Many thanks to Joanna De Souza, Artistic Director and Choreographer of Kathak Dance, for writing the article below about her work as a Caucasian Kathak Dancer. Kathak dance is an integral part of the choreographer that Anita created and performs in Fish Eyes Trilogy. We’re delighted to have Joanna’s contribution to the website, speaking to the intricacies of cultural and artistic property.
Originally published by Fish Eyes Trilogy on March 24, 2015. Written by Joanna De Souza.
ART AS LIFE
It’s 1978 and I’m a kid from Whitby Ontario, who is visiting friends in San Francisco for one week. My friend and I do the requisite visit to Fisherman’s Wharf, and everything in my life changed.
Here in an outdoor courtyard, I saw a performance of Kathak dance with two dancers and two live musicians. Only thing was I had no idea what I was looking at, since I’d never even heard of Indian dance nor had I heard or seen the instruments before. I was totally mesmerized by the strong communication between the ensemble; the super funky rhythms coming from feet with bells around the ankles, the tabla drums, the spoken rhythmic language, and by how much FUN they were having together. It was the first time ever I had seen dancers and musicians as one cohesive, interactive, improvised band, and I needed to find out more.
Should I add here that all four performers here just happened to be white? Did that have a bearing on my decision to go and talk to them to find out what they were doing? Absolutely NOT. I truly was just captivated by the art itself, and would have spoken to them regardless. The general worldview at the time was very open to discovering what makes one happy, and I easily fell into that view in my own life.
To deeply and fully study an art form from an unfamiliar culture can get complicated. It all has to do with the learning environment. I found myself surrounded by world-class master artists/teachers, all originally from north India, whose artistic traditions completely informed who they were. They had the contemporary mindsets to relay a message that these art forms are no one’s property due to ethnicity, but are anyone’s property due to love, passion and hard work. I use the word property here, as they are direct quotes. It was much before I had even heard the term cultural appropriation, and realize now that these great artist/teachers, were giving us the personal tools to be responsible in our learning of the art form, and to then be confident and clear in both our intentions and our place in the artistic community. Art by its very nature will speak to some and not to all. With my dance practice, I had years of performing while being ‘protected’. I would tour the US or India, in a company of dancers who were my great friends, and we were all under the banner of our teacher. He was so respected and regarded for his art, and his teaching skills, that we experienced no issues of being accepted as serious dancers. For eight years, I lived in a bubble of serious study, practice and community, before going to Kolkata India, where I lived in my Guru’s parent’s home for two years, and completed my master’s degree in Kathak through the Prayag Sangit Samiti art institution.
Upon returning to Canada, I began facing people, mostly presenters, who would flatly refuse to book me into festivals, and felt no shame in telling me, that it was because I was non-South Asian. One presenter compared my 15 years of study at the time, with going to Jamaica for a weekend and returning to Canada to tout myself as a Reggae musician. It was during a round table of the festival organizers, and since I knew I wasn’t getting a gig and had nothing to loose, I laughed and told her she was being ridiculous with this comparison. It worked in my favour, as others agreed with me, called her on it, and ultimately I DID get a spot. I have never tried to be other than who I am, have never tried to dance as though I am an Indian, never given myself an Indian performance name, so if people don’t like what I do, then that’s fine with me. Many have shown me great support over the years, and I have also been able to create my own dance opportunities, with some of Canada’s greatest dance artists. For this I am truly grateful.
Over the many years I have been back in Toronto, doing my work on a full-time basis, there have seen unexpected reactions more than resistance to my work. I have been regarded as a ‘contemporary Kathak dancer’ – even when presenting absolutely traditional repertoire, simply because of my appearance. I have also received much support for what I consider my ‘contemporary Kathak’ works.
My performance career has been coupled with my teachers’ life from the beginning, and this has actually really helped me build community.
As a young teacher, I started through the LifeStrides community dance program at the University of Toronto, and had students of all genders, ethnicity and age. When teaching, it makes no difference to my approach whether students are South Asian or not. My responsibility it to the art’s integrity as I understand it, and goes beyond ethnicity. This has become my signature in the dance community. As a teacher, I am an informed non- South Asian classical dancer who teaches and creates work with people from all over the world, and I have a great time of it!
As a dance creator, I am driven to create work that is authentic to the form and expresses narratives and themes that are relevant to our place and time. Kathak is used to this, as it has always been a sponge, readily able to express artistically, what is going on around it.
Joanna de Souza