Dance as a “weapon for change”?
When I hear people describing dance as a “weapon for change”, it sounds strong; or rather, striking.
Still, the word weapon disturbs me. If the definition of weapon is something designed and used for inflicting damage, then dance is the opposite of a weapon, it is a healer.
Dance is healing in many ways, for many, the movement becomes a physical ritual — a tool to build bridges. Others find that movement allows them to express their feelings or unwind their minds. Together, the rituals of the body, mind, and emotion collaborate creating a whole. However, dance is not singular. While dance can be done ritualistically for oneself, it can also be done in a group or for someone — an audience. Consequently, dance allows for dialogue, which in turn leads to change.
In some cultures in Asia, people embrace dance in a much deeper way. In India, dance is a really important part of culture because of its relation to Hindu mythology. In China, children and adults alike gather on the streets to practice tai-chi because dance is part of their everyday life and practice. Whilst here, in the West, dance is separated. Western dance is usually done to entertain, so the mindset is different from the East. However, with globalization, India has changed and become Western in many ways and so dance has also become commercialized for entertainment. That said, there are innovative communities or individuals, who are doing great work using dance to impact society and promote change.
Dance, like all art, promotes change in small “pockets”. When looking at all these important changes, however small, we begin to notice the impact they have when added together.
Though, I must say that dance does not have the power, and probably never will, that politicians have. A power which can make change from one sweeping signature. Dance can make change — up to a point. The art form is still regarded as something that you enjoy, that you go and watch. It is not taken as an integral part of life like say, eating or drinking water.
During a think tank that I held for “Xenos”, my new piece, a political strategist asked me, “What impact, what change do you want to cause or hope for in the person who walks out that theatre after seeing your show?”, and I think that’s a tough question to answer. I can imagine for other choreographers it’s about letting their audience momentarily forget the real world and leading them into a fantasy so that once it’s over, they’re back to their normal life, but my work is gradually getting more and more political. It is the political body that I am interested in, as opposed to the spiritual body, which was my prior interest. In response to the political strategist’s question I said, “[Art] doesn’t really make a big change, it’s a momentary change. They come out the show, they think something deep might happen — might not happen — they go home, the next day they wake up and it’s normal again.” As an audience, even if they see a piece that resonates with them, that touches them, as human beings we rarely change until we must because of external forces. So in this context, I’m trying to look at dance — and I don’t have an answer — but I’m trying to see how we can use art to make a lasting change in society like it did for our ancestors.
In early civilizations, when people lived in caves and gathered fruits and nuts for food, dance was a big ritual. It was a very important part of community used to detoxify from negative emotions. It was a way of healing each other and connecting. Still, there are pockets of ritualistic and early dance which remain in the contemporary world, but it’s not part of our myth. I believe the reason I cannot articulate what change I wish to see — despite the fact that I am certain I want a change to occur — is because at the moment, we are reaching the end of “the old myth”. The old myth kept alive by stories of religion which are undergoing a process of irrelevance with the first global generation.
As globalization unifies cultures and people, we find ourselves transitioning between myths. The old myth has not died yet, and the new myth has not been created yet, so right now, we are “mythless”; but, dance and myth have always been related. Historically, myths were shared through dance, music, and theatre which is how we’ve wound up stuck, and waiting, for we’ve lost our compass. We don’t know what we want to be, and we don’t know why the old method isn’t working, so my hope for change is that the “new myth” will arrive and make a change in the unsustainable and repercussive society we’re currently living in. Yet, if I cast all big issues aside, it is evident that dance promotes change by deeply affecting people for it is my belief that dance is therapeutic.
Are you interested in breaking the constraints of the theatre so that your work can be shared with a wider public?
In India, dance had historically been interchangeably performed on the street, in temples, and mogul courts before being introduced to the theatre so I believe it is very possible for dance to be out of the theatres and I am aware that people are already doing this. Many interesting French and British artists come to mind who are installing performances in car parks, factories, abandoned swimming pools, etc. Personally, while I’ve thought about it a lot and I admire the people and artists who are doing it, I have not invested so much in outreach work — partly because my body is still dancing. Naturally the body contains ego, I have been selfish towards my own dancing; but slowly, with time, my body is changing, my ego is collapsing, and I have begun listening again. I find that outreach dance matters to me more and more and out of necessity, something has shifted in my thinking causing me to slowly reach out.
Now, while I believe that the impact dance can make on individuals and communities is very important, my question today is, “how can it create a bigger impact?”. In the capitalist society that we’re living in now, it is very difficult and near impossible to touch the people at the top and so to inflict change, we must start from the bottom. All changes happen from the ground and what I find incredibly moving is the dance that ensues as a result of riots and protests. It is a massive body of movement, bodies moving together to collectively resist or shout out.
How can artists restore hope?
Art can restore hope in society by shining light on moments of beauty in humanity. We live in very dark times so I asked myself, “Why would someone wake up in the morning if everything is all gloom?”. I believe some artists feel responsible for inspiring people in the same way that music or poetic speech does. For me, in conventional speech and writing, each word is politically loaded, creating “mind bombs” because words still have barriers. On the contrary, art, and especially dance in its ambiguity, has a way of transcending barriers. Dance can deliver a message without explicitly saying it. It speaks in a visual and metaphorical way and in doing so, it creates layers through which the listener can access meaning in a much deeper and personal manner as opposed to the “conventional” way.
“Zero Degrees” is a piece which resonates and remains very important to me because in it, I addressed something quite political in — what I found to be — a poetic way. This piece, in its plea to be heard, had a way to access people and have them reflect on our society. A civilization in which people have stopped listening before they speak and have learnt to compartmentalize whom we listen to and how much. It’s like Superman or Supergirl when they were first growing up. Suddenly there’s this cacophony of sounds and feelings that cannot be controlled and they ultimately lose their ability to focus.
Just like them, we are afraid of listening to the world’s problems in fear of losing ourselves. However, what dance and art can do is bring together a group of people who decide that in this theatre, or any sacred space, they will choose to be still and listen to someone who will tell a story.
This method of performance, among many others, requires the audience to empty their heads before entering so that they can listen and receive. The audience must commit to the performance and let go of who they are, what they are, and who they’re with in order to be drawn in by what’s happening onstage. In my opinion, dance and performance creates space for listening and thus renews hope for change.
Akram Khan is a world celebrated dancer and choreographer.
Drawing Sebastien Del Grosso. Photography Selina Meier. Interview by Aurélia Sellier edited by Olivia Lecomte.