Monday, October 08, 2012

The Hindu/ Footloose/ Performance Ethics

Performance Ethics - 1

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that deals with values relating to human conduct. It is a system of moral principles that provides guidelines with respect to the right and wrong of certain actions. In the working world, the terms ‘work ethic’, ‘business ethics’ and so on are terms one hears often. In the world of performing arts, we could say that ideally there should be something called ‘performance ethics’. So, what I’m calling ‘performance ethics’ outlines the rights and wrongs in the world of performing arts with respect to artists and people that deal with them.

Unfortunately, the way a lot of artists view each other and the way they are viewed by the people who professionally associate with them betrays a kind of amnesia regarding ethics in performing arts. And out of all the performing arts in India, dance seems to be at the bottom in terms of ethics.

First of all, a sense of community amongst individual artists seems to be lacking. A lot of artists view each other as competition. While this is true in some senses, it builds very high walls between them. At best, they stay on cordial but not friendly terms with one another, and do not collaborate with each other. At worst, they criticize one another behind each other’s back or openly display their insecurities regarding one another. Of course, this is not to say that all artists are back-stabbing rivals. Many are close friends and even work together. But there are enough who build walls around themselves to make this worth pointing out.

Secondly, when it comes to being in a company or group, the code of ethics is vague and sometimes shocking. For instance, several company contracts make absurd demands out of dancers, such as not being allowed to fall ill or get injured. If dancers do happen to fall ill or get injured, they are unable to perform with the company and their income is affected. Moreover, the companies are not contractually bound to provide medical expenses for injuries sustained while working for them. Dancers are also not allowed to learn or teach anywhere other than within the company. This is not only makes them entirely dependent on the companies, but also arguably stunts their growth as individual artists. Again, this is not the case with every dance company in India, but enough dance companies adopt one or more of these stands with regard to their dancers, making their performance ethics questionable.

Finally, there appears to be a ‘generation gap’ in the arts. Some well established artists who have struggled through the weary days of impoverishment and exploitation in their younger years become festival directors and put young artists through the same exploitation that they faced. Exploitation is a strong word, but that is what it is. I cannot say why this is – whether it’s a lack of empathy, or a genuine belief that a struggle is a necessary part of the journey to greatness. Either way, it discounts the internal struggle a young artist inevitably faces. A struggle that is inherent to the learning process, something that experienced artists are aware of, having been through it themselves in their early years as professionals. Having also been through the external struggle as a result of unfair demands made by organizers, one would imagine that this part of the struggle is something that one generation of artists would want to eliminate for the coming generation. But this has not always happened. The transformation from artist to organizer is perhaps too absolute and maybe lacks the advantages that should exist when an artist organizes festivals. An organizer who has never experienced being on the other side may lack the empathy and understanding, but an artist turned organizer does not have that excuse.

Admittedly, running a festival, directing a dance company and not viewing each other as competition in a fiercely competitive atmosphere are not easy tasks. But whoever said being ethical was easy?

Performance Ethics - 2

The previous article of ‘Footloose’ broadly mentioned some of the ethical concerns that artists are faced with in the performing world. But ethics is not something that is required of dancers and other artists alone.  Often, the individual sense of ethics of artists is strong, but the people they’re forced to deal with on their way to the stage are far less ethical.

In no other professional line of work is it remotely conceivable to expect a service to be provided without adequate compensation. Yet, in the world of performing arts, it happens all the time. Many a time, there is no compensation. And far too often, the compensation is nowhere near adequate.

The biggest problem faced by artists when dealing with organizers and sponsors of an event is the lack of payment. Far too often, artists are expected to perform free of charge. Several explanations are given to substantiate this exploitation, the most common one being that artists are being given a great platform. Another common explanation for not being able to pay an artist is that the organizers themselves were not funded well enough or at all. In my view, if an organizer of an event is unable to secure funding or sponsorship for an event, then the event should be rescheduled for a time when funding is available. If the funds were available, but limited, then it comes down to prioritizing. Is the festival about presenting fifty artists, of which none are paid or about five good artists who are well paid? For outstation performances, paying for the artists’ travel and accommodation should be the basic minimum provided to the artist.

