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Technique and Tradition: The Laban/Bartenieff System in the Learning of Indian Classical Dance (Bharatanatyam)

in Laban Conference 2002, Panel "Performing Arts"

Technical revision on Bharatanatyam by RAJYASHREE RAMESH


This paper makes a parallel between Indian classical dance of Bharatanatyam style and Laban/Bartenieff system, in order to facilitate and provide the learning of such ancient technique, as much as research the integration between tradition and innovation in the choreographic process.
After studying German dance theater in New York and Germany from 1990 to 1995, and continuing practical-theoretical activities in the field in Salvador da Bahia, where I reside since then, I received a grant to study German in Berlin in 2001. In Berlin's multicultural environment, I searched for body techniques that would integrate process and product, in a complete training philosophy connected to dance theater principles.
I started then to take Rajyashree Ramesh's classes on Bharatanatyam, which amazed me by their integrity, from technical details associating Indian tradition with precision and European contemporary scientific approaches (anatomy and kinesiology), to philosophical, aesthetic, religious and cultural commentaries on both India and Europe - such as daily gestures, Sanskrit, etc). During those seven months in Berlin, I studied Bharatanatyam intensively, at the same time watching European contemporary performances involving, for example, multimedia and genetics, also taking some updating courses on techniques already known, such as German dance theater.
In the fifth month of my Bharatanatyam classes, I was already following the students that were taking the technique for the last two years. This was due not only to my total interest and dedication, but specially due to ASSOCIATING GERMAN DANCE THEATER PRINCIPLES TO EACH BHARATANATYAM EXERCISE, DURING THE WHOLE PROCESS. My mentor Rajyashree Ramesh was also interested in the association, because she has developed projects associating Bharatanatyam and European contemporary dance, keeping herself faithful to Indian technique and philosophy.
Back to the Federal University of Bahia in the beginning of 2002, teaching Body Tecnique for Actors - levels I to IV - I could see the acting students' difficulty in learning Bharatanatyam, and how the teaching of both German and Indian tecniques facilitated the whole process. I have been teaching dance theater in such classes since 1997, and such material was gathered in the book O Corpo em Movimento: O Sistema Laban/Bartenieff na Formação e Pesquisa em Artes Cênicas (The Body in Movement: The Laban/Bartenieff System in Performing Arts Education and Research, Annablume, 2002), opened in this Laban Conference 2002. Little by little, I have been associating Indian and German dance theater in both body training for the actor and in choreographic projects. The project SYNAPSE, presented in its solo version in this Conference, is an example. The group version, presented in the theater of Espaço Xis in Salvador in July of this year, had 20 performers, among dancers and/or actors and musicians.



In his encyclopedia with detailed description of Asian dances (1992), the Japanese professor Kiitsu Sakakibara, director of the Sakakibara Dance Akademi in Tokyo, dedicates all its first chapter to the 105 dances of India, in its delicate nuances, and underlines:
Bharata Natayam is the highest pure dance. It expresses the most important elements of Indian classical dance. ... [It] is the oldest of the four classical dance forms [Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Manipuri, Kathakali] and it has the most completed form. (1992, 42 e 43)

According to ancient treatises, there are seven Indian classical dance styles: Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Manipuri, Kathakali, Odissi, Kuchipudi and Mohinniattam. But the beauty and strength of Bharatanatyam has conquered even choreographers and dancers trained in two different styles, as the well-known Alarmél Valli, trained in both Bharatanatyam and Odissi, and considered to be the leader dancer of Bharatanatyam of her generation.
The complexity of performing arts of India and, more specifically, of Bharatanatyam, is due to their historicity. They have been registered during the Vedic civilization, in the Natyashastra manuscript (Theory of Drama, by Bharata Muni) - the oldest and more complete treatise about performing arts, written 200 years before Christ. Alarmél Valli (Wesemann 1997, 32) explains the depth and inclusiveness of this dance:

