Ruminations on Asianness and Dance
How do we continue to speak about Asianness in dance today? In claiming an Asian identity, what is at stake and which agendas are we validating? What are some choreographic strategies to circumnavigate the landscapes of aesthetics, politics and/or the arts market, which remains significantly dominated by the West?
Kok’s questions set me thinking and I shared my reflections verbally, then, and in written form now:
How do we continue to speak about Asianness in dance today?
I became aware of the concept of Asianness with regard to dance in the 1970s as a primary school student. The school at which I studied promoted dance very actively. And by dance, I mean ballet that was performed mainly by Chinese girls, usually dressed in tutus and dancing to western classical music. While the dancers who performed ballet were featured on prominent platforms, where relevant I was invited to present my solo, five minutes of my classical Indian dance form, bharatanatyam. At the age of 12 and 13, it felt good; I felt exclusive in my bharatanatyam attire, dancing differently from the other girls.
Now, 40 years later and viewing my past through various lenses, I see my Chinese friends in primary school as having performed aspirational whiteness. I, on the other hand, played the role of the token brown person who performed the token ‘ethnic’ dance form.
I still see myself, in the wider framework of dance as that token brown person engaging with a token ethnic dance form – be it in educational settings, performance or other spaces. At the core of these settings are the western forms - ballet, modern dance or contemporary dance. I must admit that for the brown person, dance (strictly defined in ethnic terms) is the ticket to travel as a tourist in a Chinese world in Singapore. But it is also a way to assert brown presence. So, we can neither give into the ethnic silos nor completely do away with them.
To quote dance anthropologist Andrée Grau on race and multiculturalism in the UK: “…white artists, often see their oeuvre examined in artistic terms and their work understood as somewhat ‘universal’ and ‘acultural’. In contrast, … artists whose families originated outside Europe… often see their work receive a ‘cultural treatment’, linking it to narrow notions of heritage and tradition, and thereby excluding them from the broader world.” (2008, 239).
I looked at the Esplanade’s 2017 Dance Festival programme line-up where “Asian” forms were mostly non-ticketed and relegated to performances at the Concourse, outdoor spaces and as workshops and talks.
The website also highlights the separate arts festivals that are organised by the Esplanade to feature the various communities – Kalaa Utsavam, Pesta Raya and Huayi platforms. But it needs to be kept in mind that in the performance space, we speak of ‘Asianness’ as the ‘Other’ that exists in silos, on the margins, as cultural heritage and cultural representation. How the different ethnicities are situated on the margins would be an interesting area of study.
Asianness is the tag that is needed to justify the presence of the dancing body that is not trained in the western dance idiom.
On the other side, there tends to be a sidelining by the specific ‘ethnic’ community, of the dancer who is seen to veer away from what is considered acceptable representation . Not only have I experienced this personally, but I also understand from conversations with younger dancers who are keen to push the boundaries of thought and form that it can be challenging to negotiate the structures. The marginalisation on both sides of the fence (i.e. within the ethnic silo and in the mainstream) carries implications in terms of recognition, opportunities and ultimately -- the ability to exist.
In other words – erasure.
In claiming an Asian identity, what is at stake and which agendas are we validating?
When talking of claiming the Asian identity, let me first hold up the lenses of history and nostalgia.
The late pioneering dance teacher Mr. K.P. Bhaskar stated in an interview with me that in the 1960s there were multi-racial performances organised by political parties featuring Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western dance (in Seshadri, 2013). Ballet choreographer and dance scholar Francis Yeoh highlights that when the National Dance Company (NDC) was formed later, ballet existed alongside the other forms (2006). The promotion of a ballet dancer/choreographer to the important position of artistic director, as opposed to someone from the other dance forms, points to the privileging of ballet as occupying a distinct class from the other forms. By the time the Singapore Multi Ethnic Dance Ensemble was formed a few years later under the umbrella of the People’s Association, ballet was separated from the “traditional” dance forms. The ballet wing of the NDC went on to become the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) in 1988 which went on to receive strong support from the government and has been featured prominently, right from its inception. In discussing the attention received by SDT, sociologist Gan Hui Cheng highlights the marginalised position of ethnic dance forms, which is in stark contrast to their role, visibility and status in the 1950s (2002).
These past events reveal that by claiming the Asian identity in Singapore, especially in the 1980s, we have subscribed to the western evolutionary model of classification of dance forms that has been discussed by anthropologist Joann Keali’ihonomoku who underscores the point that ‘ethnic’ (unchanging traditions) is relegated to the margins and ballet viewed as superior (1970).
What is at stake? I would say (from my observations and experiences in the field):
Freedom from cultural custodianship, and from cultural essentialism
Granted that at this point in time, traditional arts are being given a boost in funding and support. But we still need to ask: ‘what is at stake here?’ The use of the term “traditional art” suggests notions of ‘the unchanging’, ‘reproduction’, ‘perpetuation’, rather than a questioning of the status quo and the pushing of boundaries. The freedom to create and express oneself authentically – these are at stake.