Secondly, many performances involve other art forms – a classical dance performance involves live musicians, a contemporary dance performance may involve multimedia collaborations, a classical singer requires accompanists, and a music ensemble or band involves 4-5 members along with sound engineers and so on. If the performing artist is to bear all these costs, a performance ends up being a huge financial undertaking for the artist. Occasionally, the artist may break even but there is little left for livelihood. To suffer for one’s art is a romantic notion, but to survive in the world, an artist must be able to generate some income from his or her art.  

Several artists are forced to seek other sources of income to survive. They have day jobs, or they teach  – many do this out of desperation, rather than because they like their day jobs or teaching. So much time and energy goes into making ends meet – and it eats into the time that should have been spent creatively and intellectually on their art.

Aside from the questionable ethics related to finances, sometimes organizers unwittingly rob artists of basic dignity by leaving them in the lurch regarding dates. Without confirmation on dates, an artist is either forced to commit blindly or loses opportunities to perform. Last minute cancellations are also common, ignoring the fact that the performing artist has been rehearsing for the performance for weeks before. All this is not only disrespectful professionally, but it is personally humiliating as well.

I admit, that given how much funding the arts receive from the government and how much patronage exists currently for classical and contemporary performing arts, it is easier to point fingers or write such an article, than to actually put proper systems in place to ensure a better 'performance ethic'. But my intention is not to point fingers. It is to highlight that these problems exist, and are very real. They have been firmly put into place by years of tolerance of the attitude 'unfortunately, this is how things are'. But the lack of ethics in the performing world hinders artistic expression and violates the process of creative work. Artists must be allowed to focus full time on their work, with a certain degree of security. And this can only happen if we begin to take 'performance ethics' very, very seriously.

The Hindu/ Footloose/ The Outside Eye

An ‘outside eye’ is crucial to creative work. This article explores what this concept of an ‘outside eye’ is and why it is important. No good work is created without real or imaginary feedback from a relatively impartial outsider.  This person must be one with considerable knowledge about or experience in the field. He or she must have a critical eye and be someone who is not personally involved in the creative process. Finally, this person must be someone who matters to the creator, whose opinions and feedback the creator trusts and values.

This happens in several creative fields. For example, in the world of academia, before a PhD is submitted for evaluation, it is repeatedly scrutinized by a supervisor. A critical dialogue happens between the doctoral student and the supervisor, who provides the ‘outside eye’. Through this dialogue, decisions regarding the work are arrived at collectively before the final product reaches the public in the form of a thesis or book. The thesis or book is still credited to the author, but the book benefits greatly from the scrutiny of the 'outside eye'. This isn’t a choice, but a condition for the creators to get their work into the public sphere. Journal articles and books are routinely peer reviewed before publication. 

In the art world, however, this appears not to be a prerequisite to the display of art work. The absence of critical scrutiny before an art exhibition, a music concert, a play, or a dance performance does not, on the surface, hinder the end result. A dance performance, for example, is not withheld from public simply because the choreographer did not have his or her work critically viewed by an informed well-wisher before a performance. Therefore, very often, this aspect of the creative process is left out during the creation of work in dance. It is often believed that the choreographer knows best how to view, edit and go about choreographing his or her work.

While this is largely true, it does not mean that an outside eye is not important for the creation of dance. Choreographers certainly know better than anyone what their idea and concept is, and should be more than capable of selecting and training their dancers. For the dance piece itself to be as complete as possible, however, there is more skill required. Is the idea communicating through movement? Is this communication so abstract that it doesn’t translate clearly enough, or too literal that it leaves nothing to the imagination? To be sure about answers to these questions, bringing in an ‘outside eye’ is tremendously beneficial.

This is not to say that choreographers are incapable of judging whether their ideas are communicating appropriately. But it is possible to get carried away by an idea when working on your own. An outside eye has several advantages. First of all, the outside eye, has not been personally and emotionally attached to the concept or the choreography. Therefore, it provides an objective view of the piece in a way that a choreographer perhaps cannot. Moreover, an outside eye can provide a fresh perspective on the work and make the choreographer view his work from a different viewpoint. Finally, it can point out things in the piece that are or aren’t working, that the choreographer, for several reasons, may have overlooked.

