Phrases and Passages

Phrases and Passages

“Reflection on the past leads to action in the future.” 

Andrew Tarvin[1] | TEDx TAMU Speaker

Conflict. Sometimes it is intentionally built into performances and compositions. Conflict is well acknowledged by creative practitioners and scholars, as an important force that propels narrative journeys forward. Often unconsciously, it serves as an unavoidable stage, emerging as a momentary block, in the passage towards creative outcomes and novel resolutions. At Attakkalari Biennial 2021-22 also, conflicts were acknowledged in the performances, conversations, panel discussions and even with the event planning and execution amidst covid related emergencies. Conflict, both as a narrative language and during the creative process was evident in screen performances viewed online during the Biennial. Open Studio dance performance, Bhasa-The Language by Pintu Das, Screendances such as, Mamushka by Club Guy & Roni, Pity: A Film Poem by Anmar Taha and Josephine Gray, Brink, Epilogue, Turnabout and Matchmake, featured in the Belfast International Arts Festival, Trixie by Nicole Seiler, Yarning by Meghna Bhardwaj and The Life and Times by Scottish Dance Theatre, are memorable examples of performances staging personal, professional and sociopolitical paradoxes and dichotomies.

“All Dance exists in memory.”

Bill. T. Jones | Quoted by author Ruth Baher, The Vulnerable Observer (Boston, Mass.: Beacon, 1996, P.23.)

Write or Right? In the context of writing on and about dance, we have a similar predicament. Dance as a performing arts expression, lives in the moment, while also stretching time. Writing, apparently, is more tangible, transmittable and terse. Text, written legibly, that conforms to widely accepted and time worn conventions of reading and encoding (formally), acts as an undisputed evidence. A concrete record of facts and events- black and white, clear and objective. Except, objectivity demands rigor and focus. It necessitates that a writer or a scribe, takes ethical positions in narrating subjective experiences with intentional lenses of perception, defining critical boundaries of interpretation and choosing precise vocabulary capturing only the essence. Minute details and opulent words are consciously edited for brevity. In rephrasing Ruth Behar, the writer much like an anthropologist or a conventional academician, walks a tightrope between being “tender minded” and “tough minded”. Cautious of sounding too personal while choosing to err on the side of analytical and empirical writing. But, is that enough? Is the writer relying on their own memory, biases and notes to recreate poses into prose?

How can objective and brief text capture, fluid, spatial and ephemeral qualities of dance performances?

Grounding. Writing on Dance Lab, at its onset invited statements of intent from applicants. These statements were often riddled with questions, probing into the nature of Writing. Writing, as a versatile and creative media-art-cum-technology and as a critical tool for documentation and archiving, that is aimed at learners, practitioners and also for raising arts awareness among wider audiences beyond dance practice. Writing on dance allowed brief investigations into socio-political dimensions of authority, legitimacy and the popular need to force abstract creations into objective frames of understanding. To adhere to constraints and conform to publishing conventions. The lab’s first Zoom Call, was opened by Attakkalari’s creative director, Jayachandra Palazhy, orienting all participants to absorb the Biennial’s lineup of events, set in the midst of an unforeseen 3rd wave of Covid infections in India. With the help of our writing mentor, Melanie Suchy and Ligament Editor Meghna Bhardwaj, in subsequent workshop interactions, pathways to our respective writer’s voices and vision organically emerged. Not knowing ‘enough’ about Dance, uncertainty, confusion, inarticulate ideas were frequent visitors and steady workmates. Through all the meanderings and musings in our conversations, we always found grounding and direction from collective sharing[1]. Exchanging deep concerns, queries, observations, opinions, questions, readings, references, notes, sketches, stumbling blocks, suggestions, drafts, edits etc., were collaborative phrases punctuating the passages of writing in solitude.

