Moving body, still photo: Reflections on the relationship between dance and photography

Published : Dec 21, 2023 18:30 IST - 13 MINS READ

Barbara Morgan’s image of Martha Graham in “Lamentation”.

Barbara Morgan’s image of Martha Graham in “Lamentation”. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Reimagining dance photography through rhythm and flow.

In the “Chitrasutra” segment of the 5th century Vishnudharmottara Purana, a conversation ensues between Sage Markandeya and King Vajra, where Vajra asks the sage of the training needed to be a good sculptor. Of course, you have to know dance, he is told. How to become a good dancer? You have to know architecture. What needs to be done to become a good architect? Of course, you have to learn music. How does one become adept at music? By studying the composition of colours. And on it goes, connecting all the arts, including prosody, poetic meter, culinary skills, and archery—basically connecting everything in the visual and aural field in a rhizomatic pattern and emphasising the indivisibility of disciplines in the arts.

Similar conceptual arguments are also present in 2nd century treatises like Bharata’s Natya Shastra, Nandikeshwara’s Abhinaya Darpana, and Abhinavagupta’s 10th century commentary Abhinavabharati. This has been a consistent approach in the philosophical reflections around the arts in India.

It was perhaps the contact with colonial Western modernity that fractured this thinking and atomised the arts within tight disciplinary boundaries. An era of narrow specialisations and sectarian expertise seemed to overtake the practices, binding them within classificatory hierarchies and notional differences.

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It took a new wave among artists in the second half of the 20th century to find a key to open this deadlock. And the Pune-based Kathak dancer, choreographer, and theorist Rohini Bhate —whose birth centenary is being celebrated now—was among those who made a signal contribution towards this. Her essay, “Lalit Kalaonka Parasparik Antarik Sambandh” (The Shared Internal Links Within the Fine Arts) reopens the issue in a forceful and structural way. Of course, she uses Hindi terms equivalent to multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. However, my favourite term for this—developed over years of collaboration with artists who thought similarly, such as Chandralekha and Dashrath Patel—is anti-disciplinarity, where you smash disciplinary boundaries to enable a free flow.

Rohini Bhate’s statements in this regard are significant:

“Kalaon ka mool kaarya vishleshanatmak na ho kar sansleshanatmak haivighathan nahin balki sangathan.” (The core function of the arts is not analytical but integrational—not differentiation but consolidation.) She also concludes her essay with a prospective vision for the future which predicts “sanmishra kalaon ke adhikadhik udaharan”—increasing examples of intermingled arts.

‘Movement art’

The 20th century brought with it a fresh wave of interventions in the arts from a set of lens-based practices, ranging from photography and cinematography to videography and other hand-held electronic devices, and now, the 21st century has already added digital and algorithmic practices to the repertoire of expression. The term “dance” too has been recalibrated now under contemporary nomenclature as “movement art”.

Isadora Duncan as first fairy in ‘A Midsummer night’s Dream’

Isadora Duncan as first fairy in ‘A Midsummer night’s Dream’ | Photo Credit: Baker’s Art Gallery/The New York Public Library

Thus, in the larger framework, while interlinks between dance and the more classical arts are readily evident, those between dance and photography or cinematography are less explored. Yet, as a representational form, photography has been the constant handmaiden of dance through the 20th century, with the by now iconic images of Isadora Duncan (taken by Arnold Genthe, 1915. An ecstatic Duncan said, “These are not photos of me but of his hypnotic imagination of me”); Ruth St. Denis (Otto Sarony, 1900); Mary Wigman (Charlotte Rudolph, 1910); Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina as the Firebird (Emil Otto Hoppe, 1910); Anna Pavlova (Arnold Genthe, 1915); Martha Graham (the elevating photos by Barbara Morgan, 1940s); Maya Plisetskaya (Leonid Zhadanov, 1977); Merce Cunningham (James Klosty, 1960s); Alvin Ailey (Jack Mitchell, 1960s); Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn (Judy Cameron, 1960s); Pina Bausch (Ulli Weiss, 1980s/’90s); Pilobolus (Timothy A. Clary, John Kane); and a few others. The photo images of the creations of these artists have framed for us the global face of dance and its contemporary nature. It is also interesting that many of these photographers were women.

Arnold Genthe’s photo of Maria-Theresa Duncan.

Arnold Genthe’s photo of Maria-Theresa Duncan. | Photo Credit: Genthe photograph collection/Library of Congress

In the Indian context, Boris Lipnitzki’s photos of Uday Shankar, Carl van Vechten’s photos of Ram Gopal, visual artist Krishen Khanna’s studio photos of Balasaraswati, and Dashrath Patel and Raghu Rai’s performance photos of Chandralekha, have been as mesmerising.

