Through dance, you allow people to forget that they have been traumatized: Jonathan Hollander

Jonathan Hollander
Earlier this year, renowned American contemporary dancer Jonathan Hollander was in Delhi to perform his production Shakti: A Return to the Source. But before he performed, he spoke to a small audience at the studio of his long-time collaborator, Indian costume designer Sandhya Raman. The Battery Dance Company’s Hollander has performed all over the world and also held workshops with troubled participants in several countries. He has a special relationship with India, though, having been a Fulbright scholar to the country and also spent a lot of time here – he has facilitated US tours by many of India’s leading dance companies and co-founded the Indo-American Arts Council in 2000, according to his website.

Responding to the questions of an audience made up half of classical dance practitioners and enthusiasts at Sandhya Raman’s Atelier, Hollander spoke about his production, the importance of dance in handling the fissures in the world today, and how difficult it is to make dance work professionally. Excerpts:

On pure dance vs socially relevant dance activities

Question to Jonathan: We work in the mainstream (as dancers), yet struggle to be relevant to society and say something about contemporary situations – particularly in my students, I see (the sentiment), are we doing something to be just decorative pieces and look beautiful on stage, or is there is a larger purpose? That’s a complex thing I need to address as a teacher and as a dancer. I’ve done it for myself and paid a cost for it, because then you’re not taken seriously in the mainstream and not in the other either because they feel you’re not a social change-maker in that sense.

Jonathan: I think every artist, every human being, has to come to terms with their organic motivation and character. Now that the MeToo movement is on in the US, people think Shakti is such a clever production, but it’s not about that – I don’t think it has anything to do with the MeToo movement. But if people want to take a message from it… That’s the thing about contemporary, it’s very open to interpretation. On the other hand, somebody interviewing me today would say that classical dance is dealing with a real issue, because most people don’t understand it. They don’t understand the stories, the music, the mudras etc., and I said to them that I don’t understand the mudras, I don’t understand the nuances of what the artist is thinking and doing either. But I love it. I don’t think you’ve got to understand it. Maybe that’s complete unorthodoxy, but I just feel that you can appreciate Indian dance on so many levels that go beyond the scholarly interpretation of… Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi – these forms are so magnificent in the realm of human achievement. And they’re magnificent to watch, and I think each person comes to it with a different background. So I don’t think classical art forms should be endangered because people don’t understand them, I don’t think that’s the excuse. Like with contemporary dance, I love that people go, ‘What did that mean?’ If it meant something I could verbalize, why would I make a dance out of it? That’s the point. There are some people who are literal and they feel like they’re making a big mistake if they don’t understand the choreographer’s intention.
(As for the other aspect) I don’t remember a situation in which I decided that there was an element of politics or a world issue that I wanted to address through dance. That’s just not part of how I process things. But that leads me to the next part of my talk, which is how we’ve integrated working with the crisis of the world right now, which is refugees, displaced people. There, it speaks to the fact that I always had in my mind that dance companies were limited in their vision for what they should be. I didn’t want us to be one more dance company performing for the same 150 people – that was just not important to me. I wanted to do something that would be more public, and would provide access to the arts, because I realised that in the US, people from a lower economic bracket might not ever have the opportunity to study the arts, engage with them, or have the opportunity to even watch a dance performance live. And I believe there was talent wherever you could find it. How could I make an institution that could address it?
(Plays trailer from a documentary called Moving Stories, about working with the underprivileged and the abused)

On dancing with the traumatized and disenfranchised

Jonathan: In India, I was working with a group of children who had been trafficked, and we worked for them for 20 hours only. I was with my team in New York (before the project was finalized), and I didn’t know if the project would work. Working with survivors of human trafficking, we had a notion that it would work since we’d had a (similar) group in Thailand. It is only when the work begins that you know. These children lived under bridges and they had the worst lives – in fact, the dancers could not even express what they had experienced. In Mumbai, we were working with a government department and the address was kept a secret since they live in an almost prison-like environment. Most of them go back to trafficking. India is grappling with it, Thailand and USA are also grappling with it. There are groups and it’s not easy to reach out to them. And look at these girls, who transcend their circumstances and create movement.

In the beginning, there was a girl in the wheelchair who would refuse to get out of it since she was still physically traumatized, and in the end, she was a dancer. How do you ask yourself why you are doing this work? In the end, you ask, how much can you do?

In 2006, we worked with schools in Cambodia and Germany. The only thing that was common was that we had only 20 hours spread out over 5 to 6 days. We realized that we cannot teach anybody how to dance in that much time. But we can give them, or elicit, a movement, and a tool kit for creation – then we will leave them with something to work with. Dheerendra was there to watch North Korea working with South Korea and disabled children working with able children. I can’t tell you how inspiring it is for us to see these transformations, and for me to watch my dancers interacting with other communities and doing such an incredible job. They have to be given the credit since without a team like that, I would not have been able to do anything. So these dancers have become not only beautiful dancers, but also choreographers and nurturing, teaching partners, and that is the secret of the success of this dance company.