"The greatness of Bharata Natyam, for me, lies in its ability to harmonise the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions of life, giving the dance the power to touch and to communicate at all levels. Being a composite art, it synthesises melody and rhythm, painting and sculpture, poetry and theatre. The dancer is simultaneously the musician, singing with her body... She is the sculptor, shaping and structuring space in forms both graceful and powerful. She is the painter, adding tints and hues to a line drawing... She is the poet, writing her poems with movement, gestures and expressions. Ultimately she is the seeker, whose dance becomes a transcendental, transforming experience - an ecstatic prayer that celebrates the beauty, the wonder and the mistery of life. "

The association of these various human aspects is also a theme of Meyer-Dinkgraefe's comparative study (1996) relating the Natyashastra to western theater techniques and philosophies influenced by the east. In his book, the professor of the Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies at the University of Wales demonstrates that the classical Indian training of the actor is most complete, and proposes its use for the development of consciousness in the training of a "enlightened actor," of either western or eastern origin. In fact, the eastern-western dialogue has inspired various researches (Greiner 2000) and is one of the main themes of contemporary performing arts, also in regard to an intercultural and interdisciplinary analysis of the technique-performance relationship. In other words, it is an appropriate moment to join different approaches to the arts and to artistic making, from scientific and technological knowledge to cultural, historical, anthropological and aesthetic studies.
In this context, I introduce the founder and pioneer of German dance theater, Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958). In the beginning of the 20th century, Laban proposed an aesthetic system at the same time wide and extremely detailed, overlapping objective and subjective approaches, practice and theory, kinesthetic experience and cognitive understanding, in the training of a complete "thinking-feeling-acting being" (Bartenieff 1970, 11):

"In his complex system of movement language, later called Laban Movement Analysis - LMA, or Laban System, the languages of behavioral and performing representation are gathered under the hegemony of "movement", broken up until its most simple element... and articulated till its most complexes harmonies, organized in a proper language and symbolism structured similarly to a musical motif." (Miranda 2002, 17, 18, 20)

Besides being a complex and multifaceted system of bodily movement, the Laban System encompasses other important common points Bharatanatyam: the concern with systematization and recording of movement, the width of its movement possibilities, its inter-artistic quality, and aspects specific to body technique. The systematization and recording of body movement, started by the detailed Natyashastra in its 5.800 verses, had in Laban a faithful supporter:

"When I undertook as the first one among dancers of today to speak of a world for which language lacks words, I was fully aware of the difficulty of this undertaking. Only a firm conviction that one has to conquer for dance the field of written and spoken expression, to open it up... to widest circles, brought me to tackle this difficult task. " (Laban in Maletic 1987, 51)