Flow. Movement and stillness, like yin and yang, emanate from each other. Pauses and silences may appear to inhibit action. Yet the converse is abundantly visible in many patterns in nature and culture. The lull before and after storm, the commas, semicolons and periods in sentences, the dry spell of summer and autumn filled with brief but lush spell of the monsoons, the thick and thin strokes of calligraphy, the warp and wefts of textiles, the dashes and dots of Morse code, the 0’s and 1’s in the binary world of computers. Deeper engagement with conflicting clutter of thoughts and questions, allows for space to be created and slowly expand into divergent perspectives and perceptions. A perplexing conflict in plain view, turns into a nuanced dance of diversities. Not black and white, but a plenitude of grays and hues, start to unlock the block.

Merge. Writing in many ways is similar to Dance, even if it is largely seen as a sedentary activity. Written text is infact a tangible artifact derived from the concert of movements of human mind and body, albeit just the torso or the wrist. Writing evolves as a skill over repeated deliberate practice sessions or rehearsals, progressing from letters to words to sentences and grammar. Repetition is registered as cerebral and muscular memory. Not limited by the range and ability of the human physiology, but enhanced and empowered by tools, devices and mediated technologies, we continue to evolve and create new modalities of writing. The moving hand holding a pen or brush or the camera or even sensors and markers of a motion capture technology, leaves behind marks, strokes, trails, motion paths, pixels and binary coordinates of energetic gestures. Camera, or writing with light, introduces more layers and perspectives, as if witnessing the event with multiple eyes. Phrases in writing and dance may not be very different. From juggling ideas to dabbling with studies to jotting down words, quotes and phrases, then organizing them in space (pages or places) to editing and adding embellishments to the finished piece and its unveiling as a publication to probable reprints and future reproductions. Writing, then, is a choreographed and staged sequence[2] of movements and actions, much like watching Pierre Jacque’s 18th Century automaton (a mechanical writing boy), performing the act of “writing”.

Abundance. Dance is ephemeral and transient. Yet movement, creates impressions, trails, foot-prints, mental and emotional imprints to reflect upon and learn from. Recorded movements as drawings, doodles, scribbles, notes, notations, photographs, film, animation and video may seem relatively eternal. These documents and formats are also prone to destruction and loss, when not stored, preserved or referred to via systematic retrieval systems or not reused in active practice. How many formats to preserve and for how long? These documents risk becoming burdensome volumes of data frozen in time, unwieldy to sort, maintain and store, especially if they face redundancy and obsolescence, without constant upgrades or revisions of content and technologies. “Write, Rewrite and Overwrite” is a poetic refrain repeatedly seen in all the “Write Dance” experimental videos, compiled as “Phrases” and precursors to the “Passages” in this essay. The essay itself is born out of reflecting on the cumulative experiences of recording and reviewing various forms of writing with ephemeral media. Bill. T. Jones, in his TED talk “The Process of Becoming Infinite”, refers to an evolution in modern dance called ‘process as performance[3]. In choosing the approach of ‘learning by doing’, analog and digital experiments with both asemic and verbal writing, captured and edited as short videos, helped me compare the motions of the body/text. Most analog writing with ephemeral media left little to no tangible traces. However, digital recordings made from 1-2 cameras capturing perspectives of the maker and the spectator along with, screen recordings of digital text, generated photos and videos stored across multiple platforms and devices. The complexity of the workflow and demands for storage memory grew within days. From scarcity to abundance. How much is too much? Is writing with camera more cumbersome than words and text?