Relationship between dance and photography

The relation between dance and photography has primarily been representational, where the camera is a tool for recording and helps in contributing a sense of permanence to an otherwise evanescent art like dance. We are in a context today where if a thing has not been recorded, it simply does not exist. Pre-20th century dance in India exists only through painted frescoes and sculptural depictions in clay and stone and bronze. But they conferred an anonymity on the dancer. We do not know the names of the dancers who posed for the sculpting of the 108 karanas on the gateways of Chidambaram temple. However, the arrival of photography conferred individual identity to the dancer and the dance through a profusion of realistic elements including personal characteristics, costume, and location. We have no idea what Amrapali, Anarkali, or the apsaras looked like, except in some artist’s feverish imagination. But every contemporary apsara amidst us can be identified by name and place and form. So, although photography is a flat two-dimensional form and should, conceptually, be seen as an enemy of dance, it has in fact become its greatest accomplice.

But that is also, I must argue, the greatest misfortune of dance. Over the past five or six decades, the explosion of the photographic image of dance and its universal ubiquity has ended up reducing the idea of dance to a set of highly decorative, cosmetic, and posed sequences that convert the live, three-dimensional form into a two-dimensional cut-out.

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One of the central problems here is that the camera does not know—or has not been trained—how to look at dance. The camera has merely been instrumentalised by the dance community as a mechanical device that creates information which can be transmitted to the world. However, there have been very few productive collaborations between the camera and the moving body—not even to the high technical level achieved by wildlife or sports photography. It is clear that both dancers and photographers need a different level of symbiosis.

I photographed dance for a few decades, and I would like to acknowledge that it was Chandralekha who taught me how to look at dance. In the 1970s and early 1980s, a period when she had withdrawn from dancing, I accompanied her to innumerable performances and slowly and painfully learnt how not to look at the form but at the space. Later, when she herself returned seriously to dance work and choreography from 1984 onwards, it became easy for me to comprehend what she really meant, as I saw her actualising the concept in her own disarmingly clear and direct work. This also enabled me to laterally slide into lighting all her works in a non-naturalistic way.

Roger Urban’s photograph of Rudolf Nureyev in “Le Corsaire”.

Roger Urban’s photograph of Rudolf Nureyev in “Le Corsaire”. | Photo Credit: Nureyev Legacy Project/Flickr

It was evident to me right from the beginning that the function of the camera in the presence of dance was not to be capturing or “freezing” the positive space of the form but, in fact, to release the negative space around the form and activate that. So, I have actually worked consciously, during all the time I have been photographing dance, against the idea of “freezing movement in time”. My idea of dance photography is “freeing movement in space” and I’ll come to that in a moment. Those who are interested, however, in pursuing this idea of “rhythm within the frame” or “duration”, are sure to benefit by reading filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s epiphanic book Sculpting in Time, published in English in 1987.

The second acknowledgment I have to make is to my other colleague and mentor, artist/photographer/designer Dashrath Patel. It was from Dashrath that I learned about how the body of the photographer needs to behave when confronted with dancing bodies. Having photographed Chandralekha’s dance for five decades, it was he who pointed out to me the difference between clicking a picture at the moment when a movement has just been completed (which condemns the image to a picture-postcard rigor mortis, depriving it of a life within the frame) and clicking a fraction of a second after a movement starts or the fraction before the movement is completed (which enables the viewer to complete the movement in her own mind, contributing to a release of imagination). It was Dashrath’s astounding dance pictures in the 1950s and 1960s of Balasaraswati, Yamini Krishnamurthy, and Chandralekha that became like a primer for me.

Romanticised representation

The main point I wish to make is that while the camera, as a mechanical instrument, is all too preoccupied with the real, the factual, and the literal, in the hands of someone who wishes to photograph dance, the camera needs to be gently trained how to dream.

Photography and the human body engage in a special relationship. The body—or its fragment—is the most photographed “object” of our times. Yet, there is a natural tension between the body’s imperfections and the history and conventions of foregrounding an idealised body in visual representations.

In all visual cultures, “capturing” the body through romanticised representation is a way of overcoming the real limitations of the physical body. Ironically, the coherence of the body, thus represented, is constantly undermined by the very fragmentation that these images seek to overcome. The canons of visual representation of the body are, thus, complicated by these very contradictions.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. In all visual cultures, “capturing” the body through romanticised representation is a way of overcoming the real limitations of the physical body. Vitruvian Man is a model of this idealisation of the body which experiences a crisis of identity in our age that constructs meaning through fragments.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. In all visual cultures, “capturing” the body through romanticised representation is a way of overcoming the real limitations of the physical body. Vitruvian Man is a model of this idealisation of the body which experiences a crisis of identity in our age that constructs meaning through fragments. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, for example, is a model of this idealisation of the body which experiences a crisis of identity in our age that constructs meaning through fragments. As a representational medium, photography became aware of this problem even in its infancy. So, while on the one hand, it performed the tasks of stereotyped representation which helped the agenda of 19th century colonialism, it sought on the other hand to reconstruct a more seductive, idealised, or romanticised human body by focussing increasingly on dance and sports.

