The Music Academy’s dance festival has been an important step forward in the conduct of dance performances in this part of the world. For starters, it is one of the few festivals offering the dancer sufficient remuneration to at least cover costs, and provide an aesthetically pleasing performance space with more than adequate facilities. The selection of performers too seems to be based on merit, with a proper system of gradation between morning and primetime dancers.
The audience actually pays good money to watch these programmes conducted with professional efficiency, and in turn gets to witness a reasonable range of genres of dance from different parts of India with a neat balance of solo and group offerings.
Sruti’s correspondents have criticisms and suggestions to make in this and future issues but there is consensus that despite its shortcomings, the series is one of the best things to happen to classical dance in Tamil Nadu in a long while. One of its best features has been the buzz around it, rarely matched outside of the Kalakshetra art festival in its heyday.
Kalakshetra has managed to hold on to much of its value system through the decades. Though some oldtimers may complain of falling standards, even its worst critics will agree that successive directors since the passing of Rukmini Devi Arundale have somehow managed to prevent serious inroads into the quality of instruction or dilution of the processes initiated by the founder.
Similar islands of excellence do exist elsewhere, and it would be unfair and condescending on our part to critique institutions with an all-knowing air of superior judgement, but the ground reality of the dance teaching and performance scene is by and large depressing. Most dancers are dancers not because they cannot help dancing or even because they see a good career in dancing (there is none), but because it is something some parents believe daughters should do as an additional qualification. (We are not going into the world of male dancers).
It is an expensive proposition, not least because dancers must pay organizers for opportunities to perform, because there is ostensibly no viable revenue model to support dance. Absurdly, there is steady demand for dance teachers because young people, mostly girls, still want to learn dance and every dancer who has paid her way through her performing career can for the first time earn some money through teaching dance.
Even with all the prevalent activity around it, and all the pious proclamations by all concerned about how divine this art is, the probability of randomly walking into a good dance programme is significantly lower than that of listening to a good music concert selected on a similar basis. However, thanks to the widespread emperor’s new clothes syndrome, the probability of said dance programme receiving a favourable review is however not significantly lower.
Going by the evidence all around us, it is difficult not to come to the sad conclusion that much ado is made about nothing in our dance world, where unlike in the sporting arena, there are no rules to identify winners or losers. Mediocrity often masquerades as merit, and both our public and the media are easily lulled into a false sense of complacency about the state of our dance. There seem to be no clearly defined criteria to determine what constitutes good dance, no yardsticks to measure excellence and no attempts to condemn poor taste. And if the foregoing is a load of nonsense, I shall be more than delighted to be persuaded otherwise by people who know better.