Often choreographers realize things in retrospect. Receiving harsh critical feedback after a performance or watching a performance video, they realize they could have done some things differently. But in many ways, its too late. The work has already been subjected to public scrutiny. Judgments have been made, grants or further performance opportunities have been lost, auditions have been unsuccessful – whatever the context.

Perhaps the use of an ‘outside eye’ could have changed negative outcomes into positive ones in some of these situations. Because this external standpoint gives choreographers something that they can easily lose sight of – objectivity and critique. Moreover, it provides fresh perspectives and inputs, points out flaws which choreographers may have overlooked. All this feedback comes from a critical eye the choreographer values and an outside opinion that the choreographer trusts. And crucially, the outside eye provides all this before the work goes public. Before its too late to turn back.

The Hindu/Footloose/Dance Criticism

Dance journalism in India leaves much to be desired. Dance is rarely spoken or written about in the media, and when it is, it is often uneducated, badly researched and uninteresting to read. The rare writings on dance mostly take the form of reviews of performances. Dancers use these critiques to legitimize their work. Only a handful of critics are around to validate or discredit the work of thousands of dancers. Herein lies the first problem. Dance criticism is dying in India. There simply aren’t enough critics to review the work of a growing number of performers. Moreover, because of the lack of critics, the few who exist are placed on a pedestal and become unquestionable. The lack of a space for communication and dialogue between the dancer and critic make the reviews, once published – indisputable. There is no room for the critic to clarify any doubts before printing their reviews, and no space for a dancer to respond to this critique in as public a space as the one in which the review appears. This creates mistrust between the dancer and critic.

Secondly, the nature of these reviews have come under scrutiny in the past (see Sadanand Menon’s article in 1984 titled ‘Those large liquid eyes’) and today’s reviews also largely leave many questioning the validity and legitimacy of the critics. This might be so because the relationship between the dancer and the critic is not of mutual understanding and learning, as it should be. In my view, the job of the dancer is to communicate his or her idea through her dance. In turn, the critic’s job is to constructively guide a dancer with his or her critique. Sometimes, however, a review leaves a dancer feeling demoralized and perplexed.

At a very basic level, the mistrust is further fuelled by badly conducted research. Last year, a newspaper article that was covering Mandeep Raikhy’s ‘Inhabited Geometry’ read that its choreographer was Desmond Roberts, who was in fact, the photographer whose photograph was enclosed in the article. Another review wrote off a choreographer as German, when in fact, he was an Indian dancer who had trained in Austria. In yet another article, a Bharatanatyam dancer was said to be a Kalakshetra graduate. In reality, she was trained in Delhi in the Kalakshetra style. Poor research and lack of attention to detail then must be a reason for this mistrust.

Another reason for this mistrust is the regurgitation of ‘programme notes’ and passing this off as a critique. Descriptive rather than analytical pieces of writing betray a reluctance to scrutinize and appreciate the dancer’s work. Reviews often use most of the space available to describe the ambience, the nature of the audience and the general atmosphere rather than the dance itself.

Finally, some critics make sweeping statements which often contradict themselves. One review mentioned that the ‘charismatic’ dancer ‘lacked energy and emotion’ and then went on to say that the dancer performed abhinaya ‘in a captivating manner’. In making such a contradictory statement, it is imperative to explain how a ‘charismatic’ dancer lacked ‘energy’ and how it came to be that a dancer who ‘lacked emotion’ was able to perform abhinaya ‘in a captivating manner’. Otherwise, the critique is meaningless and vexing!

To conclude, it is absolutely vital that we find some way to arouse the interest of young journalists to write about dance, and train them in a proper manner. Further, those that take this up as a profession must be more careful and responsible when critiquing work, keeping in mind their main purpose – to constructively and objectively critique work.

