PersoAndréine BelArticles

Crossing the River

Andréine Bel

  • Dance Now, Summer 1993, pp.64-70.**

//In a world of the increasing migration and circulation of a profusion of people, images and ideas, French dancer and choreographer Andréine Bel takes a personal look at issues involved in crossing cultural borders.//

I was fascinated with Malkovsky's idea of
'laws of natural movement' based on the
observation of nature...
Here, a movement of the sea in my
choreography on Debussy's
La Cathédrale Engloutie (1978)

I started studying classical ballet at the age of 5; it was ballet, since there was only one school in the small city I lived in. At the age of 18 I decided to devote my life to dance, looking for an educational system compatible with the idea of 'instinctive' movement. An intensive practise of Yoga had not given me the expected insight into the roots of human movement. The striking experience came from Katsugen (a sort of physical training in which the body invents movement by interrupting voluntary control), taught by Itsuo Tsuda, an expert of the Seitaï school in Japan.<1> Tsuda was also an actor in Noh theatre and a disciple of Moritaka Ueshiba, the inventor of Aïkido. Although specific to Japanese culture, his example made it clear to me that it was possible to concile the awakening of instinctive movement with technical training and artistic achievement.

Later I met François Malkovsky and spent a year with him, doing his house work and attending private lessons. He was a pupil of Raymond Duncan (Isadora's brother). I was fascinated with his idea of 'laws of natural movement' based on the observation of nature: the natural elements, animals, children and craftsmen.<2> To find natural movement you had to look for minimum effort rather than reproduce models. An elephant and a tiger do not walk the same way, but both follow the same need for //efficiency//, here meaning an optimum adaptation of a living being to its environment.

At the age of 84 Malkovsky had rediscovered the fundamental principle of ki, whose meanings include energy, respiration, intuition, premonition, a concept deeply rooted in Japanese language and culture.<3> He used to demonstrate it by dancing with that seemingly lack of technique characteristic of mastership in the art. Unfortunately, many students perceived it as a handicap due to his advanced age!

Everything I learnt or discovered after my stay with Malkovsky was an elaboration of his system. This may not be obvious because the dance I do now looks different from (in my view, impoverished) reminiscences of Isadora's dance, and my understanding of movement has changed a great deal. As for classical dance, I did not reject it but I felt I had been taught the wrong way. The rigidity valued by many western dancers has been inherited from the 19th century and goes along with the image of human body as a mechanical slave. When asked to choreograph a French 17th century court dance, I looked at portraits of people who lived in that time: there was no stiffness in their head positions and body postures, and I found it more important to express the delicacy and accuracy of their attitudes than to imitate current reconstructions of ancient choreography.


In fact there is no such thing like a 'natural' movement or body. These concepts are determined by cultural factors. Every dance (including Isadora's) is artificial, we should say 'designed'. Efficiency itself is not a universal concept, but all dance techniques referring to efficiency (through the metaphor of nature) are actually aiming at //correctness//. A movement is deemed 'correct' in the same way we judge a musician to be singing in a 'tuneful' manner. This relates to an //inner sensation// rather than an explicit model. Since that inner sensation is acquired by training, Pygmy, Eskimo and English musicians for example, focusing on different aspects of sound, will play different 'natural' pitch intervals. Similarly, aboriginal Australians may perform entirely different movements from Balinese dancers -- to the point, I was told, that they may not recognize the latter as 'dancers'.

In spite of its cultural dependency, whenever this sensation of correctness is experienced the corresponding movement, sound or posture becomes 'part of the performer'. It is an intensive emotional experience which is forever engraved in the body's memory, and recognized by the tremendous flow of energy it liberates, shaking the whole being. This inner sensation is the only one in which I have full confidence, as a guide for learning and composing choreographic works.


Most dancers reduce training to the acquisition of a technique and repertory. I have seen very few teachers who do not teach by imitation, whether they say 'I'll show you what to do' or 'Find it by yourself'. In both cases you must follow someone, whether it is your teacher or advanced students gesticulating in the first row. But training implies a gradual, irreversible change in the perceptive field (of sounds, shapes, movements, body, space, time) demanding tremendous concentration and intelligence. A good teacher, stage director or choreographer is aware that the proper movement or body attitude is part of every performer's potential. It is a matter of experience, patience and inspiration to make it flourish. Pandit Birju Maharaj, my current teacher, calls himself a 'sculptor'. He knows his students are shapeless stones, but his chisel will be guided by the resistance of the material, our 'inner forces'... Developing a dancer's inner sensation of movement is very close to experiencing the level of //pre-expressivity// in acting, an idea which has been investigated by theatre anthropology.<4>

Going East

After staying with Malkovsky I worked on my own for about 6 years. My first intention was to expand the musical repertory on which his dance was based. During that time I looked for movements in perfect concord with music, working with musicians and comparing musical interpretations.