In Singapore, the classical Indian dancer (whether aware of it or not) exists at the intersection of multiple agendas – cultural essentialism, collective nostalgia for an imagined homeland, exoticism, multiculturalism, overt emphasis on religiosity, as well as an Indian nationalism that is increasingly mobile.
Anthropologist Sitara Thobani highlights: “It is in the transnational context that essentialised constructions of India are further cemented, leading to the strengthening of ideas regarding coherence, uniformity and impermeability of Indian culture.” (2017, 105).
In my opinion, the current categorisation of the “Asian” hinders authentic expression and true inclusivity. However, questioning and rejecting the way in which the category is now occupied might unleash its emancipatory potential.
What are some choreographic strategies to circumnavigate the landscapes of aesthetics, politics and/or the arts market, which remains significantly dominated by the West?
As historian Prasenjit Duara points out, there is a need to view Asianness not as a constant/fixed region but instead as a process of regionalisation, thus “distinguishing between the relatively unplanned or evolutionary emergence of an area of interaction and interdependence as a region and the more active, often ideologically driven political process of creating a region, or regionalisation” (2010, 963). Dance as it is employed today buys into the imaginary construction of Asianness. Dance is one site on which the negotiation of Asianness takes place. Viewing it as a process means that it can be done differently – it can be reshaped actively and consciously.
Choreographic strategies would include:
Choreographing Asian within the framework of cultural heritage and in solidarity with the networks that support this strategy. My own choreographic journey began with this strategy. By the age of 16, I had developed a keen interest in choreographing varnams (a varnam is a central piece in the bharatanatyam repertoire) and other pieces in the bharatanatyam recital which I would perform mainly at temple festivals in Singapore, and at the conventional performance platforms in Chennai and other cities in India. My earliest full-length choreographic work was Sarvam Brahma Mayam (1997) in which I explored the parallels between Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and Sri Paramahansa Yogananda’s Man’s Eternal Quest. Moments in Time (2002), was a presentation of the traditional repertoire in the first two segments – The Homecoming and Loving Man and God in Movement. While I attempted to weave a contemporary theme into these segments, the idiom was very much within the traditional framework in terms of movement, expression, music and costume.
However, I gradually found it more and more difficult to subscribe to the power structures of bharatanatyam that is governed by rules of purity and appropriateness.
The lack of right to choice in the personal and artistic spheres became an area I needed to address - after all, both belonged to the same patriarchal cultural paradigm. Equating a male lover with God became problematic for me as a dancer as it implied the superiority and deification of the human male. This created a conflict within me both in art and in my life, which I sought to examine through my choreographic process.
I needed to address the gender imbalances in my socio-cultural context and search for more empowering images of womanhood, both in dance and in life. The questions and unrest in my mind were expressed in my choreographic works. The fact that I faced these conflicts woke me up to the restrictions of the silos. There was a need for Indian dance to grow to reflect the lived realities of women. But it could not grow as long as imposed, essentialised Asianness required it to look a particular way.
I began to work through intercultural and interdisciplinary collaborative processes. While I am aware that collaborative processes are often positioned on the Asia-West axis, I belong to that group that tended to replace the Asia-Western binary with intra-Asian collaborations.
I want to add here that the collaborative choreographic space can be a complex one. If Asianness has emerged out of a history of imperialism and anti-imperialism, then history has also shown us that new forms of imperialism later emerged within Asia (Duara, 2010). Power dynamics come into play in any environment in which there is an imbalance; therefore in this context it could end up merely substituting Western domination with another form of domination.
Through a feminist choreographic approach, I contradicted the prescriptive framework of bharatanatyam to create works that expressed the lived feminine through the portrayal of eroticism, critiquing of gender norms, and expression of personal lived experience. This focus on lived reality leads me to think that liberation from imposed categories of Asianness cannot only take place through new collaborations (whether intra-Asian or trans-Asian with the Global South). It also needs— simultaneously— to take place through reclaiming the individual body. My current space of work thus reflects feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde’s defense of self-care in a context where certain bodies are erased— that sort of self-care is “not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (1988).
In my current approach I focus inward on the individual body, its inner wisdom, its relationship to nature, its connection to other bodies in space and its potential to free itself from the hegemonic paradigms. Drawing inspiration from Lorde’s defense of self-care (ibid.), I have come to believe that to thrive as a dancer (and not just exist) in the patriarchal and capitalist framework that our dance forms are situated, requires this sort of attention to the self. But when we also look to these other connections that I suggest, there is perhaps the potential for a more radical sort of collaboration that resists a hegemonic Asianness for a more organic and emancipatory form.
