Asian Music and Dance

The Future for Dance in an Uncertain Landscape

Kavya Kaushik is a former politician and kathak dancer who is currently working as a digital producer. How does she envisage a future for classical dance?

The creative sector has been on a journey over the last few years with ever-shifting funding goalposts and political changes. While Arts Council funding has been renewed this year for major South Asian players, a steep decline year on year in creative funding is apparent and the pot of money for the Arts is ever shrinking.1 Combined with our dual citizenship of ‘diverse’ or ‘ethnic’ art, the declining pot of money seems ever further out of our reach.

“Intergenerational inequality…a hot topic…”

Intergenerational inequality has been a hot topic within the media for some time now, with avocado-gorging millennials being blamed for everything, be it decreasing diamond sales or the increasingly out-of-reach housing market. Within Indian dance it is no different; artists are still defined as ‘upcoming’, even in their mid-50s. Numerous articles are regularly written about how our generation doesn’t do any riyaaz (practice), or that we exclusively train at workshops, or that we don’t respect our elders or gurus.

“What do milennials do in the face of adversity?”

Pairing our reputation for laziness with the lack of funding (and with that the lack of opportunity), we seem to be losing out in every direction. Dance generations before us were fortunate enough to have access to more funding during the Blair economic boom years, and lower housing and living costs. We are a generation of austerity, unaffordable rent, and don’t even have the support of our own mentors and gurus. What do millennials do in the face of adversity? We innovate. We diversify. We download apps to get our avocado toast delivered to our doorsteps.

“… high-quality [Bollywood] dance performances… accessible and engaging.”

Some artists have diversified through accepting commercial viability, sniffing what sells, and appealing to non-classical environments such as Bollywood. The industry shuns the diversifiers as sell-outs. The commercial viability of Bollywood dance has accelerated the quality of Bollywood dance. Some of the biggest names in the UK commercial Indian dance scene are producing profitable, high-quality dance performances. Phizzical’s Bring On The Bollywood, touring this year, has seen regularly high audience turn-out. Audiences unlikely to engage with a varnam (an item in bharatanatyam that moves between abstract and narrative dance) find the art accessible and engaging.

“…when the product begins to decline…the producer must innovate…”

“For Bring On The Bollywood, we approached the creative journey differently. It wasn’t just about innovation, it was about providing the right tools to market the show. We were close to full capacity at a 1,000-seater in Cornwall, and had 80 per cent capacity in Ipswich. Audiences engaged with our show, with dance movements deeply rooted within classical technique.” (Samir Bhamra, Artistic Director, Phizzical)

Within any product life-cycle there is a point when the product begins to decline, mostly due to factors unrelated to quality. This can be due to a variety of components such as declining market demand, higher supplier costs or market changes. That is when the producer must innovate the product and revolutionise the market.

“…our primary objective should be focused on audience development.”

Within Indian classical dance we lack producers, leaving innovation on the shoulders of artists, for whom content should be key. Stagnation of the classical sector has led to an already tiny audience growing weary. What’s the unique selling-point for classical dance when you know you’ll see the same varnam, the same tukras (short compositions in kathak dance), the same outfits, presented in a performance that wowed you the first time you saw it ten years ago? The dancer may be different each time, but presenting a piece in the same format grows repetitive when the audience is made up of the same people.

What’s the solution? There are a few. Firstly, our primary objective should be focused on audience development. The audience at most classical dance shows tends to be the same thirty people, who are all dancers or ex-dancers themselves and will meet later to dissect the show. Audiences show interest in commercial performances and instead of shunning Bollywood dance, we should learn from these companies to see how they engage audiences.

“…we should all function as producers…”

Secondly, we should look at innovation in all its respects. If we have a deficit of producers, we should all function as producers and sniff out the gap in the market. This is not limited to creative and artistic decisions, but can also operate within the dance community. Jaivant Patel identified a lack of opportunities for dancers to perform and resolved this by curating a successful festival, Samarpan, in Wolverhampton this year. This brought a much-needed platform for classical Indian dance within a new community, while also creating a new dance community and building some much-needed camaraderie.

“Samarpan sought to create an opportunity for a next generation of artists working in the UK to present work. There is a need to push this agenda because of the identified lack of opportunities.” (Jaivant Patel)

The stand-out moment at the Navadisha conference for me last year was Suba Subramaniam’s speech on bharatanatyam and climate change. Sadhana Dance secured funding by looking outside traditional arts funding streams, and tapping into the politically-relevant topic of climate change. There was no compromise in quality, with the effects of climate change painting a vivid backdrop for Suba’s bharatanatyam.

Subverting the tropes and norms of traditional classical structures comes naturally to millennials. Raised on the internet, we have had access to the creative world from a young age. We don’t need to conform to the same varnams and tukras; we don’t need to follow every step of the ladder taken by our gurus before us. The art form can remain pure and classical while changing a small component of its structure to allow innovation, be that a change within its administration, curation or its funding stream. As a generation we are adept at identifying problems and building creative solutions. We need to apply the same agility to classical dance.

“…we need to plan for contingencies with agile innovation.”

With an uncertain political future ahead of us and an increasingly hostile government attitude towards diversity and inclusivity, we need to plan for contingencies with agile innovation. Be it digital innovation, artistic innovation or simply a renovation of our classical structures, our life-cycle needs to be revived. This isn’t the responsibility of one producer or one dancer, but the responsibility of everyone involved in the sector. If we don’t have an audience, we simply won’t survive.

1 A timeline for cuts to arts funding 2009–2015 can be found at www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/museum-funding/19122012-cuts-timeline



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