By Saumya Liyanage –
Dance is an elusive art form. It is elusive in the sense that any type of dance form uses the human body as its expressive tool, and the art and the artist is one and the same. Dance is in a way similar to the actor’s art because the dancer uses her body as the means of expression. The actor and the dancer share this common ground where their art and the artistic tool are nonetheless inseparable and tightly intertwined. In order to understand the meaning of dance, one may need to separate the dancer’s body from dance but as stated the inseparability of the dancer from dance poses ontological questions of who is the dancer and what is dance. Therefore, marking a boundary between the body and the work of dance is always blurred and indescribable.
It is difficult to explain why people dance and how dance is defined from non-dance. Celeste Snowber writes that whether we dance and move our bodies, or whether our bodies are static and still, we always dance. She further argues that ‘We are all dancing and as we are all living, whether it is walking or running, swimming or hopping, jumping or being still. There is a dance of blood and fluid circulating in our bodies, and the expressivity of gestures is a daily activity’ (Snowber cited in Leavy, 2018, p. 247). In this analysis, Snowber broadly defines and blurs the distinction between dance and non-dance challenging us to rethink the way we define dance in the contemporary context.
Yet, Sri Lankan dance scholarship is still practiced and confined within a particular school of thought that favors dance as a refined, codified body of movement. The learning of dance needs assiduous practice and dedication under a specific training regimen. Moreover, the dancer’s body should be physically trained and aesthetically beautiful to be able to perform and bring meanings to spectators. Hence traditional dance training and performance is purely cultivated through guru-shishya parampara (Teacher-disciple model) where the repetition and execution of learnt scores are supremely important. Very little space is allowed the novice to explore physical possibilities beyond the regimented body. However, I am not skeptical about the skills and capacities that a traditional dancer possesses. Yet this long assiduous practice and the regimentation of bodies along with cosmic teaching pertaining to demons and deities would undoubtedly affect and discipline not only the learner’s physicality but their thought process as well. Therefore, these pedagogical systems do not allow the learner to explore various expressions or movement culture.
In this paper, I am going to discuss about an emerging dancer and choreographer Kanchana Malshani and her recent work titled Talking Silambu performed at Royal Taprobanian cultural hub in Navinna, Maharagama. In this piece of dance work, Kanchana raises several questions worthy enough to discuss through the current practice of dance pedagogy in Sri Lanka and ontological questions of what dance is, and who a dancer is. Further her work explores how dance can be a self-exploratory journey for those who seek alternative avenues through breaking their links to traditional forms and regimented bodies.
Kanchana Malshani has studied traditional Sri Lankan dance forms from various teachers since her childhood until she graduated from university. Kanchana is a graduate from Sripalee campus, University of Colombo and received a First Class honors degree. Being a student of traditional Sri Lankan dance forms, such as Kandyan, Sabaragamuwa and Low country dance, Kanchana has developed her own dance vocabulary through her engagement with contemporary and experimental Sri Lankan dancers such as Venuri Perera and Umeshi Rajeendra. Specially, learning and working with Venuri Perera and her influence on Kanchana’s reincarnation as a contemporary dancer is immense as her second life as a choreographer and dancer is being mentored by Venuri Perera. Her recent incarnation as a contemporary dancer signifies that she as a dancer needs a different life and expression within dance scholarship. Her recent work Talking Silambu shows a clear rebellious individuality that seeks to break the traditional codification and rebirth as a free bodied woman.
In 2017, Goethe Institute organized a Choreography Lab with dancer Venuri Perera in Kalpitiya Sri Lanka. At this particular dance lab, Kanchana learnt contemporary dance from Yuko Kaseki, a Japanese Bhuto dancer, and Mahesh Umagiliya. Further she learnt from Prof. Sandra Mathern-Smith, Professor of dance at Denison University, USA, who has travelled several times to Sri Lanka as a Fulbright scholar. Her intervention in popularizing and mentoring Sri Lankan dancers included a group of students at the University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, while Sripalee campus is also a turning point in her dance career. Dance teachers like Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, Preethi Athreya, Maria Colusi have also been kernels for Kanchana to develop her skills. After receiving a half scholarship to visit a two-week-long dance camp at Sanskar Dance Festival India, she has been able to work with teachers such as Vittoria de Ferrari Sapetto and Roberto Olivan. Apart from her dance training, Kanchana has been working with one of the English Theatre companies, Stages Theatre led by writer and director Ruwanthie De Chickera in Colombo. Kanchana may have undoubtedly learnt the value of being an artiste and professionalism in theatre through working in an actors’ ensemble at Stages Theatre.