In conclusion, I feel inclined to revisit Kok’s first question: “How do we continue to speak about Asianness in dance today?” In this response, I have provided my observations, experiences and negotiations in the field of dance in Singapore, where the concept of “Asian” tends to not only define but also hem in the practitioner of a non-western dance form such as bharatanatyam. I have highlighted the convergence of multiple agendas that emphasise cultural reproduction rather than encourage authentic expression.
However, in examining unfolding choreographic strategies, I suggest the possibility of speaking about Asianness not in hierarchical or hegemonic terms but in a liberating sense -- as a space that is in continuous metamorphosis through active and radical interventions.
Many thanks to Daniel Kok and Shobha Avadhani for their valuable provocations and inputs. A version of this piece was first published in DANCE NUCLEUS FUSE #1.
Nirmala Seshadri is a choreographer, movement educator, researcher and writer. Trained in Bharatanatyam both in Singapore and India, her social justice perspective leads her to use the body and performance space to interrogate existing inequalities, problematising boundaries of time, place, gender, and caste, among other social constructs. Her research interests include kinesthesia and corporeality, gender, tradition and transition, site specificity, cultural hybridisation and the politics of identity. She graduated with a Masters degree in Dance Anthropology (with distinction) from the University of Roehampton, London and works at developing her movement approach Antarika as a tool for healing, introspection and improvisation.
Duara, Prasenjit (2010) ‘Asia Redux: Conceptualizing a Region for Our Times’, in The Journal of Asian Studies, 69, 963-983
Gan, Hui Cheng (2002) ‘Dancing Bodies: Culture and Modernity’, in Kwok, Kian Woon, Mahizhnan, Arun and T. Sasitharan, eds. Selves – The State of the Arts in Singapore, Singapore: National Arts Council
Grau, Andrée (2008) ‘Dance and the Shifting Sands of Multiculturalism’, in Munsi, Urmimala Sarkar, ed. Dance: Transcending Borders, New Delhi: Tulika Books
Keali’ihonomoku, Joann (1970) ‘An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a form of Ethnic Dance’, in Copeland, Roger and Marshall Cohen, eds. What is Dance? : Readings in Theory and Criticism, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Lorde, Audre (1988) A burst of light: essays, Michigan: Firebrand Books
Yeoh, Francis (2006) ‘Nationalism in Dance: The Singapore Perspective’, in Foley, Catherine, ed. Dance Research Forum Ireland, “At the Crossroads? Dance and Irish Culture”, Ireland: University of Limerick
Seshadri, Nirmala (2013) ‘Mr. K.P. Bhaskar: 60 years of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’, in Seshadri, N., ed. Aesthetics, Singapore: Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society
Thobani, Sitara (2017) Indian Classical Dance and the Making of Postcolonial National Identities: Dancing on Empire's Stage, Routledge
Esplanade Theatres on the Bay (2017), ’dans festival 2017 programmes’ [online], Singapore, available from: https://www.esplanade.com/festivals-and-series/sites/dans-festival/2017/programmes#all [accessed on 5 June 2018]
 In Singapore, the state manages cultural diversity in reductionist terms. The CMIO [Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others] model cognitively streamlines society into four ethnic groups . . . While the CMIO model is in tune with the demands of mass society and global consumerism, it influences ethnic stereotyping in Singapore.’ See Laurence Wai-Teng Leong (1997) ‘Commodifying Ethnicity: State and Ethnic Tourism in Singapore’, in Picard, Michel and Robert Everett Wood, eds. Tourism, Ethnicity, and the State in Asian and Pacific Societies, Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 92–3.
 My recent essay on this issue of marginalisation is: Seshadri, Nirmala (2017) ‘The Problematic Danseuse: Reclaiming Space to Dance the Lived Feminine’, in Diotima’s: A Journal of New Readings, Kozhikode, Kerala: Providence Women’s College, 54-79
 These works have been described in my essays:
Seshadri, Nirmala (2011) ‘Challenging Patriarchy through Dance’, in Caldwell, Linda ed. In Time Together [online], Denton: Texas Woman’s University, available from: https://www.scribd.com/document/338711894/Challenging-Patriarchy-Zru-Dance [accessed on 12 June 2018]
Seshadri, Nirmala (2017) ‘Bharatanatyam and Butoh: An Emerging Gendered Conversation through Site-Specific Dance in Chennai and Singapore”, in Munsi, Urmimala Sarkar and Aishika Chakraborty eds. The Moving Space: Women in Dance, New Delhi: Primus Books, 182-197
Seshadri, Nirmala (2017) ‘The Problematic Danseuse: Reclaiming Space to Dance the Lived Feminine’, in Diotima’s: A Journal of New Readings, Kozhikode, Kerala: Providence Women’s College, 54-79