COVID-19, as expected, has brought a hurricane of changes in performing arts communities around the world. Like every other industry and field, performers have faced many struggles, trying to keep themselves afloat, financially and psychologically. In a world where imagining a physical performance feels like a novel challenge, at least for the next few years, the uncertainty of work and disconnect from the creation process has been disturbing for many artists. The evolving media, for viewing performances, has also made a glaring inadequacy in India apparent- the lack of adaptability of the traditional dance and art aesthetic to the online format. But artists are innovating, across the globe and, gradually, these innovations are being adopted by performers and performing communities in India as well.
During the initial days of lockdown, in March and April, as all scheduled performances and lessons were getting cancelled, the performing arts world started adapting to the situation immediately and online performances were offered, free of cost, by several artists. This had never been done before on this scale. The performances were very well received by audiences, who were stuck at home, and helped boost morale for performers as well. But this act of compassion gave rise to a very important debate- how will performers sustain themselves, financially, when performances and lessons are available online for free? Many dance music-theatre schools, studios and companies were at risk of eviction and bankruptcy and people became increasingly aware of the urgent need to support the arts. Donation based online performances became yet another new format. Funds from donations made by the audience are used towards upkeep of the school or company and for the support of its members. Many acclaimed schools and companies around the world embraced this way of sharing their work, and as a result, some extremely coveted performances were made available to audiences on convenient platforms in the first few months of the pandemic. Dance and theatre groups from rural and semi-urban areas in India also, gradually, equipped themselves with the technology and skill required to offer such performances and it has proven to be very helpful for their sustenance.
My personal experience, as a performer and as someone involved in organizing performances viewed by a group of people with an academic disposition, has been an ordeal of uncertainty and lack of inspiration on most days, and sudden, lung-filling flashes of exhilaration and gratitude on others. As a dancer with some hope of ‘building a career’ in dance, I am expected to stay relevant and visible on the internet, with or without the presence of paradigm shifting COVID-19. Unfortunately, this, in the year 2020, means I should be posting videos and photographs of myself on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube… Discord? Snapchat? (Can you tell that I am turning 30 soon? I had to insert my old age anxieties here. Why must I suffer alone?). Also, not once a month or once a week, I have to be posting things every day so that people don’t forget that I am a dancer. This also helps when you want to advertise the few and far between performances that you do get to be a part of. With the constantly multiplying amount of content that people are exposed to on social media and OTT platforms, it is becoming increasingly difficult for performers to move their audiences, or at the very least, make a memorable mark with their performance. I do believe that the career of a performer does not drastically change with becoming social media savvy, but it definitely satiates a deep-seated hunger to be seen, to be heard, to be given a chance to tell our stories through different creative media. The pessimist in me realizes that, in a world that is experiencing unprecedented trauma on a regular basis, a performer’s existence is reduced to a few minutes of screen-time on smartphones; thirty minutes to an hour on laptop screens if the performer (or group of performers) is privileged/lucky/well-known or all of the above. But the optimist in me finds ways to remind myself that there is a tangible reason why the concept of performance and many performing traditions have withstood the test of time- the limitless drive of performers to adapt to a constantly changing world and the sheer creativity involved in the process.
A wide range of methods of presentation have revealed themselves in the last few months- some established performing arts companies and performance spaces in India and abroad have streamed pre-recorded videos of their acclaimed performances; solo dancers have been dancing live, on various social media platforms, to pre-recorded music in make-shift performance setups from their homes; musicians have been posting musical covers, original music work, group and pre-recorded performances; theatre companies from rural areas in India have been live streaming performances with their full cast and crew.
The amount of technical skills that all performers have had to adopt in the last few months is astounding. Digital platforms require camera work, sound and video editing, streaming expertise… It is a long list depending on the form of art to be presented. Many performers have had to learn these skills as most of us do not have big production budgets. This is also because, more often than not, performers end up bearing most expenses related to a performance as getting paid to perform is, for some reason, a privilege in these times. Many organizations and institutions feign lack of funds and get away with meagre payments and even zero payment, although why they would organize a performance when they cannot afford to pay for it is a long, harsh conversation for another time. The end result is that the average performer is forced to be self-reliant. But the silver lining is that, because of this, new avenues for innovation have opened up for performers.
Some performers are still choosing to film their performances in the proscenium format, where the performer faces the audience and the view of the audience is two-dimensional. Obviously, this is a time tested way of presenting work on a phone/laptop screen which is also two-dimensional. But many artists have come to realize that the camera opens multiple new dimensions in capturing performances- various two-dimensional planes that can be used to enhance the narrative or visual effect. Movement does not only have to be presented from the front anymore; one can find different angles for the most impactful view. One can also choose to place the audience as close or as far away as required, making the performance as intimate and detail oriented as one wants it to be. There are still some limitations when it comes to Indian traditional performing art forms because of the very specific aesthetics associated with them. A few established performers and critics, who have taken on the meaningless task of gatekeeping, have spent most of the last seven months questioning everything that does not fit into the upper class aesthetic. Dancers have been called blasphemous for filming dance in their bedrooms and kitchens. But I digress, because no one really cares what they think. There is a massive shift in the kind of performances that are available for viewing now and performers are exploring various permutations and combinations to create exciting new work.
