An Artist’s Learning Journey through Cultures, Identities and Audience Engagement
written by Aswathy V. Nair, dancer, choreographer, Co-Director of Nrityalaya School of Classical Dance and Music
When the Dhirana Movement team approached me with a request to elaborate on my experiences during my performance tour of the U.S earlier this year, I was a bit apprehensive as to whether it is too late to bring this upon. But as an artist I realized that certain experiences will stay with you forever.
My friend and dancer Sumana Sen who runs a dance school called DANSENSE in Phoenix , Arizona had been wanting myself and my husband N.Srikanth to perform together in the U.S. As planned by Sumana our tour began in Phoenix with the premiere of SAMAVESHA: Stories of Gender and Identity, at the Kerr Cultural Center, Arizona State University. Sumana being a student of the Master of Fine Arts program, had been able to arrange a visit to ASU before the performance. It delighted me to know that our visit coincided with the SCIENCE EXPOSED presentation under the auspices of the Bio Design Institute.
Students of various faculties within the Bio Design Institute joined hands with the Fine Arts students to present various research topics which are normally not easily accessible or comprehensible to the general public through multiple media like dance, music and theatre. If a scientist were to explain in proper scientific terms that research was being conducted as to how small pox can actually become a cure for cancer, it would not be easy for an ordinary person like me to understand what this is all about. But when the students actually danced and mimed to show how these two are related, it actually made sense! To me this was a stupendous way of communicating complex research material through art, literally a marriage between science and art!
As an artist my experience with Science Exposed opened my eyes to the endless possibilities of my art form. The fact that those students dared to even try to explain sensitive scientific experiments through theatre music and dance was a revelation.
We readied ourselves for the performance keeping in mind the kind of diversity in the audience. SAMAVESHA is actually an exploration of two characters from the Mahabharata who were known as the “trithiya prakriti” or third gender. The Mahabharata was clearly ahead of its time. Amba was reborn as Shikandi, a eunuch, in order to accomplish her vow to bring upon the death of Bhisma. Arjuna was cursed by Urvashi and had to live as Brihannala, a eunuch in the 13th year of his exile. Much is being said and written these days about transgender people as the world opens up to embrace them as part of the whole. It was challenging to present the transformation through dance as we did not want to use props or drastic changes in costume to convey the same. But it was a pleasure to see that the audience really enjoyed and were involved in it. Proof of this came from the CRP (Critical Response Process) session that followed the performance.
Liz Lehrman, renowned dancer-choreographer, who is part of the Faculty of Fine Arts , had developed the Critical Response Process as a tool for a creatively active interaction between the artist and the audience. There are four parts to this process. One, the audience can present their observations on the performance. Two, the artist can put forth questions to the audience based on the performance. Three, the audience can address their questions to the artist. And four, the audience can give suggestions/comments/critiques to the artist.
Two facilitators trained by Liz herself, Coley Curry and Phil Weaver did an extremely wonderful job of seamlessly taking us through these four rounds. The CRP is a wonderful tool for the artist to get instant feedback on the effectiveness of his/her work and technique. We were surprised at how the audience had observed even the minutest details of the performance. The CRP session also motivates the audience to watch the presentation more receptively and with a keen eye. Thus the art, artist and the audience are all benefitted from this process.
As a dancer/ teacher CRP made me realize that what I explore and express has to be convincing not only to myself but also to the audience. I should be able to explain the nature of my work and its intricacies, which might help in inspiring the audience and thereby bring them closer to my art form. This also becomes part of my duty in propagating the art among wider audiences.