Piece by Piece

One thing that I have always tried to understand is this obsession dancers have with needing to constantly learn new items, especially when they are not quite at that stage to learn a particular piece. I see this trend happening a lot, especially with visiting students, for whom a new choreography is the product they are purchasing in their time here.

This trend is particularly disturbing when we start to see students demanding (and ultimately getting) pieces that they have not developed the skill level to execute. The argument is usually one of two things: the need to expand one’s dance vocabulary/capacity, and/or the need to present the new choreography in their respective cities because the organizers/audience are tired of seeing the same thing and want to see something different.

From the very beginning of my dance training, we were taught items according to our skill/experience level. And the system was such so that we initially learned the simpler repertoire items (Mangalacharain, Sthayee, Batu), and then with time we were taught the more advanced choreography in the repertoire. The main focus was to gradually expand our skill level and capabilities. And while we learned new items, we were also revising the older pieces we had learned earlier. If, on that rare occasion, we were taught something slightly more advanced than our skill level, the idea was that we would continue to practice and develop it before we actually performed it.

These days, it is not uncommon for a student to request an item (either from their teacher or in a workshop) that is beyond their capacity. And many a time, teachers will comply, some for fear of losing the student, others, for the financial benefit and others are just indifferent. Perhaps it may not even be such a big deal, others argue – what is the harm done? It is a very small thing to lose sleep over. But lets consider it: When the focus is only on learning new choreography, particularly within a limited time frame, much of the focus will be on remembering the sequence, leaving little time or any significant revision. As it is, the item has been taught/learned rather superficially. If the student hasn’t devoted more time to seriously practice/revise the piece, and then teaches his/her students, that ‘watering down’ process has already begun – and then the piece is performed. And then they return to their teacher and expect to learn something new for the next time. Now repeat this scenario for someone who is learning something they aren’t quite ready for. The decline of the art form starts here.

Odissi’s beauty lies in the details. One the dancer has worked to develop the strength to sit in chauka and tribhangi and are able to seamlessly shift the weight to transition between the two positions; once they have finally understood the movement science, of where to move the torso according to the foot–then there is that whole other phase of learning – the finite details of proportion, of knowing just how much and when to move the head in accordance to the wrist or head (or both), to develop that simultaneous strength and softness. It takes TIME. And it takes PRACTICE. Many chase after items believing that it is the way to improve, to expand one’s dance vocabulary – but that vocabulary is useless unless one has learned the alphabet and understood how to form words and sentences accordingly. Speaking from experience, my dance improved through constant revision. And this was something I continued to do throughout my dance career. The real essence of the dance was revealed to me during the process of revision, that was how the technique transformed into art. Many times we see a piece of choreography we like, and immediately it is something we want to learn because it is so beautiful. However, it is important to understand that the person performing the said choreography would have spent a long time learning and imbibing the art, and had developed the control and exactitude to do justice to the piece.

For teachers – it is really important to maintain that integrity and quality of the art form by teaching students what they are ready to learn, not by what they are willing to pay. Doing anything less is only a contribution to the erosion of the art form.

And for dancers – there is no need to hurry. This is an art form where you will always feel like you are work in progress. To do justice to the art, it is important to have that patience, discipline and focus to continue to evolve and to present it in its full beauty and essence.

Bhubaneswar: April 15, 2017.

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