This Modern dance pioneer created a system applicable to the a posteriori observation and analysis of dance, as much as to the a priori dance processes, as creative method and recording of improvisations. According to Claire Osborne (1989, 90), the Laban System developed from Tanz-Ton-Wort (Dance-Tone-Word) improvisations, creating pieces with daily movement, abstract or pure, in a narrative, comic or more abstract form. We shall remind ourselves that Indian classical dance presents three categories: Nritta (pure and abstract dance), Abhinaya (expressive dance, usually telling stories of the Hindu literature through hand gestures, facial expressions, etc.), and Nritya (a combination alterning the two previous ones). Therefore, both Indian classical dance theater and German modern (Laban) and contemporary (ex. Pina Bausch) dance theater encompass a wide possible range of bodily movements, varying from facial expressions, minimal gestures - ilustrative or abstract - to functional and daily movements with the whole body in the three-dimensional space.
Also, both performing art forms imply the relationship between the arts. The training of the performer proposed by Laban was in accordance to the multidisciplinary philosophy of the artists in the beginning of the 20th century, integrating the arts in movements such as Dada and Bauhaus, in the birth of the so-called "performance art". During the training in the Laban System in New York, we visit museums and choreograph out of sculptures; create sequences out of an archotectural analysis of, for example, a church, or out of poems, as the beautiful Haikai; draw and do collages in our daily report notebook, among other activities. During the day, we had practical classes dealing with whole body postures to studies of minimal gestures and expression, theoretical seminars, and learned to draw the detailed notations created by Laban and his disciples. Movement transformed itself in drawing/notation, in sculptural shapes on space and in lines in movement (in LMA, respectivelly called Space Harmony and Trace Forms), as in the interartistic descriptions of Valli in relation to Bharatanatyam. In presentations at the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies (New York), and in all my career following that, German dance theater has proved to be, for me, a "complete art", as referred by Valli in regard to the Indian classical dance of her specialty. Today, though, this "completeness" is within an environment of unpredictable genetic manipulations, virtual bodies and spaces, in other words, concrete contexts of transforming tradition.
This takes us to one of the major exponents of the dance of today, Pina Bausch (1940- ), pioneer of German contemporary dance theater, disciple of Kurt Jooss, one of the main disciples of Laban. In 1994, Bausch and her international company travelled to India, where they had several presentations in a tour with Chandralekha, Indian contemporary choreographer trained in Bharatanatyam. According to Georg Lechner (2000), in spite of all the visible differences between the works of the two choreographers, both are dealing with a post-industrial, productive, desoriented and "docile" body (Foucault 1988), in search of a (in-constant) beginning in dance. Still in 1994, Bausch's company received daily training in Classical Indian dance in Germany. This tour influenced Bausch technically and aesthetically, and she started to develop choreographic projects connected to different localities, travelling and experimenting with her company "in transit" in other cultures, including Brasil (2000).
Another more concrete connection between German dance theater and Bharatanatyam is the specific technical correspondance between the Laban/Bartenieff System and the didactic organization of Bharatanatyam training. During classes on this dance of India, I could observe and apply Laban/Bartenieff principles to each exercise, clarifying them and making them more acessible, dynamic and healthy. For example, to practice the exercises created by Laban's disciple Irmgard Bartenieff in my warm up helped on performing the basic Bharatanatyam position Aramandi, in which the legs are flexed with a wide external rotation, the pelvis as low as possible, without forcing the spinal curves at any point. This is exactly the work done by the Bartenieff Fundamentals, developed initially for polio patients and today used by dancers all around the world. These exercises work on body movement out of deep pelvic muscle support for breathing, providing a Gradated Rotation of the femoral joint, connected to a Dynamic Alignment based on Bony Connections (Bartenieff) - imaginary lines linking important Bony Landmarks, generating simultaneous support and agility, Stability and Mobility (one of the 4 Laban Movement Principles).
Besides Core Support (inner muscular support) and Bony Connections, another relevant Bartenieff Principle in this comparative study is the Body Organization, which evolves in the following order of growing neuromuscular complexity: Cellular Breathing, Navel Radiation or Center-Periphery, Spinal or Head-Tail, Homologous or Upper-Lower Body, Homolateral or Body Half (Right-Left), Contralateral or Crossed-Sides. In its ancient wisdom, Bharatanatyam exercises are organized in an order of growing neuromuscular complexity, as described by Bartenieff and present in her Fundamentals. Also in terms of Shape or Relationship (LMA), the learning of Bharatanatyam follows a growing complexity, with the majority of its exercises in Spoke-Like or Arc-Like Directional Shape (creating straight or curved lines by the flexion/extension, abduction/adduction), and evolving into Shaping (sculpting in the three-dimensional space by the use of rotation) in more advanced exercises.
Also, the relationship of the body with the space, in both techniques - in the case, actually, systems - is visible. According to Chandralekha, one of the questions of her work is "how to visualize this body-geometry [present in well-defined shapes of Bharatanatyam] in terms of space-goemetry - the inner/outer correspondence." In his Spatial Harmony, Laban talks about an architecture of the body in movement on space, determining at least 50 scales created by pathways between geometric points on space, based on regular polyhedrons. In my Bharatanatyam classes, I noticed how the exercises follow a growing order of spatial complexity, as proposed in the Laban training: Dimensions of the Octahedron (Vertical, Horizontal and Sagital, each one with 2 points in opposite directions), Planes of the Icosahedron (Vertical, Horizontal e Sagital, each one with 4 points, resulting of the intersection of 2 dimensional points) and Diagonals of the Cube (8 points resulting from the intersection of 3 dimensional points). And one of the 4 Laban Movement Principles, besides the already mentioned Stability/Mobility, is exactly Inner/Outer, cited by Chandralekha.
Another relevant point of technical-philosophical contact between the two systems is the concept of rasa, instigated by researcher Michele Minnick during the discussion of this paper at the Laban Conference 2002. As a result of this interesting quest, I will add here an item not presented in the Conference. Rasa is a key-concept exposed in the Natyashastra, but also found in many Vedic texts. It refers to water, juice, essence, tasty liquid and, in the context of the philosophy of India, to the aesthetic experience of the actor and, mostly, of the public (Meyer-Dinkgraefe 1994, 85). Rasa can be translated to "sentiment", classified by the Natyashastra in long lists of different "transitory states" with its subdivisions. I compare here this concept of rasa to Laban's Eukinetics, in which combinations of inner attitudes provide an expression that reaches the public. He also called these combinations of "states", with a main quality of mutability - a constant transition between "polarities". These are not taken as opposite, but rather as gradations among extremes of a specific expressive factor: flow (bound-free), weight (strong-light), time (accelerated-deccelerated), and space (direct-indirect or flexible). While weight is associated to sensation, time to intuition, and space to thinking (Maletic 1987, 203-217), flow associates itself to emotion, and is subliminar to the other three factors. Flow is the basis of every movement, as subliminar tension and initial impulse present, for instance, in all vital functions. It can be associated to Shape Flow or the relationship of the body with itself, perceiving its own volume and moving out of its breathing, organs and body liquids. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (1993), disciple of Bartenieff, has proved the importance of the "Fluid System of the Body" - cellular and intercellular fluid, blood, lymph, cerebrospinal fluid, synovial fluid - in the expressive movement, as in the Vedic concept of rasa.
In the next item, I present a Labananalysis of some Bharatanatyam exercises, in the order performed in class and learned along the years of training. This will allow the visualization of growing complexity in neuromuscular patterns and use of space. Before that, though, I will present some main characteristics of Bharatanatyam.



