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Animated Edition - Spring 2007
Love and authenticity in the age of anxiety - dance and ageing
Chitra Sundaram, Bharatanatyam dance artist and editor of the magazine PULSEdance - South Asian Dance in the UK, reflects on our ageing as dancers
Ask not of me, my beloved, for that earlier love... (1) "Why love?" she asked, referring to my title. "Because traditional South Asian dance, or more specifically Indian dance, was, and is about love. And as we grow older, our notion, our understanding, our experience of it, and how comfortable we are with love and all things commonly associated with love - youth, beauty, passion - changes... not becomes less or more, but changes. It changes, anxious to remain authentic, truthful to itself." I explained.

She nodded, affirming, and quoted me in soulful Urdu a poem that speaks to growing older.

These dances are about love, and are erotic. And I use the word 'erotic' aptly; you need to re-learn to read it, not in the fearful Original Sin sense which has driven its meaning narrowly towards 'sexual attraction' but rather from Plato: "[Eros] is that interior force that drags man toward everything good, true and beautiful". And that interestingly enough, is a quote from Pope John Paul II (November, 1980).

I'd love for you to understand 'erotic' as meaning passion, for life itself and to better it; for this reason, well before Freud, Indian dance/drama treatises speak of Sringara - inadequately translated as 'erotic mood' - as the source from which all others flow.

So, to stay with the poem, the singular object-focused love of those besotted youthful days grows and alters, encompassing life, becoming even more acute, more concerned, more questioning... in nights that are filled with hot flashes, anxieties and mortalities - our own, and of others around us. Dancemakers, especially as they mature, are exquisitely vulnerable to this unbearable heaviness of being, and it shows in their work, even as they make light of it through comedy and self-deprecation or grotesqueness - as we have seen elsewhere, and here. It also reaches for places in our souls, when physical virtuosity is done amazing us.

So many stories to make your own
As we grow older, we have more and more stories to tell. It is the stories that we tell one another - little stories that go "Do you remember when..." or big ones that go "There was a time when..." - which gives us a measure of time itself, of generations, of change. Ageing is getting to a time of particularly wanting to tell others, of recounting tales, to children, friends, lovers and others. When you visit or work with older persons, when the moment is safe, the stories come tumbling out... as if that's the true treasure they have safeguarded, to bequeath, to share, and shed a load, as it were.

Yet, not everyone wants to speak in his or her own words, or about himself or herself. The good thing about South Asian dance is that it has a seemingly infinite array of stories and endless familiar situations, that one can pick and choose from and slot into, and tell and re-tell as if they were our own, renewing it with our own feelings. We often miss the point that because the form is codified, it is also actually abstracted, making it available to be anyone's - hence its superior cross-cultural comfort and currency - if its techniques, themes and tunes are OK with you, that is.

But alas, the gods who crowd daily Indian lives also come with these stories, bustling into the theatre... and completely upset those who prefer gods to stay put in places of worship instead - and out of art that should be Enlightened-ly secular. During a London Q&A after my performance of Moham - A Magnificent Obsession, a woman exclaimed, in utter disbelief and disappointment, "I was so taken up with (the heroine's) situation but now I learn she was in love with a god and not a man, and I don't know what to do with that!" So the gods-and-goddesses feature is a drawback in this South Asian model, at least in secular western societies. (But, is secular man without his longings of soul and spirit, whether or not it is for the 'divine'?)

The persistent myth is that South Asian dance is about gods or God. The truth is that it is supremely about us human beings, and our longings and other feelings of soul and spirit, for something beyond our mundane and maudlin, deceived and depressing lives - even art. And so we can accuse, complain, tease, love, make out or entreat without cries of "Libel!" or "Moral blackmail!" or "Adulteress!" (A mere mortal cannot withstand being the object of such intense emotion?) Clearly, this dance, with its predominant place for catharsis for both performer and audience, with its poetically camouflaged craving, irony, sensitivity, delicacy and beauty, is a wondrously subversive way to good mental health without interminably longing for NHS-awarded psychotherapy!

