Andréine Bel

Crossing the River

Per­soAndréine BelArticles

Andréine Bel

Dance Now, Sum­mer 1993, p. 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.

La Mer

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 undo (a sort of phy­si­cal trai­ning in which the body invents move­ment by inter­rup­ting volun­ta­ry control), taught by Itsuo Tsu­da, an expert of the Sei­tai 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 six 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.

Article créé le 16/02/2020 – modi­fié le 14/06/2022

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