General Principles of the dance BHARATANATYAM
Laban/Bartenieff System - LMA terms
· Separation into Major Limbs (initiate the movement: feet, hands, eyes, head, neck, waist) and Minor Limbs (follow the previous: legs, arms, face, torso...) - Bartenieff Principle of Initiation and Sequencing
· Initiation of movements mostly in the extremities, different and simultaneous movements of different body parts (each one with specific qualities) - Distal Initiation, Simultaneous Sequencing, creating a "high energy level" (Van Zyle) in complex combinations
· Steps with Locomotion associated to hand gestures and facial expression - Gesture/Posture Merger and Bartenieff Principle of Weight Shift for Locomotion
· Basic Posture with straight spinal column and arms opened to the sides - Bartenieff Principle of Bony Connections (specially Head-Heels, Head-Tail, Scapula-Scapula, Scapula-Hand), Vertical and Horizontal dimensions, Spoke-Like Directional Shape
· Foot Stepping on the ground, bringing heels high up till the sit-bones and back to the floor - Strong weight and Quick time, Heels-Sitz Bones Connection, Effort Life for Body Connectivity (another Bartenieff Principle).

· 1. Abstract Dance (Nritta):



. 2. Expressive Dance (Abhinaya):


- mostly condensing qualities combined in Awake State (space and time), Mobile State (flow and time), Rhythm State (weight and time), Action Drives (punch)

- all combinations of effort life, especially important is phrasing (distribution of expressive emphasis, if any, or rhythm of energy in the movement phrase) and Exertion/Recuperation Movement Theme (natural tendency to recuperate of a movement by performing complementary or different expressive qualities to it)

· Ocular focus defined in quick moviments - Direct Space and Accelerated Time
· Eyes follow hands during the moviments - Eyes-Hands Connection
· Emphasis in bound flow and verticality of torso in Bharatanatyam - compensated by Bartenieff Fundamentals warm up (shape flow and floor work with passive weight and free flow on the ground, supported by deep breathing)
· Torso bending to the sides or slightly forwards are done from the waist (main limb), maintaining the relationship between arms, spine and head as in the Basic Position, in other words, without twisting at the neck nor projecting shoulders or thorax forwards or isolately in any direction - Emphasis on the Head-Tail, Scapula-Scapula and Scapula-Hand Connections, keeping spine and shoulders with a primary horizontal (side-side) emphasis or vertical (in the case of the spine), rather than sagital (forwards or backwards)
· Clear Positioning of Limbs on Space - Bartenieff Principle of Spatial Intent
· Elbows always out or up, initiating the arm movements - Mid-Limb Initiation, Spoke-Like Directional Shape
· Hand Gestures - Hand-Scapula Connection, Directional (e.g. Katakamukham - stretched first and second fingers touching thumb, while 2 smaller fingers stretch upwards) or Shaping Movement (e.g. Alapadma - fingers opened as in a lotus flower)
· The position of the sitting Budha - Tetrahedron (Cristaline Form of previous complexity to the Octahedron, Icosahedron, Cube and Dodecahedron)


