Mittwoch, 20. Februar 2013

On Reconstructed Dance Costumes: What is "authentic"?

Now that the Kalbeliya costume is finally finished I have collected so many ideas in my head that I am working now not on one "historical" costume, but on two simultaneously.

(N.B.: Rereading this article I have the impression to have written an anti-tribal-fusion statement. I do not at all disrespect any kind of fusion work, on the contrary, it has it's own charm and is an artform in itself! But it has a totally different background than what I am trying to do in this moment.)

When I say "historical" costume this means that I do an accurate research on a specific region and a certain time period. Then I usually choose a whole outfit that I try to reproduce including accessoires like headpieces, shoes and jewellery. On this base I choose the matching music to form a dance out of that.
But when it comes to reconstruction there are a lot of different levels of historical accuracy to follow. How much must my work adhere to them?

Thinking of my next projects these are the questions I posed to myslf and also how to answer them for myself - regarding only my own work right now. I do not want to make any absolute judgements, I just want to clear my ideas in order to achieve a round and coherent outcome!

Modern  version of a traditional Algerian costume  - from a magazine of the famous Algerian Designer Samira Bezaouia Sadek

Can I mix pieces of different outfits?
The answer is difficult. As documentary material may be scarce I will be forced to invent something in any case. BUT - and this is crucial for me - I want to have a coherent work, this means, that if I borrow pieces (and, when it comes to dances, movements) from another, similar source, I want to make sure that the pieces will not loose their initial meaning by being put into an alien surrounding. This may sound really cryptic. I mean, that the pieces should match and should not be used out of their  context regarding religion, social strata and regional peculiarity. So I would not combine, e.g. a peasant woman's apron with an urban headpiece.
Mixing signs of different religious or ethnic communities is not only a sign of a certain ignorance; it might even be regarded as an insult to a member of those. So be very careful with eclectic compositions and have always your audience in mind.
The gender aspect is also very important in non westernized societies. Although I see a certain shift in contemporary ethnic stage dance and costuming (e. g. in some of the new pieces of the sukhilshvilebi from Georgia) I'd rather leave those challenges of their own society to them. As an outsider I can never be sure what denotation it will create on the indigenous audience.
Whenever we approach and try to appropriate a different culture we should be very careful not to destroy the whole systems of meanings that holds it, otherwise we risk to act not only out of ignorance but in a colonialistic way.
This is what I mean by "authentic".

I know this sound sooo conservative! But where is my free artistic expression?! you may ask.

I find a lot of it even in this cautious approach. Some of the freedom comes simply out of material renouncement. I adore, for example, handloomed textiles, and love the very few scarfs that I own. But historical garments need a lot more fabric than our modern ones. And I would have to order them from India, and that is pricey. So, in this case I am very relaxed. I use modern, even synthetic, fabrics when I think they match the styling. I use my sewing machine, I use zippers, fabric glue, faux pearls, acrylic beads, glitter, and so on.
And I also adopt and combine modern crafting techniques which are completely non related to the historical background of a costume. So on a balkan style coat I will put not only the traditional gold work, but also holographic sequins and Japanese inspired Kanzashi flowers.
Random material for goldwork on an velvet coat

Last not least the music I like to use gives me the directions, how to incorporate modern techniques into an authentic dance costume and piece.

These are so far the limitations I put on myself for my work right now. And after that - I will probably make a completely crazy fusion thing! :-)

What is your opinion about all that? Please share!


  1. I think the main question is: Why do you want to be authentic? Is it just for yourself, does it please you if things look original? (I know it can be an obsession to copy beautiful things exactly the way they are.) Or do you want create authenticity for your audience?

    In my opinion, authenticity is extremely individual. So in the second case you have to know what your audience considers „authentic“. Western people consider other things authentic than people from the country itself. Old people consider other things authentic than young people. I remember years ago, my first bollywood dance teacher performing a Banjara Song from Caravan. She made great effort so make a costume (out of a colorful canopy) that looked „70ies bollywood gypsy“, or „like Aruna Irani’s“ or whatever she had in mind. I was in the audience and heard two women talking: „But that’s not Bollywood, no glitter & schnick-schnack, she looks more like a gypsy!“ Bingo! But they expected something different and were disappointed!

    So in that case should also ask yourself if you want to educate or to entertain. I consider myself mainly an entertainer, that is I want to see people happy, having a good time. So I have to find out what they consider authentic. I would wear something different if I am dancing for Indians or for a western audience, for young or for older people.

    If I am in a setting (e.g. festival) that aims at presenting ethnic dances to an interested audience, then I might more want to educate and show them what xy-ethnic dance really looks like. Then I guess I have to copy as good as possible.

    But in other cases, I might just want to follow my artistic freedom and mix things to form something new. In that case, I just have to be authentic myself. In any case it’s central to take your audience serious, and to prepare and communicate accordingly.

    Whish you a lot of creativity and joy with your wonderful projects!


  2. Dear Jaqueline, thank you so much for your precious suggestions! You made me think a lot, exspecially what you said about the thought whether I considered myself an entertainer or a teacher. Yes, this is a crucial point. In some cases, when the sponsor has specified certain preferences, she will get, of course, what she paid for. But I want the audience to learn something new, too. Once I was waiting for my time to perform on a wedding, in all my Kathak regalia, carefully handmade or chosen from my guru in India, and a half-drunk lad shouted "oh, the bellydancer is coming!" I don't think he got what he expected, but I can at least claim that he could see once something different (if he watched the performance at all).
    Yes, I have to admit that I am an ardent teacher. But I want to express myself, too. So I completely agree that an artist should be first of all authentically herself. In the very end all what I yearn to express is my love for the infinite beauty in oriental dances.
    Thank you for the deep thoughts!

  3. Dear Isabella,

    I know it can be a bit frustrating (not even talking about drunk people). You take so much effort about the details of your costumes, and for the audience it looks "all the same". I am also often considered a belly dancer in my indian costumes. If you do an exoting "hip shaking thing", then it's belly dance. After all, the term "oriental" is not clearly defined either, so how wonder if people subsume everything from Morocco to Central and South Asia.
    (By the way, I doubt that a Person from China could tell Greek from English Folk dances.)
    But for me everything is fine, if I enter and hear them say "wow, look how beautiful!" - I don't care if they refer to the costume/styling or the dance. If they enjoy, and I can dance with a light heart, then I'm happy :-)


  4. You are so right, Jaqueline!
    I admire how relaxed you are and I will try to learn from your attitude!
    I am still a beginner and that is maybe the reason that I take everything maybe too seriously and forget that the most important thing is to share the happiness and the beauty!
    Love, I.