Write Anew. Cultural knowledge like dance is practice centered and intangible. Yet some, have managed to survive erosion, erasure and also evolved through ravages of time. Repetition, intentional practice and generational handing down of rituals, stories, festivals, customs and familial possessions have ensured a natural way of retaining that which is essential. Is this form of organic ephemerality more efficient and accessible? Is it enough to encode movement as muscle memory, with a chance possibility of writing it in one’s DNA and passing it on as genetic instinct? Could engaging with live performative arts through workshops from a very young age minimize the need for detailed and tangible documents of dance traditions? Must the overflowing cup of historic knowledge be emptied for the new? Not merely rewrite or overwrite, “write anew”, might be necessary to acknowledge the eternal embodied in recurring cycles of ephemeral but renewable artifacts and processes. Writing anew is achieved by new media and technologies coupled with innovative language structures and formats to encode and pass on ‘Dance knowledge’. Google’s AI technology and experiments in programmable and predictive choreography opens up possibilities to write with code along with live motion and voice tracking. New media and text modalities can become a collaborator and choreographic aid to conceive new performances with extended spatial dimensions accommodating live and remote audiences. Cyberballet by CyberRauber, Chris Zeiglar’s workshop and Interweave were experiences exploring these dimensions. Writing then becomes performance, while serving its purpose in archiving the process or even recording an abridged memory of the performance. Writing as a witness might be enriched with new platforms and tools to make sense of and interpret performances both as a collective and as an individual act.

Re-View. The passage of writing this essay, helped reflect upon and understand similarities and differences between Writing and Dance. I can appreciate how the ephemeral and eternal conjoin experientially, blurring perceived conflicts in these medias of creative expression. Untangling knotted thoughts, overcoming idea blocks and finding the flow and abundance in artistic content, media and formats has clarified what it takes to ‘Write on Dance’ and why. Through my participation as a visual storyteller, I was able to discover the relevance of animation, motion sketch and digital graphic scribing as dynamic process aids to take rapid and abstract notes of solo or duet performances and insights from post performance conversations. Writing as a reflective and introspective process could be driven by some form of energetic activity introducing freshness in a mostly sedentary and solo experience. Dialogues, shared screening, interviews, thinking aloud, free writing and co-written jamming on YoPad, were techniques explored to take away the self-critical voice from early stage draft writings. Learning to read dance movements, finding the inherent grammar and vocabulary in every performance, translating actions into short words, phrases and sentences has been valuable learning in initiating the writing process. Describing movement in verbs, metaphors, analogies and adjectives, is an essential skill to cultivate, in any verbal or nonverbal language. Through the “Write Dance” experimental videos using multiple camera angles, I learned that there are many viewpoints to consider while documenting an action. Tracing narrative structures and cinematography techniques employed in dance films gave me rich perspectives in the semantic analysis of filmed choreography, irrespective of it being a solo, duet or a group performance. A camera’s screen and a theatre’s stage are similar to the viewer yet different. The Life and Times by Scottish Dance Theatre breaks the fourth wall by bringing in the cameraperson as one of their co-performers moving on and off stage. Camera movements, unlike a sedentary spectator, make for dynamic recording and ‘writing’ of dance. Also editing, stitching and pruning down to the most essential piece of knowledge is a transferable skill, whether it is word limits or run time of videos, films or live performances. Many performances presented in the Biennial, were produced during the pandemic amidst resource cuts, imposed isolation, travel bans and loss of life of dear ones and illness. The persistence and grit of performers and producers led them to reinvent and renew their creative vision and aspirations, unmarred by these constraints. Writing on Dance lab has viewed dance and writing with expansive lenses. Testing limits, questioning the intent, purpose, form, structure, grammar and formats, the lab incubated such explorations. The image below is a screenshot of a moment in time, where once words, links, images, notes and scribbles were dancing around in an infinite canvas of a virtual whiteboard, attempting to summarize highlights of the Lab. Is this an archive? Is this an essay? Is this complex, nonlinear, hyperlinked and forever editable constellation of ideas, one way of writing anew? Is this Miro board a page, a stage, a theatre, an audience, a witness, a writing tool or a writer?

[1] 2022. The Skill of Humor | Andrew Tarvin | TEDxTAMU. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 March 2022].

[2] Chandrashekhar, C., 2022.Writing on Dance Lab: Issue 3. [online] Miro Board. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 March 2022].

[3] Chandrashekhar, C., 2022.Writing on Dance Lab: Issue 3. [online] Miro Board. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 March 2022].

[4] 2017. Bill T. Jones | The Process of Becoming Infinite. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 March 2022].

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