in the order performed in class and in the learning process (names based on Padma Subrahmanyam in KOTHARI 1979). OBSERVE THE GROWING COMPLEXITY FROM ITEM TO ITEM. Some exercises are followed by their rhythmic syllables (e.g. "ta tai ta ha"), to facilitate their identification by the practicioners. Detailed descriptions of some of these exercises can be found in VAN ZILE 1993.
Obs. Adavus are unities of pure dance; "exercises" which are gradually added to each other in complex choreographies.

TATTADAVUS ("tattu" = golpear achatadamente; "tatta" = TO BEAT):
Core Support, Dynamic Alignment, Homologous (Upper/Lower), Heels-Sitz Bones Bony Connection, Gradated Rotation (hip joint), Vertical Dimension, Thigh Lift (initiated by the heels towards the sitz-bones).

1o e 2o NATTADAVU ("natta" = TO STRETCH):
Hands-Scapulas Bony Connection, Heels-Sitz Bones Connection, Head-Hands (Eyes-Hands) Bony Connection, Homolateral (Left/Right), Spoke-like Directional, Horizontal Dimension.

3o e 4o NATTADAVU:
Hands-Scapulas Bony Connection, Heels-Sitz Bones Connection, Head-Hands (Eyes-Hands) Bony Connection, Homolateral (Left/Right), Gradated Rotation, Arc-Like Directional, Vertical Plane.

Hands-Scapulas Bony Connection, Heels-Sitz Bones Connection, Head-Hands (Eyes-Hands) Bony Connection, Homologous (Upper/Lower) and Homolateral (Left/Right), Gradated Rotation, Spoke-Like Directional, Sagital Plane and Horizontal Dimension.

Hands-Scapulas Bony Connection, Heels-Sitz Bones Connection, Head-Hands (Eyes-Hands) Bony Connection, Homolateral (Left/Right), Gradated Rotation, Spoke-Like Directional and Arch-Like Directional, Vertical and Horizontal Dimensions, Sagital Plane.

Hands-Scapulas Bony Connection, Heels-Sitz Bones Connection, Head-Hands (Eyes-Hands) Bony Connection, Homologous (Upper/Lower) and Homolateral (Left/Right), Gradated Rotation, Spoke-Like Directional and Arch-Like Directional, Vertical (door) and Sagital (wheel) Planes.

Hands-Scapulas Bony Connection, Heels-Sitz Bones Connection, Head-Hands (Eyes-Hands) Bony Connection, Homologous (Upper/Lower) and Homolateral (Left/Right), Gradated Rotation, Spoke-Like Directional and Arch-Like Directional, Sagital (wheel) and Vertical (door) Planes, Horizontal and Vertical Dimensions (for the first time including Place Low with the pelvis, while earlier the Vertical Dimension was restricted to arm movements).

TATTI METTU ADAVU ("tattu" = TO STRIKE; "mettu" = TO BEAT; lifting and strinking heel down):
Heels-Sitz Bones Connection, Homologous (Upper/Lower), Homolateral (Right/Left), Gradated Rotation, Spoke-Like Directional, Vertical Dimension. The neurological and spatial regression of this exercise is compensated by the increase of complexity in rhythmic terms, in the new action of stepping alternately in half-point and heels (left and right), while earlier the whole sole of the feet would step on the ground at each strike.

KUDITTU METTU ADAVU ("tai ha tai hi") ("kudittu" - TO JUMP):
Bony Connections (already cited), Homologous (Upper/Lower), Distal Initiation (hands and feet), Gradated Rotation, Spoke-Like Directional, Vertical Dimension (heels jumping up in half-point and back down); Vertical, Horizontal and Sagital Dimensions and Diagonals with the arms, torso bending into Vertical Plane from the waist.