Yes, we dance to forget but we can also dance to remember, to re-member and re-join our less-than-perfect body parts into a fit-for-purpose whole, our selves into life - our own and that we have with others.

Buy one, get a lot more free
So, what can the presence and practice of South Asian dance in the UK offer mature dancers and students? What can other models of dance emulate?

1. A substantive re-definition of 'dance': opening it up to those who cannot "raise their legs beyond their ears any more". (2) Some years ago, Chris Bannerman told me he especially valued this sort of age-shall-not-wither-her-beauty kind of notion - there's unexploited potential to yet deploy its influence and yield value on many fronts, certainly for ageing gloriously

2. An enjoyable, non-threatening path to emotional wellbeing (for which the NHS has little time or money): our bodies weigh us down less than our hearts and minds and these forms do not so much 'respect' age as employ and deploy experience; living life is emotional filing and here's an offer of emotional spring-cleaning and culling for a profitable heart-boot sale!

3. Sanction to enjoy ageless, shameless pleasures: costume and colour, glamour even - yes, to be 'disgraceful' by western conceptions - dancing to rhythms and joyful, conventional music forms

4. Structures for their emotional expression: you want to express deep feelings yet need the reassurance of proven tools? Here's an expressive language that has spoken eloquently to many. You don't need voice training!

5. A flexibly low impact physical and mental regimen: the hand gestures are a fun way to avoid arthritis, and the memorizing of rhythmic complexities offer as good brain-strengthening exercise as Sudoko!

Blood memory transfusion
And seriously, what do mature dance and dancers, in general, need to thrive and continue to contribute to dance and society?

1. A strategic, official and media validation of the value of what being mature offers dance: it is not enough that 'age' is the new Diversity box to tick

2. Recognition of, and support for, audiences that are not young any more and want different dance to watch: they can't get it except at community levels. As we target the youth, we cannot forget dance audiences that have grown older, loyally watching dance over the years. At least until a couple of years ago, 'undercover' assessments of performances commissioned by Arts Council England checked off audience compositions by age and race, with a known bias favoring the 'wider youth'

3. A coordinated national/regional resource network for mature performers, teachers and students

4. Affordable dance classes for mature students: "I never had a chance when I was younger and I wish could learn to dance now instead of going to the gym." Classes are expensive, and in the South Asian community that I know, men, retired and home, are suspicious and tight-fisted (or careful) about spending money on dance classes!

5. Professional quality platforms for performing, sharing and transmitting to next generations: this conference was one, but where was the youth? We need inter-generational, inter- cultural, inter-regional, inter-national projects, especially where young choreographers work with bodies that cannot do as they or the dancers themselves bid them do!

Heavy/light/bright-ness of being
Perhaps we should dance to feel good and true and beautiful - not necessarily to 'feel younger'; 'youth' is not all happy, without anxiety or stress, and surely nostalgia has proven selective, especially about the way we were! The ruling contemporary dance values are virtuosity, veracity and vulnerability, and of the last we have in plenty (the audience laughs and nods heavily again!). Dance gives us a way of finding the 'extra' in 'ordinary' moments to draw upon; unlike other arts, dance also allows us to express through what we own, anxiously maybe but irrefutably, authentically - our bodies.

So let's use our exquisite heaviness of being to remember and create, our laughter and forgetfulness to get that wonderful lightness of being and fill the space in and around us, as Diane Amans put it, with a "brightness of being". Revelling in emotion and intimation and measured physicality, South Asian dance provides an excellent brightness-of-being model.

Whether you can lift your lagging leg beyond your failing ear dissolves in such brightness. Go for the gold!

This article is based on a talk given at the Marks of Time conference held earlier this year. Chitra Sundaram, the editor of the magazine PULSEdance, is a prominent Bharatanatyam dance artist, commentator and spokesperson for South Asian dance - see www.kadam.org.uk/pulse.php for more information.

(1). From Faiz Ahmed Faiz given to me by Suman Buchar; English translation is mine.
(2). A favourite piquant phrasing of Tim Tubbs', at the conference and elsewhere.

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Animated: Spring 2007