As a dancer, apart from my feeble attempts at being a ‘regular social media person’, I got to perform once during these last few months. The performance involved other dancers and musicians. Our performance was supposed to be streamed live, with musicians playing in real time. We started rehearsals on Zoom and immediately faced some roadblocks- there was a considerable lag in the video and audio due to poor internet connections. How would we understand the musicality, work on coordination and synchronization of movement? Then we rehearsed with the musicians on Zoom, with the percussion playing a few seconds after the singer and off rhythm, again, because of the lag. The only reason why this performance could come together the way it did, eventually, is because the choreographer, my teacher, worked out all the music and dance details meticulously and did everything he possibly could to make each one of us understand what we needed to do. Also, realizing that live streaming such a performance could also entail unforeseeable technical snags, we decided to record the performance a couple of days before the streaming date. A unanimous decision was made that we did not want to stop in the middle. We wanted it to feel like an actual live performance, where you don’t get to rectify mistakes or cut in the middle. I guess, the ephemeral quality of performance is what makes it an exciting pursuit for many of us. So, on the day of the performance (recording), we met in person, climbed on stage, experienced many emotions, shed a few tears of gratitude, and performed while imagining the auditorium to be filled with people. It was, hands-down, the most eerie yet one of the most cherished performances so far, for me. My gratitude knew no bounds that day. We danced like there was no tomorrow. I can vouch for this because we have not set foot on a stage since then. It is sad to think that a camera cannot give us the high that a stage can. But it is also heartening to see how performers persevere and keep trying to innovate with the camera, waiting patiently (and in some cases, not so patiently) and hoping to experience that high again.
I was very aware of this feeling, going into the organizer/facilitator mode. Curating virtual performances for young people is a demanding task. One has to find performers/performances that add value by taking us closer to our goal of sensitizing the audience to artistic works of quality. The performance has to be cerebral enough to challenge their comfortable perceptions and, at the same time, be exciting enough to make them want to watch. We were also very clear about a few things- we wanted to give the platform to a limited number of artists, artists who had important things to share, artists who were not the usual choices and artists who could benefit from getting work with fair payment. Also, as all these performances were going to be shared virtually, we could, practically, commission work by artists from different corners of India and the world! This thought was exhilarating and helped set our plans in motion. We chose some existing work to screen and commissioned some new work to be filmed and screened. We were not entirely prepared, clearly. We started by screening a beautiful documentary which was made available to view for about two hours on a Thursday evening. We also set up a discussion with one of the filmmakers afterwards. I am not exaggerating when I say that it is one of the most beautiful films on dance I have ever seen. I watched that film almost a month back and can still feel the inspiration it induced. Guess how many people watched the film. Fifteen. Guess how many people showed up to the virtual discussion. Twelve, out of which two were the organizers and one was the guest. This screening was a huge shock to us and an important lesson. It made us realize that people’s schedules are all over the place these days so we have to give them more time to view. We immediately increased viewing time for the remaining performances. We set them all up to be viewed for entire weekends. But there was another heartbreaking realization from this experience, a realization that has been lurking around for a few years but I had managed to conveniently wrap myself up in denial- the fact that more and more people are not too keen on watching performances and performance oriented things. It is quite possible that this is a direct result of the abundance of digital content available to everyone at any given time. There is no dearth of entertainment and it is clearly visible in how performances are being approached now. One only spares time to watch something presented by someone well-known. The thrill of finding new and interesting creators, innovative works and skilled performers is getting lost in the sea of digital content being generated every day. I also think that a performance requires a certain amount of commitment from the viewers. They need to commit to watch and immerse themselves in someone’s work. It requires undivided attention during and, ideally, time for retrospection after the experience. This might be a big ask, given the stress and burdens of these times. Hence, I should celebrate the small victories. Increasing the viewing time has definitely made a difference in the number of people viewing performances set up by us, which is a win. Times have been bleak. The uncertainty of opportunities to present work, to be seen, to be heard, to be able to share our stories has had a lasting impact on all our psyches. Recognizing works of performance being created by wonderful, inspiring artists and making them available for creative immersion has been an enriching experience, despite the challenges that come with it. I think of it as a way of channeling my gratitude back into the performance universe. (Yes, if you look carefully you will find many superheroes.)
Abhinaya Penneswaran is a contemporary and bharatanatyam dancer, currently working for the performing arts department at Ashoka.
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