In 2006, we started this project with three countries, and we have been to 50 countries now. In Germany alone, we have travelled to 26 cities. In Greece a number of years ago, it was interesting since we trained Greek dancers, we partnered with Greek dancers in each of the workshops. The next year, one of our dancers supervised the Greek dancers, they’ve taught other dancers, and they had programmes of their own. It’s reached out to five cities and hundreds of schools in different situations. This is our motto – that we transfer skills and train trainers, and that is what I had in mind for India. We cannot fulfil a need like this, but we know that we can transfer skills.
In Germany, we completed a two-year programme that had groups made up half of German school students and half of refugees. They’re sharing the same building but they’re not speaking to each other, they’re fearful of each other, especially German girls who’re wary of the boys… And the minute you get them in one room and dancing together, you build this camaraderie, the esprit de corps, it just emerges. And my colleague in NY – he’s Egyptian, he’s a Muslim, I’m a Jew, and we work together – he ran the programme a few months ago in Germany, and he said in the schoolyard in Germany, he saw these kids sharing Facebook friends! That is a mark of success as much as the dance – they had just made friends. That made them communicate where all the talking didn’t do it – it was dance, that primal activity, sharing space. And you know, you can’t dance with somebody you don’t trust.

Jonathan Hollander, Sandhya Raman and Dr. Sunil Kothari with some of the audience.

Let's have a discussion about this - dancing with someone you trust.

On dance, trust and healing

Q: I wanted to know how you helped these people release traumas from their body and helped them move.
A: One of the things we really avoid is talking. A lot of the participants, they've been traumatized, stigmatized, they assume you're going to be talking to them, since so many people have been talking to them. So when you don’t talk, and you start with some sort of physical exercise, like warming up, or asking them to spell their names with their bodies – use your arms, knees, elbows, head etc, or just come up with a gesture that stands for you. Just little tasks. Then you slowly start to build towards movement – it's like creating a sentence word by word. So we just have a lot of different activities that are interchangeable. I think you allow people to forget that they have been traumatized. You're not going to address that. You're going to address them as fellow human beings.
In Kinshasa, we'd been working with a group of HIV+ young adults. In Africa, when they find out a family member is HIV+, they're thrown out on to the street. That's the kind of trauma these people have been through. When they walked into the space we were going to be working in, they were completely retreated, stony-faced, and as you said, they were sure we were going to start talking. And we didn't. We just started dancing, and playing physical games. All our dancers have been through these things, all these exercises we all know, like passing underneath an imaginary bar. They're fun, and they're funny, and they started laughing. And I said we've won this, they're in it for this session, because they know we're not going to probe.
When I was in Badlapur outside Mumbai, there's a place for girls and boys who’ve come from gender violence. The boys have been rescued largely from train platforms where they've run from abusive fathers, alcoholic fathers, and somehow got to the city, where there's nothing for them except that they can sometimes be picked up by drug dealers or sex workers and brought into that kind of lifestyle. So they were rescued from that, and placed in this school way outside of Mumbai where nobody knew where they were. These boys were very open, they wanted to talk, which was very unusual. The girls did not want to talk at all. The boys wanted to share what they'd been through, and any of us here hearing those stories, you'd just freeze. You can't imagine putting yourself in that situation. And yet, it was beautiful when they were dancing, it's incredible. This speaks to the impact a dance company can have on the world. We're constantly fighting challenges and feeling we can do more. At the same time, we're not forgetting the artistry, we're not forgetting making new productions, performing. For us, as dancers, that has to be there, because they (my dancers) would not be satisfied just doing this social work. It needs to be a mixture where they feel that they're growing as artists too. So it's a balance.

Q: In such contexts, is it possible to detect unusual talent and nurture them as dancers?
A: We'd met a boy in Frankfurt, for instance, who was a refugee from Afghanistan. At age 10, he'd walked to Germany from Afghanistan. How did I find out his story? Because of a dance group. I couldn't take my eyes off him – every gesture he did was so great. And he had no concept that he was a dancer, he didn't know he had a talent. But every move, it was like, what is happening there? How does he have that quality? Incredible. At a time like that, when we discover a talent, we of course talk to the US consulate, who were sponsoring us, and we try to get resources for that person.

Q: Dance is a form of self-expression, and free expression at a point segues into something larger. You don't speak at all…
A: I think it's important to note as a performer, you have to feel you're beautiful, that you're compelling. There is an internal focus you must have, because if you're going to get people to respect you, watch you, be fascinated by you, you have to believe that you are worth watching. There's something – I don’t want to say vanity – but there's an element of self-knowledge and appreciation, because otherwise you'll never come out of this shell. At the same time, as a teaching artist, it's the opposite. You have to be giving everything of yourself, and it's exhausting. And that's why I celebrate my dancers even more, because they do this work – generally speaking, we're in a place for a week, 5, 6 days, and every day they're going out and running these workshops. And on the last day, they're in a tech rehearsal, and then they're on stage, and they've gotta perform! And that is remarkable to me. When I see how beautiful they are on stage, I can't believe that within one person there can be that many talents. They're opposite each other in a way – inward and outward.

