Expressing emotions through dance has, arguably, existed even before humans became civilised, and perhaps even before language got people communicating.
Archaeologists believe that the earliest dances were used to transmit myths and stories throughout tribes and across generations. In that, modern dance has retained its purpose and that can be seen every time you discern the tale from dancers’ movements in a musical or a dance drama. Think Kathakali, Ramlilas, and rasa lilas and you will see that India is one country where such telling of tales through dance has existed since time immemorial. The people who hold the threads of the dance production (and the tale) together are known as choreographers.
“Choreographers are like painters. They create beautiful, unexpected and aesthetic designs with dancers to express thoughts, concepts or sometimes just for entertainment,” says Tanusree Shankar, head, Tanusree Shankar Dance Company. She is internationally recognised as the leading exponent of the Shankar technique of “New Dance”, as formulated by the legendary Uday Shankar.
Of late, with a surge in cultural awareness and television channels, choreographers are in huge demand.
Aneesha Dalal, principal dancer and master instructor, Shiamak Davar’s Institute for the Performing Arts, says, “Thankfully India has woken up to viewing Western dance a serious career option. It is no longer considered frivolous. The advent of a slew of dance-based reality shows has opened up a lot of career opportunities. There is a high demand for choreographers for reality TV, shows, events… the sky is really the limit!”
Dalal is oft seen in Shiamak Davar-choreographed Bollywood song sequences and has also appeared in a Liril advertisement, which stands testimony to another avenue where choreographers find expression.
The flip side is that thanks to so many forums to showcase one’s talent, choreography has become a very competitive field and making your mark has become that much more difficult.
Shankar says, “A choreographer has be innovative and creative. It is very easy (especially in today’s time) to imitate or copy. But it is very important to be original and have a signature of your own as a choreographer.”
And this is by no means easy. In a world of YouTube, steps and even sequences are easily copied.
“You have to constantly keep upgrading yourself as a dancer and teacher. Unless you have the knowledge, you cannot instruct. It is important, also, to go through choreological studies, which guide and help you to think differently,” adds Shankar.
Choreology, incidentally, is a way of putting down dance notation (like musical notation) on paper. Invented by Joan and Rudolf Benesh in the late 1940s, the system uses abstract symbols based on figurative representations of the human body.
Apart from study, fitness, suppleness and flexibility are of utmost importance in this profession. One cannot ask one’s dancers to do what one can’t emulate to perfection oneself.
Beyond that, it is only after years of study, practise and exposure to advancements in dance all over the world that one can hope to develop a style that doesn't give itself to being copied easily.
“There are a lot of people out there who are trying to copy stuff from others. I think one should just not jump onto this bandwagon of blindly copying people but instead make your own style because that’s the only way you will stand out,” says Dalal.
To figure out what that style is, one must explore one’s own understanding of dance.
Dalal says, “The one thing I keep in mind while choreographing is that there must be a meaning to a choreography – it must say something to its audience. I work around this theme, always.”
She adds that to succeed in this as in any profession, one needs to believe in oneself all the time and one must have faith and be true to one’s work.
What's it about?
Choreographers design sequences of dance movements keeping both form and motion in mind. An understanding of the symbiotic relationship between dance and music is essential to becoming a choreographer as is at least a decade of training in dance. Choreographers are in demand for musicals, movies, TV advertisements, reality shows, fashion shows, and cultural shows. Marriage choreography is also emerging as another avenue for choreographers
5 am: Wake up. Do yoga, stretching exercises
6.30 am: Have breakfast
7.30 am: Set out for studio
8.00 am: Listen to musical score for new production, suggest improvements
9 am: Do a rough notation of dance moves along with assistant choreographer
10 am: Start dance workshop with troupe
1 pm: Light lunch
2 pm: Continue workshop
5 pm: Meet corporate sponsors of production
6 pm: Meet costume designer and set designer
8 pm: Dinner
9 pm: Study journals and online dance resources
Remuneration is definitely lucrative and that is one reason why today there are many who want to take up choreography as a full-time job. A fresher can earn anywhere between Rs10,000 to Rs15,000 a month whereas an experienced dancer (who is assisting seasoned choreographers) can take home a sum ranging from Rs50,000 to Rs70,000 a month
. Ability to perform flawlessly
. Amazing communication skills
. Should be able to inspire and motivate one’s dancers
. Ability to realise creative vision
. Managing logistics
. Great people skills
. Visualisation skills
. Curious about new developments in dance
How do i get there?
Choreographers need to display excellent dance skills to gain credibility. So, intensive training from a credible choreographer or with a well-known dance troupe with several productions under its belt is necessary. After a decade of perfecting one’s dancing skills (preferably across genres i.e. Indian classical dance forms, jazz, salsa, New Dance etc.), one can go in for choreological studies, which allows one to document dance sequences. One should assist an established choreographer for five years to learn the wide variety of skills required to create a production, such as conceptualisation, visualisation, setting sequences to music, training dancers, instructing them, directing a production, among others. An innate aesthetic sense goes a log way, while a passion for dance keeps one grounded and focussed
Institutes & urls
. Bachelor's programme in choreography - Natya Institute of Kathak and Choregraphy, Bangalore
. Ananda Shankar Centre of Performing Arts -
. Shiamak Davar's Institute for the Performing Arts
. New York Choreographic Institute
Pros & cons
Need to maintain high levels of fitness
Dance helps you exercise
An excellent form of expression
Dealing with creative people
Extensive travel with productions
Funding may not come easy for independent productions
Otherwise, a lucrative career for original, creative folk
You get to be part of international events
One has to be lucky to get funds
Artistes could do with more support in this business
What according to you is the essence of choreography?
The essence of choreography to me is to reach out to my audience expressing the idea or the concept of my piece through body language and innovative moves aesthetically presented in a beautiful design on stage- or sight-specific space, and become one with them. For me dance is my medium of expression and I prefer to emote through this medium, whether it is my personal journey or a prevailing issue.
How does one go about getting one’s work produced?
It is very difficult to produce a work without the support of funding bodies. I wish there were more organisations (like those abroad) where artistes could send their applications for funds along with their concept note, budget and other details , and the organisation could short list and fund the work. Most of our work is done with our own funds, with support from some corporate house (if we are lucky).
When did you first start choreographing?
My first work as a choreographer was in 1977, when I choreographed for the annual show of a school in Kolkata. The experience was frightening as I had no idea about the process. I had to deal with 300 children, music, costumes, light design, rehearsals, creating the piece, editing it... none of which I had any idea about, except dance! But that journey was a hugely educating one. It taught me that being a choreographer is more than just teaching dance.
What are the basics one needs to establish oneself?
Learn dance properly at least for 12 years before even thinking about choreography. It is important to have a strong foundation.
What worked for you?
Learning Bharatnatyam, Kathakali and Manipuri along with the Shankar Technique at the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre, for more than 10 years has worked for me. I also had the opportunity of doing workshops on Graham technique with Evlin Lochman.
Tanusree Shankar, head, Tanusree Shankar Dance Company interviewed by Pankaj Mullick