Are you a dancer or an actor?

A few instances this month has brought into focus a question that I have engaged with for some time now – Are you a dancer or an actor?

This morning, a post on World Dance Day focused on this question through an interview with the Kudiyattam dancer Kapila Venu. Click here to read the interview.

The inquiry into whether an artiste is a dancer or an actor is a pertinent one, especially with respect to Bharathanatyam dancers when they do abhinaya. At Yuvagati CADT BN strand, our students, our tutors, our guest tutors and our director collectively engage in key explorations such as the substance of this question. The Yuvagati programme is aimed at developing a thinking, inquiring artiste, committed to the arts.


At the hugely successful Yuvagati Intensive over the Easter break this month, students and tutors on the CADT Yuvagati programme engaged extensively with dance, movement and emotion. As part of the wide range of activities we do on the Yuvagati programme, we had Vipul Sangoi present dance, frozen in time, through his wonderful camera skills and empathy with the performer. One image that stood out for me was the quiet intensity of a Kutiyattam dancer, with reddened eyes, stilled emotion and a single tear drop making its way down the right cheek. The Kutiyattam dancer was none other than Kapila Venu, the interviewee in the above article!


I was fascinated to read the interview with Kapila Venu  wherein she discusses playing a particular character, while simultaneously being the story teller.

Venu elucidates very clearly her practice, and in the process, explains the dilemma or the dichotomy that every dancer that deeply engages with their practice faces and tries to resolve. She says “In Kutiyattam, the most important characteristic in dramaturgy is the elaboration, the elongation, the stretched moments that go into the essaying of a character and the narrative at large. For instance, if Ravana steps on to stage, and has just been informed about the fact that Ashokavanika has just been destroyed by a monkey, what goes through his mind can become a subject of several hours of performance; taking the audience on a journey into his past, the characters in his life, significant moments… a stream of consciousness-like approach. Now when that happens, the performer has to balance being the character itself while narrating a story which is in context as well as becoming a different character within the story itself.
This whole dynamic of balancing the character of the characters and finally going back to the narrative and leading the audience to the present from the past, is not easy and in the process, both time and space are completely manipulated.”

This resonates with the Bharathanatyam student and choreographer who has got to understand and engage with the characters and time zones they depict. This is nicely summed up a deft commentator on Bharathanatyam, Kapila Vatsyayan, in her description of Bharathanatya abinaya, as practiced by Kalanidhi Narayanan.

“Kalanidhi explains how a dancer can interpret a phrase or cluster of words using the same cluster of words as statements, interrogation, description, memory or hope. Equally effective is her analysis of the dancer’s ability to move in time freely, of time past, of time present and time future. This free play of the three levels of time connected with both memory and hope, constitute a very special ability of the dancer to interpret not character but states of mind, more being. “

In my own practice, I recently played with the concepts of dancer and actor, to devise a new way of presenting abinaya. I had an overall thread or story running through the duration of 2 hours, more or less a full length production (merger or union of being – Jeevatmah meets Paramatmah) while there were individual abinaya pieces presented within this overall ‘story’. Within each individual piece too, we played with the concept of dancer as actor, instead of dancer as executing abinaya, which was quite challenging in terms of keeping the integrity of the abinaya technique and expression as an actor.


At Yuvagati Intensives, the senior students engage constantly in the role of emotion, understanding and thought in their movement and dance practice. Last year, they did so through their piece Narasimha avataram, which I have written about in another blog post last year (Journeying from Bharathanatyam to Natyam). In Narasimha avataram  the students worked on incorporating physical theatre (with the help of artiste Johnny Autin) into their piece depicting Prahalada, the ardent child-devotee of Lord Vishnu or Narayana, teach a lesson to his arrogant father, King Hiranyakashyapu. The dramatic emotional elements and the subtle emotional elements in this story gave room for expositions of both drama (natya) and sattvikha (sublime) abinaya. On the other hand, sattvikha abinaya was dominant in a Swati Tirunal padam the seniors learnt learnt and performed last year ( Chaliye Kunjan Mo).  What was interesting was how drama elements and techniques came to dominate the re-choreography of the piece when it was performed for Navadhisa (a pioneering dance conference). This was also facilitated by the fact that there were a number of students doing the padam, thereby lending itself easily to allocation of different roles throughout the pieces, rather than moving between roles and time, when there is only a solo performer.      

Earlier this month, in the Easter Intensive we explored the vintage varnam Samikhu sari yevvare , where the dancer is subtly balancing the narrator/character personification when telling the audience through the friend character the greatness of her beloved, but at the same time being and feeling the greatness of the beloved, which is essential for the narrative to be convincing to the audience!  A point that Kapila Venu makes too, about balancing characters and narrative.

At every level, the Yuvagati cadre engage with the emotional content of the piece. Another piece taught by our guest tutor, Dr. Swati Raut on Goddess Saraswathi enabled junior students to begin to explore text and the context.


Perhaps we need a new paradigm to approach this issue. Not an actor, not a dancer, but a more broader notion of performer.

So are well all performers? At Yuvagati, the Director’s vision is aligned to multilingualism – versatility in movement and fluidity in boundaries of techniques.  In keeping with this thinking, a performer would fit this bill.

But, ah, maybe, to used a much cliched phrase, yet not in a cliched way –

              All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players

(Shakespeare, As you Like It, Act II, Scene VII)


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