Stray thoughts on the nature of ownership in dance

The following is a compilation of fragmented thoughts from my notes during the Writing on Dance Lab at Attakkalari India Biennial 2021-2022. Reflections, observations, unformed-raw-incoherent ideas.  Who does a piece of art belong to?  While watching the varied events of the past few weeks at Attakkalari Biennial 2021-22, this is the question that has crossed my mind time and again.  The discussions by the panelists in the Future of Performance conference (which discussed dance in the light of restrictions brought about by the pandemic, and with relation to the technological and socio-political aspects of contemporary dance and performance making) raised a number of questions about the purpose of dance, the key question being – What is its role in the society?  Does dance aid in provoking new ways of thinking and perceiving the world? Is dance able to register and respond to the new world? To its upheavals, collectivities, shifts, enlightenments, regressions, stillnesses and motions?  Interweave, another event on the following day, showcased the results of a hybrid choreography residency program with collaborators from Switzerland and Attakkalari. It focused on the hyper-digitalisation of the world, a concept equally thought provoking. The two pieces explored the use of technology in dance through/at distance. Hyperlink by Anna Anderegg and Shraddha Manapure looked at how the physical presence of the body exists in the digital world compared to its existence in ‘real life’. Who owns movements?, by Simon Senn and Rohee Uberoi explored the usage of motion capture technology in relation to dance archiving, and the motivations/reasons behind rediscovering and recreating traditional art forms. The presentation, and subsequent discussion with the artists had me wondering about the nature of ownership, and the relation an artist has with their work. Who does a creation belong to? The creator? The viewer? The performers? The enthusiast, the critic? 
Image 1 - “can you possess an idea?”

There is an impulse which embodies that which the artists are trying to convey to the audience. A philosophy perhaps, a thought they wish to explore, an event to be internalised. How this is transmitted differs for each artist. This impulse can come from anywhere.


 The artists from the Open Studio (another initiative of the festival) can illustrate this very well. For Anagha Kashyap and her colleagues, their piece 13:61^Still, an exploration of movements around sleep and dreaming, was the product of a casual conversation. For Pintu Das, his solo Basha, was an expression of the language barriers he faced routinely in his professional life. And for Anuradha Venkataraman, her solo That Woman, an almost purely Bharatanatyam piece that looked at a wife falling in love with her husband’s mistress, was an exploration set off by an idea from her student. Each of these pieces began in different ways, with different origins. 


During the process of creation, many people come together to bring a piece of artwork into existence.  Dancers, choreographers, musicians, technicians, cinematographers, and directors – they all contribute. Their ideas, guiding principles, and intent that have triggered them to come together for a particular creative process always vary. How do they resolve their differences and bring a creative process to a collective closure? Do they all have equal amounts of authorship and decision making agency in the process? Or is there one person who leads the group? How do they play off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses? The artwork itself evolves, takes on a life of its own during the process. The final work may project and represent a narrative or a premise that may be entirely different from its starting point. 

Image 2 - collaborators
The question arises – does the original idea matter at all? As asked by Senn and Uberoi in Who owns movement? does the ‘source’ as we call it matter? If ideas are floating around all the time, just waiting to be expressed (every artist can agree, they have more ideas than time!), is it when these ideas turn into something concrete, a material, haptic, graspable, documentable piece of art that the sense of ownership comes about?  There is some amount of self-discovery that occurs through the process that involves turning ideas into artwork. The artist discovers a lot about her ‘self’, her doubts, her general inclination, her temperament, her perspectives towards life and the world. The ‘theme’, the concept, even the core impulse destabilise during a creative process, as do the artists’ selves. The questions addressed can become more nuanced as their research deepen and becomes more and more self-reflective over time. The need to further uncover and scour through the ‘unknown’ layers grows. 
Image 3 - man and god

To address dance specifically, it is amazing how it changes in the very moment of performance. The space, the dancers’ bodies, the audience, almost always tend to re-choreograph a work in the moment of its execution. Any mistakes the performers make can be read as the material of the performance. And oftentimes also gets incorporated into the following versions of the performance.


The question of source takes on greater importance in the practice of archiving of dance, or while using the older forms in newer ways as they try to evolve to keep up with the world. Garry Stewart, eminent Australian choreographer, filmmaker and former artistic director of the Australian Dance Theatre, related a similar instance during his discussion with Jayachandran Palazhy following the screening of his film The Circadian Cycle.  He has used aboriginal chants in the musical score of his series Nature, a live performance choreography from which originate some of the movements in The Circadian Cycle. For the use of these chants, he sought out the tribe elders, learnt the history from them, and asked for their consent on what he could use, and what he could not. This is what one must mean by – “repurposing older traditions while staying true to their original beliefs!”

Image 4 - “our traditions”
While discussing past traditions, one can see how the emergence of virtual spaces and digital technologies are bringing changes to our present outlook on dance. With motion capture technologies, as demonstrated by Senn and Uberoi, one no longer has a need for performers, or theatres, or even choreographers once the form is digitised. It is possible to record movements, and later use them to form virtual dancers, and even create full length works. There exists a lot more freedom for the dance-maker vis a vis the form, shape and physical ability of the performers, when it comes to the virtual! Where is the origin here? Perhaps with the computer! As, Dr. Sundar Sarukkai mentioned in the discussion on Future of Performance, soon we may well have robots as dancers! Perhaps here the dance belongs to the coder? Is a coder the new-age choreographer now?
Image 5 -“robot dancers”

In the end, one could argue that it is what the viewer sees that matters. There are stages, auditoriums, theatres, galleries and other spaces where the ideas from the dance enter the minds of the audience. These ideas evolve and change through their thoughts, their perceptions. The piece remains constantly alive and shifting through the conversations it sparks off, through the responses it receives, in the form of artwork or otherwise. There exist multiple versions of each dance in the minds of the viewers.


Perhaps nobody owns the dance. Perhaps it belongs to those who feel touched by it. Everyone who understands a part of it, who relates to a particular movement, a particular moment. Perhaps it is just passing through our lives, like rain that can be a light shower or a gale, giving us something new to ponder, something to feel.

Image 6 - “art is ephemeral, no one can own it”
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