September 06, 2012

Half-full or half-empty?

This was first published in the Asian Age on September 6, 2012. 

“You cannot be a dancer for half a day,” asserts Ketaki Desai, Odissi dancer and digital media professional. She continues, “Choosing between other day jobs and dance is making the choice between earning a living and living; it is a tough but necessary choice. Every profession, including a part-time one, requires commitment, and with other jobs and social obligations to take care of, one is being unfair to dance.”

This is a debate where all the answers are personal and extremely complex. Is it possible to strike a balance between a serious career in dance and a day job in an unrelated profession? In the urban context, the young dancer constantly sees classmates in school and college surge ahead on the path to conspicuous consumption with conventional jobs. To earn a livelihood, the dancer often falls back on another ‘career’, funnelling some of what is earned back into dance.

Often, free will and professional decisions are not the best of friends; one is left with no choice but to cut down on dancing and do some ‘real’ work. Yet it is interesting how we set up, through language, the distinction between ‘dancing’ and a ‘career’. No matter how serious the pursuit of dance is, one is inclined to associate ‘career’ with a profession that guarantees returns and ensures survival. While work brings enough money, it leaves one with less time to dance. This can be a vicious circle, for many dancers take to other work to subsidise their dancing; gradually, they notice that they are financially secure but have almost given up on dancing.

Odissi dancer Supriya Nayak worked in another profession for about five years before deciding that she would focus on dance. She says, “Dance was extremely personal; it was my identity, the first thing I would relate to. But I possibly wasn’t ready to step either way and decide. There is the uncertainty of making dance work for you and of earning a living.”

Meanwhile, history and lore make much of the single-minded pursuit of a goal in any sphere of life. They speak of Arjuna, the archer who focused on the eye of the fish. There are hardly any paeans to multi-tasking, unless one counts divinities with eight or ten arms, or ten heads. Members of the Odissi ensemble Nrityagram, in residence at the NCPA recently, continually emphasised the need to be completely dedicated to dance. In an interview many years ago, Nrityagram’s artistic director, Surupa Sen, famously likened dance to a jealous husband who would not permit other commitments.

Complete dedication is a tough decision to make; it is also a luxury that is afforded to one only in certain situations. While one could be a good dancer and hold down another job, can one reach excellence and work wonders in the boardroom? Conversely, given that it is near impossible to make a living out of dance performance, does a fulltime dancer find it hard to focus on her own practice while trying to eke out a living in dance? Often, dance teaching is seen as an easy back-up plan for dancers who don’t make it on stage or as choreographers. Many young dancers who have consciously come to dance teaching are wary of that complacence. They have also grown to realise that all other activity, including that which is dance-related, can impinge on their practice.

Bharatanatyam dancer Charles Ma, who worked in advertising and concentrated on building a career as a soloist for many years, believes that one has to fight for survival in any profession. Reminiscing about this experience, he says, “In some ways, it worked for me. I rehearsed in the mornings and then went to work. But later, I’d be working in office and thinking of dance. The stress and worklife habits – eating junk food, for one, were making me abuse my instrument – the body. Now, though I only work in dance, it is still as hectic. I teach at my studio each morning, then at a school, from where I return and practice by myself into the night, followed by dinner which I cook, before going to bed for a few hours.”

With the pressure of having to creatively impart knowledge, dancer-teachers are a tired bunch with sore throats; however, the thrill of discovering how their work in dance feeds into their personal practice keeps them going. Nayak, who now teaches dance and works on developing a dance-in-education module while continuing to perform, finds that her present job is perhaps more tiring, yet very exciting. “As a dance teacher, just passing on what I have learnt doesn’t require time and effort. But you need to give it thought if you aspire to do it in a creative and exciting manner. If I was doing my earlier job and taking classes, I would not be working past 10 pm. This takes up more time but it is immensely satisfying because it influences how I approach my own work,” she remarks. 

Though Walter Benjamin may damningly say, “He who cannot take sides should keep silent,” it is clear that ankle bells have a mind of their own.

Ranjana Dave

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