Dance and Contemporaneity
The term ‘contemporary dance’ signifies specific meanings to dance specialists than non-specialists of dance. There are certain qualifies that set contemporary dance apart from other genres. Contemporary dance can be distinguished from modern and other forms of dance because of its shift from the traditional narratology, dancer’s perspective, and breaking away from some of the dance prejudices to integrate text, words, digital and intermedial elements to it. One such difference is that contemporary dance work departs from traditional third person singular narrative to first person singular self-expression. This first person perspective allows the dancer to reflect her own auto-biographical material. Yet, these auto-ethnographic or auto-biographical narratives finally transform into a political idiom. Further contemporary dance deconstructs the aesthetic body celebrated in traditional dance and questions and dissects the skin of the dancer by opening up the inner flesh of the body. André Lepecki further identifies the uniqueness of contemporary dance from other genres because of its ‘ephemerality, corporeality, precariousness, scoring, and performativity’ (Kwan, 2017, p. 39). Thus contemporary dance does not stick to a particular form, style or a structure, but it integrates various techniques, styles, and influences even from traditional dance forms to use the body as a political tool and the self as the centre of expression.
In this dance work titled, Talking Silambu, a twenty minute long piece of choreography, Kanchana appears in a non-traditional lose attire while wearing two Silambu (Silambu is a type of anklet made out of brass which Kandyan dancers wear when they perform) In the first instance, we hear the sound of Silambu as Kanchana’s legs begin to move. Yet, her dance body starts movement towards the audience while mixing traditional Kandyan dance codification with free body movement. It is clear that she performs half Kandyan and half improvised body movements in the score. In other words, her body movements are choreographed through semi-Kandyan codification mixed with free style movements. When the dance intensifies, she removes her Silambu, holding them in her hands and begins to shake them with vigorous body movements while throwing her body in various directions. At this point, Kanchana uses trans-like act depicting trans-performance inherited particularly in low country devil dance. In this work, it is clearly demonstrated that her body is struggling with Silambu and trying to remove its connection to the body. This struggle culminates in the final phase of the dance work by indicating she runs away from the codified body and becomes a free woman. In this work, Kanchana demonstrates her discontent of the previous life as a traditional dancer and her struggle to break her affinity to the codified structure and beautification of the body in Kandyan dance. In a short conversation I had with Kanchana, she mentioned about a particular rebirth that occurred at a dance camp organized by the Goethe Institute Colombo. Kanchana speaks:
I have been trained as a traditional dancer since my childhood but for the first time, working with this Japanese Butoh dancer, Yuko Kaseki, I learnt how to speak from my body. For many years I was living in a cage-tradition where I was entrapped. Living in this cage, I have performed what others wanted me to do. But in this dance lab, I found myself speaking to my own body and speaking through the body. I don’t want my body to be beautiful and aesthetically refined. I don’t want to display precision and codification of my body. I want to show how ugly I am and how vulnerable my body is. (Kanchana, M., Pers. Comm. Dec. 2020).
Against the grain
In the traditional dance pedagogy, the dancer’s body is understood as a vehicle via which the dancer’s symbolic meanings are conveyed. There is a clear division between the inner and outer faculties in the dance body, and the dancer’s role is to bring forth those inner feelings to the onlooker via her body movements. This conceptualization of the dancer’s body as a split between inner and outer is a complex issue pertaining to dance. Knowingly or unknowingly the dancer divides her body into body and mind and this Cartesian division has influenced the dancer to theorize the body and her craft.