The dangers inherent in this petrified “cult of the body” that photography finds natural to celebrate has been pointed out with sparkling force by Susan Sontag in her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism“ in The New York Review of Books, on Nazi poster-girl Leni Riefenstahl’s book of photos The Last of the Nuba (1973). In a searing take-down of Riefenstahl’s souped-up photographs that instrumentalise the wrestling rituals of the men of the Mesakin Nuba tribes of Kordofan in Sudan, Sontag lays bare the “fascist aesthetics” involved in iconising a fetishised sporting/kinetic body.

Photography and dance too strike up a natural alliance. Undoubtedly, the most rigorous graphic language is of the human body in movement. Freezing this body-in-movement in a photo frame is, by itself, a modernist project. Quite at variance from traditional three-dimensional sculpture which, in a sense, expanded the fractional and evanescent dimensionality of the moving body by giving it permanence in space and time. That was, and remains, the richness of plastic material.

However, inscribing tone into flat, unidimensional space is the very intent of the photography project. The photograph does not “live” as form, but as an abstraction of the immanence of form.

The “life” of the photographic image lies in its success in simultaneously imprinting in our mind’s eye the previous image and the subsequent image. This is usually achieved only by photographers who have a comprehension and sensitivity to movement and who consciously work at “liberating” the image rather than “freezing” it. And sensitivity to “movement” (whether of individuals or groups or of society or history) is the product of a conceptual insight into seeing.

“Photography and dance strike up a natural alliance. Undoubtedly, the most rigorous graphic language is of the human body in movement.”

As the inspirational art writer John Berger said of the photographs of the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson, in whatever photograph he took, he seemed to include what was not in it. He photographed the apparently unseen: “But in his photos, this unseen became more than visible.” Obviously, this needs to be the aspiration of one who photographs dance too.

Since the time I read in the “Chitrasutra” that in order to become a good sculptor one needs to learn dance, I have been wondering why such a qualification should not be enjoined on photographers too. Well, if not learn dance, at least see and study and absorb it visually.

While watching and photographing Chandralekha’s work, I have often had occasion to reflect on this subject. Even the act of observing dance reveals the infinite set of co-ordinates that body and mind undertake to produce movement. At a formal level, it exposes you to the clean planes of verticals and horizontals; to the origins and sources of impulses; to the logic of a form-in-the-making. At a visual level, your eye is compelled to trace the rigorous geometry of the physical body and its capacity for revealing multiple associations. At an interpretive level, you are in a space without essential meanings, in which you are free to collide with “meaning” in as empathetic or hostile a manner as you choose.

Dance is ephemeral

While the photograph can be a document of all this complexity, the photographer only seizes upon the moment. The concentration of the dancers. The objective conditions of light and space. The energy released by the body alphabet. The attempt, however, should be to enter the imagination of the dancer, to “see” the movement in its very embryo.

My inspiration also has been that classic animation film Pas de Deux by Norman McLaren (Canadian Film Board, 1968), in which every micro-moment of a movement (in a pre-digital era) is spliced and pieced together to eventually expose to us the fragmentary process of constructing unity.

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Dance is ephemeral. You see a performance and what remains is a memory. Unlike a movie or a piece of recorded music or a painting, it does not have a material extension in time. It is the image on the retina that survives. It is a tough task for photography to be true to that memory. The power of the photograph lies in what it “refers” to. It is this referential order that masquerades as memory.

Is it possible to release memory from the image-repertoire constructed by the photograph and its civilized code of illusions—and recover the discourse?

What role does the photograph play in converting a person or form into an “image” and thereby institutionalising memory? For example, how much of Chandralekha will I now remember in her self and personhood, and how much of her will be an “image” constructed in my mind by her photographs? It is a haunting question.

Contrarily, as the celebrated structuralist Roland Barthes proposed in his path-breaking book Camera Lucida (1980), the photograph reconstitutes and even “creates” our body. In other words, by making us self-conscious in the presence of a camera, it encourages us to “pose” and, thus, transform ourselves “in advance into an image”. As Cartier-Bresson remarked, “Faced with a camera, we proffer our best profile to posterity.”

It is the classic contradiction between the still image and the moving body.

What, ultimately, constitutes the “dance photograph” will remain as debatable an issue as what constitutes “dance”. However, as much as a flesh-and-blood medium like dance increasingly finds representation in a bloodless forum like print through photography, the camera will have to learn to integrate the meaning of rhythm and flow. The photograph might yet succeed—with help from dancers—in subverting representation and discover how to dream.

Edited transcript of a talk delivered on November 14, 2023, for the “Suhrudsabha” organised by Nrityabharati Kathak Dance Academy, Pune, at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute on the occasion of Guru Rohini Bhate’s centenary celebration.

Sadanand Menon is a Chennai-based writer.

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