 Dance criticism needs an overhaul, without which this relationship between the dancer and critic may fall apart completely. This is alarming, because dance criticism is a lively and integral part of the dance world. A good system of criticism keeps dancers on their toes. It also informs the larger world about new work being created in the dance world everyday. Finally, it opens up the possibility for dialogue between the performers and spectators – something that brings the art and artist closer to the people. We need this overhaul now – because good critics are crucial to an intelligent and responsive dance community.

When Dance Criticism is Constructive...

My previous article on criticism led to some speculation on what exactly constructive criticism is. Did the term imply that the critic’s role is to always praise the dancer? Is constructive criticism by a critic meant to help the dancer?

The answer to the first question is a definite ‘no’. Constructive criticism does not imply praise. The very fact that the word ‘criticism’ appears in that phrase implies that it is distinct from unconditional praise. The critics’ role is definitely not to always praise the dancer, and certainly not if it is undeserved. A critic’s job is to critically observe and comment on a piece of work. This may involve praise, but equally it may not. That really depends on the quality of work being critiqued and the detail with which a critic scrutinizes a piece of work.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complex. It begs further questions regarding what it means to ‘help’ a dancer. If the second question is linked with the first, then this kind of ‘help’ (undeserved and unrelenting praise) is, as I mentioned earlier, not the critic’s job. But constructively criticizing the work of a dancer is helpful to a dancer in that it inevitably points out what isn’t working in the piece. So in that sense, the critic’s role does lend a helpful hand to the dancer by constructively commenting on his or her work.

At this point, it becomes crucial to explain what I mean by ‘constructive criticism’. Constructive criticism is compatible with honest, hard criticism. A poor piece of choreography must be reviewed as so, but it will be a comprehensive critique only if the reasons for why this choreography is poor are made clear. In such an instance, it not only informs the readers about the work but also lets the choreographer know what went wrong. This is crucial for a responsive relationship that a dancer and a critic ideally share.

An article in the New York times mentioned that what we need are “more authoritative and punishing critics – perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star”. It goes on to say that criticism is about “making fine distinctions” and involves “talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if they matter”. This, to me, is constructive criticism. So, reviews that are detailed descriptions of events cannot do justice to this kind of critique that is crucially needed in the world of Indian dance.

Constructive criticism is so much deeper than the largely descriptive critiques we often see today. Constructively criticizing a dance piece must involve engaging with the ideas that are being put forth by the choreographer. It must involve an informed analysis of movement and whether or not it connects conceptually to what the dancers dance on stage. I also believe that the critic’s personal voice should be more prominent, since it is his or her valued opinion that is appearing in print. As a reader of the review, it is interesting to know whether the conceptual ideas of the choreographer were translated capably into movement. As a choreographer and a dancer, this is not only interesting but also helpful. If it did, then the critique must legitimately involve praise, but if it did not, the critic must feel free to criticize the work. The artists are then informed that their ideas did not translate. This can seem hurtful and harsh, but again necessary for a responsive dance community and a thriving relationship between the critic and artist.

In turn, and this should not be taken lightly either, the dancers and choreographers must value this constructive critique, regardless of whether it praises or harshly criticizing them. Constructive criticism has no ulterior motives and therefore no imaginable reason for criticizing dancers unnecessarily. So, just as dancers shouldn’t be subjected to undeserved praise or criticism, a constructive critique must not be dismissed by dancers. It is in the interest of dancers to take such critique seriously.

As a dance community, we must collectively end the circle of mistrust. The parallel but destructive ideas coming from both dancers (“Why should we take their critique seriously? It’s descriptive, lacks analysis of any kind – praise or criticism”) and critics (“Dancers never take criticism seriously anyway”) can be a never-ending merry-go-round. A resolute decision has to be made by both to trust each other more. A change in the way reviews are written might reflect a change in the dancers’ perception of reviews. Further, a resolve to seriously internalize and appreciate legitimate critique by dancers might improve the way reviews are written. It will undoubtedly be a slow process. Mistrust takes a while to disappear. But if constructive critique becomes the norm, and dancers begin to appreciate the laborious work of critics who put this effort into writing reviews, this mistrust will slowly but surely evaporate into thin air.