Living in an ocular centric world, the dancer’s outer body is a place where the market economy is celebrating and womanhood is exploited. From state-sponsored national festivals to television advertisements selling instant noodles or carbonated drinks, the dancer’s outer skin is commodified. Writing about Sri Lankan neo-dance traditions, propagated and performed at high profile delegations, product launches and in TV commercials in the country, I have written elsewhere that ‘women’s bodies succumb to the surgical knife of the choreographer whose male sexual desires are displayed on those bodies. Hence, no difference can be made between a choreographer and a cosmetic surgeon, whose expertise on women’s bodies, boobs and buttocks or other body parts are surgically transplanted and enhanced by incisions, stiches and staples’ (Liyanage, 2016). Amidst this commodification of female bodies in Sri Lankan dance arena, Kanchana’s attempt is to break away from this commodified, sexualized, and mechanized body to establish a non-codified and unified body of self-expression.
Here it is important for contemporary dancers to understand the value of the ‘living body’ or the ‘lived’ body that is celebrated in the vast literature of phenomenology and dance theory in the contemporary dance literature. In the dominant dance cultures from stage performances to digital and visual representations, the dancer’s skin is the most valued and emphasized. Now with the contemporary dance turn, the dancer’s living or lived experience has come forth. Kanchana as a dancer now understands that her body is not a place for others to communicate vague meanings but a living entity where her own selfhood is reflected and displayed. It is a challenge for a dancer like her because the dominant female body is already established by key dance authors of the country. These dance authors have created a symbolic and sexualized female body for live and digitized performances. This symbolic and sexualized female body consists of the idealized female body for the male viewer. Kanchana is challenging this idealized body that is dominant in the real and digital world.
Dancer and Danced
The key juncture where the lived body differs from the symbolic body is that the symbolic body that is propagated in the media and elsewhere is the body that is not presented as a place for knowledge. Let me explain this further. In the traditional dance pedagogy, the dancer’s body is a place where meanings are generated and shared. In other worlds, the codified body is a canvas or a display where the onlooker extricates meanings. This codified, symbolic body is not presented to us as a place for knowing or sensing. Now Kanchana’s work and the work of other contemporary dancers suggest that we should understand the body as a place of sensing and knowing. This marks an epistemological turn in dance making and its reception. Dance, or the dancer’s body, has not been considered as a place for ‘knowing’ in Sri Lankan dance pedagogy. Most often, a dancer narrates someone’s story, or represents a third person singular perspective of the dance.
What Kanchana and the contemporary dance body suggest is to make a shift from the third person singular narrative to a first person singular perspective. This ‘I’ or the first person perspective allows the dancer to narrate her own stories and engagement with the social, cultural and political terrains. Further, a dancer as the author of her own work marks the departure of the dancer as an employer for a particular author. What Kanchana does in her piece Talking Silambu is that as a dancer, she tries to incarnate herself and narrate a story of searching a breakthrough and liberation. In this performance, her body works as a site of struggle and seeks the unity of her body and soul.
Understanding the body as a sensing and perceiving entity is still an alien concept to dance pedagogies in universities and private schools. Furthermore, dance can be a self-expressive and auto-ethnographic inquiry and is also a far reaching idea for our students. Hence, the mainstream dance pedagogy produces dancers who dance without self-motivation, but to satisfy the audience who come to see symbolic representation of the body. Yet a handful of dancers who are eagerly exploring other avenues for dance expressions are also facing complex issues that their artistic interventions are not fully accepted in the mainstream dance scholarship in the country. Moreover, dancers like Kanchana and others who have chosen a non-popular pathway to pursue their future dance careers have already faced deadlocks, as their artistic practices are not being accepted or sustained by institutions or organizations. Yet Kanchana is determined that she has to break her cocoon to be incarnated as a hybrid moth.
The author wishes to thank Himansi Dehigama and Sachini Senevirathe in preparing this paper. Further the author’s gratitude goes to dancer Kanchana Malshani.
Kwan, S. (2017). When Is Contemporary Dance? Dance Research Journal, [online] 49(3), pp.38–52. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/dance-research-journal/article/when-is-contemporary-dance/8D44743A01A1ECC8100C5E65C1142DC2 [Accessed 4 Oct. 2019].
Leavy, P. (2019). Handbook of arts-based research. New York: The Guilford Press.