KHUTTHADAVU, also called Ettadavu ("etta" = TO REACH OUT)
(ta tai ta ha - dhi tai ta ha) ("khuttha" = SLIGHT JUMP WITH BOTH FEET) (dance sequence with 4 phrases, including 3 speeds, in Alarippu) DEMONSTRATED IN THE CONFERENCE
Bony Connections (already cited), Homologous (Upper/Lower), Homolateral (Right/Left), Contralateral (UpperRight/LowerLeft; UpperLeft/LowerRight), Gradated Rotation, Spoke-Like Directional and Arc-Like Directional, Vertical Dimension (feet during jumps or stepping down), Horizontal Dimension (arms to the sides), Horizontal (table) Plane (arms crossing towards forward middle right or left), Vertical (door) Plane (last part, arms going to Low Right and Low Left), Cube Diagonals (last part, arms going to High Forward Right and High Forward Left).

(legs as in Kutaravu; arms almost as in the last part of Kudithametu):
Bony Connections (already cited), Homologous (Upper/Lower), Homolateral (Right/Left), Contralateral (UpperRight/LowerLeft; UpperLeft/LowerRight), Gradated Rotation (arms and legs), Spoke-Like Directional and Arc-Like Directional, Vertical Plane, Cube Diagonals (last part, arms going to High Forward Right and High Forward Left).

SARUKKALADAVU ("sarukkal" ou "skhalita" = one or two feet slip):
Bony Connections, Homologous, Homolateral, Contralateral, Spoke-Like Directional and Arc-Like Directional, Horizontal Dimension, Vertical Dimension and Plane.

MANDI ADAVU ("mandi" =knees; down with knees opened, heels high):
especial emphasis on Bartenieff Movement Principles - Bony Connections, Breath Support, Kinetic Chains, Core Support and Spatial Intent for agile and rhythmic Weight Transfer on Place Low; Homologous, Homolateral, Contralateral (on the 3rd variation in the Allarippu, to stand up), Spoke-Like Directional and Arc-Like Directional, Horizontal Dimension, Forward Low Diagonals (arms), Sagital Plane and Vertical Dimension (2nd variation).

Bony Connections, Gradated Rotation.
1. With arms in arch crossing in front of the torso (with or without pause): Spoke-Like Directional (legs) and Arc-Like Directional (arms), Homologous (Upper/Lower), Sagital Plane (arms), Diagonals of Cube (legs).
2. With arms alternately forward and back, on same side as leg going forward sideways: Spoke-Like Directional (arms and legs) and Arc-Like Directional (arms coming back to center), Homolateral (Right/Left), Sagital Dimension (arms), Diagonals of Cube (legs).
3. With arms alternately going in the diagonal, on opposite side of leg going forward sideways: Spoke-Like Directional (arms and legs), Contralateral (UpperRight/LowerLeft; UpperLeft/LowerRight), Diagonals of Cube (arms and legs).
4. With arms initially in Natyarambhe (stretched in the Horizontal Dimension), and then alternately going Back Middle, Place High, and diagonal pull Forward Low on the opposite side while the other arm goes Forward Middle and opens gradually in the Horizontal Plane back to the side in Natyarambhe: Spoke-Like Directional (arms and legs), Arc-Like Directional and Shaping (Arms), Homologous, Homolateral and Contralateral, Dimensions (Octahedron; arms), Planes (Icosahedron; arms), Diagonals (Cube; arms and legs).
5. "Ta ha ta jam ta ri ta - Jam ta ri ja ka ta ri tai": Spoke-Like Directional (arms and legs), Arc-Like Directional and Shaping (Arms and hands), Homologous (jump), Homolateral (step with one leg and arm on the same side stretch in the diagonal) and Contralateral (one arm and opposite leg in the diagonal), Dimensions (Octahedron; arms), Diagonals (Cube; arms and legs).

Obs: in all four variations, before going into the diagonal, and back to center, the lower leg goes up into Place Middle (Vertical Dimension) from the heel (Heels-Sitz Bones Connection).



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