In my journey through western music I came across challenging works, notably Albéniz' //Asturias//, based on a rhythmic system I found very hard. This gave me the urge to develop aspects of dance left uninvestigated by Isadora's followers: contact with the ground, rhythm, hand movements, facial expressions... Long time before stumbling on //Asturias// I had seen a performance of Kathak dancer Uma Sharma in Delhi. In the slow movements I had recognized an application of the very laws taught by Malkovsky, notably the use of spine as the 'tree of life' of movement. So, after several years of preparation, in 1978 I left for India to study with famous Kathak master Pandit Birju Maharaj. Initially I hoped a couple of months might be enough to understand the basic system and make it part of my own research. In reality, 6 months later my main achievement was to have learnt how to bind the ghunghrus (bells) so that they would not hurt my ankles! In the end I spent 6 years in Kathak Kendra and later returned several times for shorter stays.

Maharaji is one of the very few Indian artists who were taught in a traditional way and who then became inquisitive about their heritage: why is it that I do this movement in such and such way? With him I got the insight that training is basically a matter of expanding one's perceptive field. For instance, my awareness of time evolved until I was able to recognize the intricacy of flows of energy, and almost unnoticeable but essential movements at very fast tempo. The laws I had been taught were still valid, but they had been expanded throughout centuries. 'Uninterrupted research' is perhaps the deepest meaning of 'tradition' in India. The question of a fixed repertory is only meaningful to imitators.

Across the river

Being trained in India was not without conflicts. For instance, Malkovsky used to say 'the eye must precede the hand movement', whereas in Indian pure dance (//nritta//) the eye must 'follow' the hand. It took me years to realise that Indian dancers obey the first law in narrative dance and the second one in abstract movements... So, this experience which I call //biculturality in dance// is an unending dialectical learning process by which conflicting situations lead us to higher levels of understanding. Edgar Morin calls it 'complex thinking', beautifully defined as 'a permanent tension between aspiring towards non-compartmentalised, non-partitioned, non-reductive learning, and recognising the partial, incomplete nature of all knowledge'.<5>

Biculturality is necessary to teach a 'foreign' technique. I have seen too many disastrous workshops in the West directed by eastern artists who are nevertheless excellent teachers in their own country. You cannot just tell somebody 'jump across the river' when it is so wide. If you know which rocks are reliable and which are not you must guide your student along the footpath. Too many westerners believe that the day they enter the class of a great teacher something magical must happen: they are going to fly in the air and land smoothly on the other bank of the river. This is self-delusion. Ferdinando Taviani has put it correctly:

Some people think that in order to make a performance which says interesting things it is 'necessary to have something interesting to say'. Therefore, instead of concerning themselves with 'material' things ... they devote themselves to profound and spiritual research in order to immerse themselves in a creative situation. This is a bit like the following story. A group of people are living in an arid area. Some of the people turn their attention to the earth, to rocks and cement, they make dikes and cisterns. Others can think of nothing but water and perform rain dances.<6>

Back in Europe

A reason for studying Kathak was that it is the only classical dance in India encouraging stage improvisation, thus stressing the importance of choreographic and musical composition. When I came back in 1985, I was looking for collaboration with musicians and was introduced to French composer André Mouret who had a thorough experience of intercultural contemporary music.

Sometimes Mouret's rhythmic patterns are so complex that even educated listeners are unable to recognise connections between instruments and voices. This effect of confusing the metrical arrangement of events is called //polychronicity//,<7> something like the awareness of 'multidimensional time'. I view its application to dance as the missing link between two opposite conceptions: dance as an illustration of music, and dance as an autonomous art form in which music would be merely an optional additional element.<8> My contribution to this research has been polychronicity in solo dance. The first time I attempted it was with //Zindegi//, an evocation of the life of a Pakistani woman who was both a poet and a distressed, secluded person. I found that working on multiple dimensions of time was be the proper way to express her conflicting states of consciousness.<9>

'Fusion' dance

We use the word 'fusion' to designate intercultural approaches in which artists may attempt to merge, oppose or 'deconstruct' technical and aesthetic knowledge at their disposal. Some western dancers who visited India have invented intercultural styles in which they preserve references to Hindu philosophy that they hold to be the 'essence' of Indian dance. They combine the 'Indianness' of Indian dance with the 'Europeanness' of modern dance. In my own view the essence of any dance is its artistic dimension, not its claims to stress or deny cultural bounderies. Spirituality belongs to your intimate daily life; it may also be a collective yearning for a better world, but certainly not the matter of a show.

Today there is an increasing dissatisfaction among artists who were trained in an imitative way. They reject a tradition in which they see an obstruction to creativity. For instance they say it has become meaningless, in modern life, to enact Radha (Krishna's lover) stirring milk to make butter. However, unless they have been given access to compositional knowledge they can only pick up ideas from the West. I thing this is hopeless because western contemporary dance is also, to a large extent, self-imitative.

