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When classical dance chases clicks and likes

Classical dancers have adopted to digital formats in the pandemic. But what’s the role of the audience now, and who holds the copyright to their online performances?

Current Indian law is inadequate and ambiguous especially when it comes to copyright for dance. (Samyukta Harish)

Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning how to dance in the rain. - Vivian Greene.

This is how the Indian classical dance world seems to have reacted to the covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing restrictions. Dancers have tried to learn to dance in the rain, facing the storm head on.

In the initial months of the lockdown, there was tremendous uncertainty—physically, mentally and socially—and virtual tools became the logical means to share, stay connected and stay relevant.

There were (and continue to be) talks, panel discussions, interviews, workshops, and live dance performances (Instagram, YouTube, Facebook Live being the most popular platforms). We saw a great democratization of the dance space where anyone could upload content for public viewing: age, seniority, learning levels, no bar. Dancers started teaching dance online (Zoom being one of the favourite mediums). This provided many dance teachers/gurus the opportunity to break geographical and time barriers and connect with new and old students and adapt new pedagogies. For instance, at Natya Vriksha (a non-profit founded by my mother and guru dancer Geeta Chandran), we developed customised e-learning materials and pedagogy that spoke to the particular learning level of the student.

For beginners (typically between the ages of 7 and 10 years), it was important to start by engaging them to pay attention to a window on the screen, in the absence of physical presence of their peers or their guru which normally provides a motivating atmosphere for learning. These techniques entailed storytelling (often with graphics or short videos), singing, peer-to-peer interaction, and having fun exchanges about dance, but equally, about life. For mid-level and advanced students, the pedagogy entailed guided viewing and critique of curated online dance and music work, polishing the basics and learning from other art forms like sculpture, painting, poetry and theatre through lectures by other artists.

Illustration by Samyukta Harish.
Illustration by Samyukta Harish.

In all instances, I think there has been a greater appreciation of the need to go beyond the narrow focus on ‘performance’ to strengthening the focus on the dance process. Many dancers have leveraged the break from back-to-back performance calendars and travel to create new work, revisit past work, and reflect and research on the multiple facets of dance (e.g. looking at new poetry, working more closely with scholars, musicians and allied art forms, archiving past work). Yet, as we have adopted all these coping strategies, all isn’t hunky-dory (not to say that it was pre-pandemic).

Firstly, most of the virtual platforms do not yet have an economic model for sustaining dancers and their teams. There is an lot of content generated and being uploaded on social media for free, where organizers request dancers to create new work or present past work gratis, with the new carrot being the number of views or likes on social media.

Secondly, there hasn’t been any serious debate on issues around copyright, where years of hard work (choreography, music created for dance) is being uploaded for public viewing. Dance faces the unique challenge of not possessing a tangible product unlike music, poetry, painting or sculpture where it is relatively easier to copyright songs, verses, paintings and sculptures respectively. These, in turn, could become important assets in times of need. Bob Dylan for instance, recently sold his catalogue of over 600 songs over his 60-year career for over $300 million. How can dancers, similarly, monetize years of hard work, when faced with similarly hard times?

Current Indian law is inadequate and ambiguous especially when it comes to copyright for dance. Given this challenge, thinking of innovative ways of providing intellectual property to works (especially digital) of dancers becomes even more vital. While choreography is envisaged under the category of “dramatic work” under the Copyright Act of India, the fixation of choreography in video recordings is excluded under it.

Thirdly, the democratization of the dance space and easy availability and access to an unprecedented amount of dance content, doesn’t seem to have led to a commensurate diversification of dance viewers online. We still see the same groups of dancers and their niche networks viewing, commenting and sharing the content generated among themselves. This could be a great opportunity of expanding the reach of Indian classical dance to diverse audiences, especially the youth, across the globe and sensitizing them to the rich cultural heritage that these styles hail from. We need to find these avenues and develop these networks beyond the existing dance ecosystem.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, over the longer term, what is happening to dance itself when it is shuffled on to virtual media?

Illustrations by Samyukta Harish
Illustrations by Samyukta Harish

In the case of Indian classical dance, two virtual formats seem to have emerged. One is live streaming or recording a performance (venues vary from home to hiring professional stages). The other is formulating digital dance productions where the camera and digital possibilities are an integral part of the choreography itself. In both the cases, dancers dance to a presumed audience, with no energy being drawn from them, which was an integral part of the live performance process.

Often full-length performances do not translate well to the video format, and it is difficult to engage the viewers in a sustained manner. The respect commanded by dancers when viewed in-person is missing in such formats where viewers could be tempted to watch long items in a quick and easy way—by fast-forwarding to get a gist or switching midway to watch another performance altogether.

In the case of digital dance productions, these are often shorter duration formats, ranging from 1 to 5 minutes, which are either commissioned work or just practise videos uploaded by dancers on their social media. The super short duration commissions compel dancers to make an impact in a very short time, which is quite antithetical to the longer duration solo performances that are characteristic to the Indian classical dance tradition.

Allowing space for pauses, reposefulness or even musical interludes are no longer an option in these formats. I wonder if these formats will end up doing a disservice to dance audiences by reducing their attention spans, wherein they may not be able to watch a full length (1-1.5 hour long) dance performance post pandemic imposed restrictions.

How can we ensure that the dancer’s lens is not overpowered by the team holding the lens of the camera? And whose eye do you wish to watch, anyway? For instance, in a live performance, one could turn to watch the singer singing a moving sangadi or musical nuance at a certain time, or focus on the ghungroos or ankle bells of the dancer during a rhythm heavy segment. This luxury is not available in virtual formats of dance. Now the viewing is through certain choices made by the videographer based on their aesthetic or editorial sensibilities.

Knowing that post-pandemic too, dancers will continue on social media, how can we consciously use digital tools to enhance the dance experience without losing the essence of the dance itself?

Illustration by Samyukta Harish
Illustration by Samyukta Harish

I feel that technology is a tool, and should not substitute the dance, the dancer or the choreography. Good dance can and should speak for itself and we need skilled technical persons (often dancers themselves, for want of resources) to train to understand lighting, video-editing, camera angles and other technical nuances to leverage these tools and to use them in good measure.

These trends will be crucial determinants of what direction dance will take over the years to come, as the physical and digital media will complement each other, with the former giving an irreplaceable sense of interaction and community, and the latter providing the opportunity to bridge geographical boundaries and bringing wider audiences into the fold of dance. My only caveat is: Keep dance as central to everything.

Sharanya Chandran is a senior Bharatanatyam dancer at Natya Vriksha. Illustrations by Samyukta Harish

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