On Rigidity

Classical artists often get accused of being overly rigid. I’ve faced that accusation on several occasions, most often on occasions when I’ve disliked a performance or a concept.

The first time I tried to collaborate with a non-classical dancer, I felt horribly thrown. I had never improvised before. I didn’t know how to let myself go and how to make it up as I went along. I watched, mesmerized as this stunning contemporary dancer covered the studio floor with spins and jumps and un restricted movements… while I stood, transfixed trying to find a series of steps to execute one after the other. I longed for her freedom - organic, and seemingly effortless.

Soon after, at a lecture demonstration of a very senior contemporary dancer, I was called on stage as a volunteer. Let’s try something together, he said. I’ll stick to my style, and you stick to yours… let’s play a game of ball. For someone who had spent the better part of her life training in Odissi, I shouldn’t have felt as completely handicapped as I did. But I was surprised at how awkward I was next to him; completely unable to find the Odissi vocabulary to say, in my own words, what he was saying. At the end of this little exercise, he used my hesitation as a way to explain how classical dance is rigid and limited and how contemporary dancers have the freedom to break away from the rigidity inherent to classical dance forms.

I was so irritated at myself to have helped prove such a point.

For a long time after, I felt very held back; by my body, my art form, my understanding of space, geometry, and by all these “rules” that governed Odissi. I suddenly wanted to learn a new dance form, to study choreography in a different country, where perhaps, the limitations were fewer.

And then one day, I found myself listening to Surupa Sen at a seminar. And someone asked her about her experience with choreography. How difficult was it to stick to the classical idiom? Wasn’t it hard to find freedom? She smiled, as if she’d answered this question a million times before…

“No, it’s not difficult. If you feel held back, and if you cannot find yourself in a form, then… perhaps it isn’t all that free.”

And I found myself thinking… Maybe freedom is depth. Maybe it’s in finding a shiny new box of crayons; in discovering just how many shades of purple there can be; in drowning in an ocean you can only vaguely attempt to understand; in finding more hidden layers every time you think you’ve understood something.

Maybe freedom is in there always being more. And the way to find the freedom is to delve deeper and deeper into a form.

Is rigid merely another word for shallow?