So, what to suggest to dancers preserving or rejecting the Indianness of Indian dance? I do not look at the gesture of stirring milk in reference to the Krishna cult or village life in India. It has a very deep philosophical signification of which few dancers are still aware: in Vedic mythology, stirring the ocean of milk yielded the Universe. Therefore Radha's gesture relates to an old intuition of energy being 'twisted' to set our galaxy (the 'milky way') into movement. In the choreographic work Okeanos I did not want to borrow this gesture (and cultural connotation) from Indian dance. There are intuitive associations of primordial energy with long hair in western mythical stories. Therefore I felt that twisting my own hair would evoke the same myth in a more abstract way. Poetic distancing from literal interpretation of images is an important aspect of my choreographic approach: dance as visual poetry is not a compilation of encoded gestures 'read' by educated spectators in a unique manner. Even though every narrative dance possesses a rich vocabulary to portray the moon, a poet-dancer may prefer to evoke the face of a person staring at the night sky. The art of suggestive expression, which was cultivated by Kathak dancers throughout several centuries, is probably the most elaborated specific form of compositional knowledge that India has to offer to western dancers.

Other intercultural dances

Butoh is an exemple of fusion dance which originated in the late 1960s as an interaction between Japanese 'body techniques' and western ideas on modern aesthetics. Germaine Acogny, in France, and Peter Badejo in the UK have developed successful intercultural forms of modern African dance. Indian choreographer Astad Deboo who studied Kathakali, Kathak and several western dances (Martha Graham, Jazz, Pina Bausch), is an imaginative artist with a multi-facetted style using an impressive number of knowledge resources. These examples highlight the extraordinary diversity of approaches.

In my ARRC group (Atelier de Recherche Rythmique et Chorégraphique) I trained a number of gifted young people, but for various reasons (mainly lack of financial support) they could not remain long. I feel very indebted to Fabienne Brioudes, a teacher of western contemporary dance, and Olivier Rivoirard who made the dream possible. Our collaboration on Okeanos was based on the same principle of non-imitation. We first tried to explore and develop common perceptions of music, movement and the theme of the performance. I paid much attention to the way they were constructing their own movements, directing them precisely on stage locations, eye directions, and so on. I also showed them basic Kathak footwork and Mouret's rhythmic system. When it became clear that dancers should be lifted, Fabienne taught us the basic porté techniques in contemporary dance. So we learned a great deal from each other and in the end we adapted these techniques to different sections of the piece. I think that creativity is not a blissful state of mind; it implies a permanent struggle against the stereotyped attitudes often cultivated as 'recognition signs' by groups of dancers, whether they belong to traditional circles or the so-called avant-garde.


Unlike bilinguism, biculturality in dance does not make it easy to hop from one style to the next. Dance is not a language, so each river you cross has its particular footpath. When I look at a Japanese or African dance I may be able to map observations with personal experience and expectations, which will make it enjoyable, but at the same time I am certain to miss significant features (as I did 12 years ago with like those fast movements in Kathak) because of my limited knowledge of the style.


In looking at the past we tend to gloss over hesitations, deceptions and difficulties... So I stress that my understanding of dance evolved considerably through the differences between my teachers, and a diversity of cultural contexts. I think that most performing artists would benefit from developing insights into the diversity and richness of different cultures instead of just introducing 'exotic' ingredients in response to fashions.

We need radical changes in the way we look at non-western performing arts. Evidently 'traditional' forms should be preserved from western cultural and commercial domination, although preservation itself is not the ultimate step: multicultural performances in the West might quickly turn into a sort of circus exhibition in which specimen of 'authentic traditional' art forms are displayed to admirative (or bored) audiences. In addition, a narrow (Eurocentric) conception of 'modernity' may obscure the fact that compositional knowledge is found in many different forms of music and dance, including those belonging to societies in which 'composers' and 'choreographers' are not distinguished from high-standard performers.<10> Conversely, it is important to discover the 'ethnicity' of western contemporary art forms... This new vision will grow up by promoting intercultural experiments in which creative artists and scholars from many parts of the world deal with the human cultural heritage as multiple 'sources of knowledge' having their own relevance to contemporary art production.


  1. Tsuda, I. //The Not-Doing//. Paris: Arjuna Publications, 1984.
  2. Bel, A. East-West Encounter: did Isadora have the right answers?’ in //ISTAR Newsletter//, 2. New Delhi: International Society for Traditional Arts Research, 1984.
  3. Tsuda, I. op.cit.
  4. Barba, E., & Savarese, N., (eds). //The Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: the Secret Art of the Performer.// London: Routledge, 1991.
  5. Morin, E. //Introduction à la pensée complexe//. Paris: ESF, 1990, pp 11-12.
  6. Taviani, F. //Views of the Performer and the Spectator//, in Barba & Savarese, op.cit. p 261.
  7. Hall, E.T. //The Dance of Life//. New York: Doubleday, 1983.
  8. Bel, A. & B. Polychronicité - une approche nouvelle du travail chorégraphique et des interactions danse-musique, in //Actes du Colloque International pour la Danse et la Recherche Chorégraphique Contemporaines//. Paris: GERMS, 1994.
  9. Bel, B. & A. "Fusion" Performing Arts: a Plea for Diversity, in //Interface//, 21, 3-4. Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger, 1992.
  10. Blacking, J. Challenging the myth of ‘ethnic’ music: first performances of a new song in an African oral tradition, 1961, in //Yearbook for Traditional Music//, 21. New York: International Council for Traditional Music, 1989, pp 17-24.

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