive viewing mindset is perhaps how dance in popular Indian cinema is designed to be viewed—as entertainment as part of larger package that aims for commercial success. Harmony Bench notes in her review essay that the subject of "screendance as a popular phenomenon" is a large gap area "begging for additional scholarship." Certainly with Indian popular screendance, "filmi" and Bollywood song-and-dance has gotten some scholarly attention, but I don't recall anything beyond basic references to screendance technique and theory and certainly no one seems to have written about the subject with the depth and detail that scholars like Rosenberg have for general screendance.

Rosenberg's well-written text made me realize that much of the dance I have seen in Indian cinema is not sufficiently "designed for the express purpose of the camera," a common definition of screendance. Sure, there are a number of interesting editing and film-making choices as I summarized in my article, but they seem to rarely rise to the level of true screendance free of other purposes (films like Kalpana being an exception). The enormous film industry in India offers what seems to me an untapped opportunity for creative minds in screendance—hundreds of opportunities to choreograph, frame, and edit dance designed just for the camera that would in many cases enjoy broad distribution and automatic preservation.

The area that does seem to offer space for the full flowering of innovation in Indian dance as captured by the camera is in the non-feature film, "dance film" format that is increasingly given recognition at dance film and screendance festivals around the globe. Bollynatyam featured some choice Indian classical dance films in a fantastic post on the subject back in February. I think this format offers the greatest potential pleasures to dance forms rooted in traditional Indian movement vocabulary especially in the concepts of rasa, performer-audience connection, and kinesthetic empathy. And those are topics I expect no one has addressed in the subject of screendance! Expanding beyond the narrow confines of traditional "classical dance," I am sure that an exploration into the artists performing contemporary and modern dance in India would reveal fascinating works of screendance and interaction with visual media.

Now as I watch my beloved classical and traditional Indian dances as presented in Indian cinema, I now have a deeper appreciation for their construction and importance as stand-alone works of art, and I hope to discover more Indian "dance films" that showcase the potential of the art form. I'm still developing my thoughts about this broad subject and have to apply my new perspective to the plethora of film dances I've seen over the years. More to come!

My Article in Rasikatvam - Also in one document here:




Further reading and resources:
Screendance: the State of the Art - Proceedings. American Dance Festival. 2006.
List of Dance Film Festivals - Dance Films Association
Rosenberg, Douglas. "Essay on Screen Dance." 2000.

Related posts:
> Dance in Early Indian Cinema: Some Video Evidence
> Two More Busby Berkeley-Inspired Top Shots in 1930s Indian Film Dances
> Finally! Kalpana (1948) is Viewable Online! (now THAT's some creative screendance!)

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