Sandhya Raman, Geeta Chandran, Jonathan Hollander and DR. Sunil Kothari

 Responding to exclusionism through dance
Q: We are dealing with a kind of tightening of the world that is new to this decade – a wave of right-wing fervour. I was wondering whether, with conditions changing in America, considering you have those workshops elsewhere in the world, whether you are also beginning to look at what happens at home differently now and have responded to it in some way (through your work).
A: Yes, for instance, we became very connected to Iraq through a programme we did there. Due to the fact that it was so unusual that a dance company would go to Iraq, word spread, and we became involved through social media with a variety of different dancers. One in particular was craving training, communication, and was obviously gifted, and we began to train him on social media and Skype. And then we had this remarkable, serendipitous opportunity that we would go to Jordan and perform in two festivals there, and we invited him to come and join us, like Unnath (Hassan Rathnaraju) joining us (for Shakti), but just for a short while. And things fell into place – he managed to get from Iraq to Jordan, which is really difficult to do for a young man, because Jordan is trying to keep young people out. He worked with us for 10 days, performed with us in two festivals. He went back to Baghdad, finished his degree… and a few days later, he was killed in a bombing in Baghdad. He was one of 300 people who were killed.

I’m speaking dispassionately now, but it was one of the most terrible blows I’ve personally experienced. Because of that, we were determined that we were going to keep working with Iraqis. So a dancer was able to come to the US from Erbil, Iraq, because Kurdistan is an easier environment. He’s there now, and with the fervour you mentioned, the Islamophobia, the racism wading through our country, we decided we needed to address this with an anti-Islamophobia campaign. As I said, my colleague is Egyptian, he’s a practising Muslim, and we have a dancer from Iraq with us. I met a writer through an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, which is a very highly regarded political publication. It had written about Battery dance and this Iraqi dancer, and through that story, told the story of these fake bomb detectors that were sold to the government in Iraq by this businessman in England – they were actually golf ball detectors that were being used by the Iraqis and so the truck bomb that killed 300 people went through 12 checkpoints before it got into the centre of Baghdad and killed all those people. So there was this expose – I met the writer, an Iraqi journalist who lives in the US, and I asked if he would be part of a project pairing the dancer from Iraq with a journalist from Iraq – storytelling through dance and storytelling through the spoken word; we could introduce Americans to Iraqis in a very intimate way. We’ve done it so far in New York and California, but of course, where we really need to do it is in the centre of the country, that’s our goal. But we were able to find out that even in NY and California, which are very liberal bastions of people who are against Trump and all of that agenda, that if we had a card that said ‘Islam’, ‘headscarf’ and ‘mosque’, what were the first words that came to mind for the people who attended the program? And the other side was after the program, the same three words, what would they do? The difference between before and after was remarkable, because they’d maybe had their first experience of different stories, very quotidian stories, and the two beautiful solo dancers just humanized an Iraqi for the audience in a way they’d never experienced before. I think we as dancers know that something very simple and basic like the floor, our feet on the floor, a gesture, can communicate something very powerful.
Also the refugee issue – the fact that Germany took in over a million refugees, that’s one thing. But what happens next? After a person has found safe harbour, what then? He’s going to German school, the language is so difficult, the climate, the food, the clothing are so different – they have to reinvent themselves, and how do you have that process after the fact of having arrived in a safe place? It’s not enough to arrive there, you have to find yourself anew, and this was the minimum we could do, to have these workshops.

Q: One has all these visions, but how do you work out the economics?
A: That’s my responsibility, and I have a Board of Directors of 16 people – one of them is here, as I mentioned – and we’re all dedicated to making this thing grow and survive. I want to say, we have been months behind in our rent. That’s how grave the situation is. We’re not a success story, we’re struggling with finances. But it’s much easier in my situation than it is in India, because we have a tradition of individual philanthropy – individuals dig into their pockets and give money, and they can give ten dollars or ten thousand, but people have that instinct. That accounts for over 80% of all the money charities receive – individual donors. In addition, we have government agencies, sponsors, but here, in order to make this happen, you have to work long and hard to cobble the money together, and then there are other obstructions and uncertainties in arranging venues and etc…
I’d lost a lot of money touring India earlier as well, and we’re not in a position where we can possibly do that – we owe back rent and everything else. We just take huge risks. We can’t lose any money. We’re not making any money, we’re paying the salaries of our staff, but the enrichment for me is obvious – to be able to be with you here with you all tonight.

Shakti: A Return to the Source was performed in Delhi on January 31 this year, capping a three-week-long tour of the country. It featured, among the ensemble, Unnath Hassan Rathnaraju, a Bharatanatyam dancer from Karnataka, Darren Sangita, a foreign musician who works using indigenous Indian music, and an excerpt from Rajan-Sajan Mishra’s Raag Durga, besides being inspired heavily by Hollander’s 50-year-long love affair with India.

Note: This article first appeared in

Pics: Anoop Arora