The Influence of India on Western Dance

My interest about differences and similarities of classical dance forms, Bharatanatya and Ballet was stimulated by discussions with Dr. Mamata Nyogi Nakra.

I teach Western theatrical dance history and began looking for references to India in our traditional dance theatre over the last several centuries. Luckily our library, La Bibliotheque de La Danse, has many books which mention, sometimes only in passing, tentative efforts by Europeans to capture the riches and exoticism of India, from the royal court ballets of the seventeenth century when kings, queens and courtiers danced Indian roles dressed in fantastic costumes, through to the romantic ballets on international stages in the nineteenth century where ballerinas in bouffant skirts and the toe shoes interpreted that creature unknown in the West, The Devadasi, called Bayadere in Europe.

In 1830 Marie Taglioni appeared as a mute dancer in a highly successful Opera-Ballet, Le Dieu et La Bayadere (called ‘The Maid of Cashmere’ in English) which was performed in many cities across Europe and even in America.

One of the most interesting events was the appearance in 1838, in Paris and London of a family of dancers from Tiruvendipuram, performing authentic traditional dances from South India. They were billed as ‘Les Bayaderes’, and the poet and critic Theophile Gautier left a respectful description of them and their dances. Unfortunately this vision of an unexpected reality had no effect on stereotypic Western presentation of India on the ballet stage.

The technical expertise developed during that century made it possible to present elaborate, realistic stage sets with atmospheric lighting showing jungles and temples, as in the production of ‘Sacountala’ at the Paris Opera in 1858 and ‘Brahma’ at La Scala in Italy in 1868, but the dance movements were still based on the classical vocabulary of the time.

La Bayadere was choreographed by Marius Petipa for the imperial Russian ballet, St. Petersburg, in 1877, with lavish production values, processions by hundreds of dancers and a transcendent scene, ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’, danced by many dancers dressed in white, representing departed spirits. This melodramatic work with many Indian stereotypes is still performed today by all the major classical ballet companies in Europe and America. It was only with spiritual quest of Ruth St. Denis, a young American that interest in underlying motivation of Indian dance was shown on Western stages. However, even she did not learn authentic Indian dance.

The visit to India in 1923 by the Great Russia ballerina, Anna Pavlova, bore important fruit, because she discovered and engaged the young Uday Shankar to dance with her in London and to create dances on Indian themes. She also encouraged Rukmini Devi to study the dances of her own culture rather than Western ballet.

When Ruth St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn came to India in 1926, they witnessed first hand the remaining vestiges of Indian dance, which had been treated with disdain by colonial attitudes of superiority. However non-Indian artists in the West such as Ragini Devi and Roshanara began performing Indian dances learned at the source and La Meri and Louise Lightfoot also came to India to study with gurus at the time of the Renaissance begun by E. Krishna Iyer and others. Since then, it has not been possible for Western dance artists to invent pastiche dances on Indian themes.

Indeed, choreographers such as Jack Cole have used authentic Indian dance technique to create new styles of Western dance. Currently the number of non-Indian interpreters of Indian dance is incalculable and the best of them have come to the subcontinent to learn at the feet of the gurus.

About Vincent Warren

Vincent Warren is curator of la Bibliotheque de la Danse at the Ecole Superieure de Danse du uebec, Montreal, and teaches dance history for that institution. He has lectured at Concordia University, McGill University Ottawa University and L’Universite de Quebec a Montreal, Les Ateliers de Danse Moderne de Montreal and throughout the province of Quebec. In 1999 he was invited to lecture at Delhi, Hyderabad, Madras and Bangalore in India. He has mounted several exhibitions on historical themes at the Place des Arts, Montreal and has given pre-performance talks for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. He was leading Dancer for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens for 15 years. He has been Member of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, New York, 1958-60, and etoile with le Theatre Francais de la Danse, Paris, 1971. He was chairman of Dance in Canada Association, 1981-82, president of le Regroupement des Professionels de la Danse du Quebec, 1986-87 and was a member of the Arts Council of the Montreal Urban Community, 1993-1999. He recieved the Queen’s Jubilee medal in 1976, the Dance in Canada Service Award in 1985 and was honored by le Prix Denise Pelletier, a life-time achievement award, from the government of Quebec in 1992.