Supporting dance practice and pedagogy

A review of the Tata Trusts supported MA in Performance Practice (Dance) at Ambedkar University, Delhi

In 2017, Tata Trusts embarked on a two-year partnership with Ambedkar University Delhi to embed a master’s degree in Performance Practice (Dance) within its School of Culture and Creative Expressions (SCCE). This course was designed to mitigate gaps in dance education in India, where a guru-shishya format is still largely followed. Such a training, in traditional forms of dance, often leaves a dancer technically sound after years of practice with one mentor but perhaps creatively and artistically locked, and professionally unprepared.

Students in class at the dance studio, AUD Khirkee campus
Students in class at the dance studio, AUD Khirkee campus

Contemporary dance practice in India is an emerging field that is highlighting myriad forms and choreographies, building new narratives and impacting audiences beyond the traditional spaces of consumption like the auditoria. The Trusts have been supporting efforts to nurture contemporary dance as not just a modern art form that is jostling for space outside of the canonised heritage of India’s traditional dance forms, but also as an area where dancers can expand their employment opportunities to include performances for corporate events, dance residencies and participation in national and international festivals, dance therapy, self-run dance studios in contemporary forms, dance classes and workshops for specific groups etc.

A corpus grant to Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts in 2002 ensured the consistent institutional support required to train batches of young dancers in contemporary dance practices and build towards evolving a pedagogy. Subsequent project support, like for the “Way of the Masters” programme, further demonstrated ways in which training and knowledge transfer can be facilitated between contemporary dance practitioners and masters of older folk forms of dance (Kootiyattam , Chhau, Kalarippayattu, Thevarattam and Silambam) – thereby not alienating one from the other, but proposing an evolution of practice. As contemporary dance transitions into becoming a veritable form of expression, its instruction and training requires consolidation, and diversification, to include the perspectives of several schools of thought and practice emerging in this space.

The support extended by Tata Trusts towards the master’s degree in Performance Practice (Dance) is in continuation of this strategy – to interlock practice and pedagogy, and create a space within academia that recognises the importance of training in art education. The aim of the course is to “integrate physical training, choreography, critical thinking, inter-disciplinary studies and professional development”. The inter-disciplinary curriculum that amalgamates theory and practice with core and optional subjects, reflected the overall vision of the course covering a range of topics such as ‘Awareness Observation Description: Reading and Writing Dance”; “Embodied Practice: Fundamental Movement Principles”; “Dance Histories, Ecologies and Identities”, and “Investigating Choreographic Principles, Methodologies and Form”.

After selecting the core faculty for running the course, establishing a dance studio at an off-site campus and passing the curriculum by AUD’s Academic Council and Board of Studies, nineteen students (out of the 42 applications received) were admitted to the first batch of the MA in Performance Practice (Dance) in July 2018. Besides university professors, visiting faculty was factored in every semester that included artists, choreographers, and professionals from other technical fields.

A student performing in a class exercise
A student performing in a class exercise
Running the Course

The strength of this course lay in structuring studio sessions with visiting choreographers and dance practitioners that engaged with students in three-to-five week blocks, across the four semesters, helping them understand the process behind these artists’ choreography and style. Dancers like Avantika Bahl; UK-based choreographer and pedagogue, Marina Collard, and Odissi dancer Bijayini Sathpaty from Nrityagram, taught the students fundamentals of body movement, the body in relation to space, and technique in dance. Classes were also conducted on lighting, stage presentation, production and networking by theatre artists like Zuleikha Chaudhari, Vinay Kumar and others. A two-week class on dance therapy by facilitators Tripura Kashyap and Ritu Jain taught the students the principles behind designing therapy classes for specific target groups – with dance therapy being a viable professional opportunity for dancers, this class was a welcome introduction to the course.

Each semester ended with a student-showcase where the students created short pieces of work as their cumulative response to the interactions with the myriad faculty they had. These showcases were exhibited at the dance studio in AUD’s Khirkee campus and were open to students and faculty from other departments, as well as Delhi’s artistic community. The students were also able to attend several national and international performances in Delhi, exposing them to contemporary trends in dance production and techniques.

The course also included a field trip to Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts in Pondicherry, which allowed them the opportunity to learn with artists practicing in a residency-format, helping them realise the intensity of rigour, practice and discipline required in perfecting one’s form. They also underwent Kalarippayattu training and witnessed performances by local artists.

In November 2019, the students performed as part of the annual symposium of the course, curated around the theme of “Labour, Economy and Identity”. The four-day symposium included talks and performances by dance practitioners, researchers, curators, academics and activists. The students’ performance was site specific, unfolding across the Kashmere Gate campus of AUD. They were mentored by choreographer Rajyashree Ramamurthi through the four-week long process towards the creation of this work.

The last semester of the course was dedicated to students getting maximum studio time so that they could work towards their final dissertations and presentations. A six-week engagement with choreographer and contemporary dancer Abhilash Ningappa led to the creation of the students’ first public performance outside of the university space – the Persistence of Being – that had three successful runs at Black Box Okhla in Delhi. In this last semester, five students from the course were also invited to participate in the 7th Dance Biennale, in Hamburg, Germany.

Marina Collard, a choreographer and pedagogue from UK, taking class with the students
Marina Collard, a choreographer and pedagogue from UK, taking class with the students
Ways Ahead

Covid-19 impacted the course in its last leg, with the university closing down since mid-March. Online classes started from April 2020, and the students had to re-think their annual dissertation presentations suitable for an online format. Despite these difficult times that were mediated via different shared screens, by July 2020, 15 students successfully graduated into becoming the first batch of the MA in Performance Practice (Dance).

Two reviews of the course have been conducted till date to assess the efficacy and need of the course: in September 2019, a mid-term review was undertaken by Padmini Chettur and Krishna Devanandan (both known contemporary dancers who have trained under the legendary dancer Chandralekha); and a project end-review was conducted in August 2020 by Jayachandran Palazhy (Artistic Director, Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts, Bangalore) and Urmimala Sarkar (dancer and associate professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU). With the final review awaited, the mid-term review, while highlighting areas of improvement, acknowledged that instituting a professional-level master’s course is a much-needed step forward for dance pedagogy in India.

As the course comes to an end, this pilot programme has hopefully established its ground for inclusion into AUD’s annual offering of courses in the academic year 2021. The continuation of this course will help build a robust ecology of young dance practitioners in the country – who are not only trained in body movement techniques and theories, but have emerged as independent choreographers who have learnt the basics of production design, lighting, music and necessary skills in management and networking in the arts spaces. This professionally equipped set of 15 dancers, will, one hopes, be the predecessor of many to graduate from this course in the coming years.