- Flexible Bodies: British South Asian Dancers In An Age Of Neoliberalism by Anusha Kedhar
Anusha Kedhar’s new monograph on British South Asian dancers and companies from the 1970s to the 2010s offers a unique engagement with “flexible” dancing bodies as they encounter British neoliberalism and multiculturalism. Kedhar extends Aihwa Ong’s concept of “flexible citizenship,” which applied to “elite, cosmopolitan Chinese subjects in Hong Kong [who] accumulate multiple passports ‘as insurance against mainland Chinese rule,”’ to South Asian dancers in Britain, who though “not as mobile or flexible as Ong’s transnational citizens,” nonetheless have the “cultural capital” to garner performance invitations within the UK and across its borders (17). Following the lead of dance studies scholar Yatin Lin, who “extends economic theories of flexibility to dance,” Kedhar builds from the reality that racialized bodies “do not flow as efficiently as goods and capital” to consider “the bodily flexibility of dancers—on and off stage . . . to manage the demands of neoliberalism for flexible, agile, and versatile bodies” (18).
Kedhar succeeds in her aim of “de-centering dance studies” by focusing not on choreographic products, but on processes of dance-making, remaining cognizant of “material conditions . . . training regimes, and immigration policies” (27). Such an approach is exemplary for racialized bodies whose virtuosity may lead to performance opportunities that could be shattered by immigration laws. Dancers’ bodily and psychic flexibility under sociocultural conditions provides the theoretical frame within which Kedhar effectively deploys ethnographic methods (interviews, participant-observations). She also brings to her work a kinesthetic understanding of her material, as an Indian American dance scholar who is both a fine theorist and scholar-practitioner who regularly combines her practice of bharata natyam (since 2006), contemporary Indian dance, choreography, and dramaturgy with her scholarly work. The results place Flexible Bodies alongside prominent achievements of dance ethnography such as Ananya Chatterjea’s Butting Out (2004) and Marta Saviglioni’s Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (1995).
Flexible Bodies is divided into an introduction, epilogue, and five chapters, in each of which Kedhar examines how economic and political realities, local and global, place demands on dancers’ bodies to be innovative, mobile, and willing to take risks. Noting that the rise of neoliberalism and multiculturalism “paralleled . . . the emergence of British South Asian [End Page 590] dance as a genre,” she demonstrates how neoliberalism pressures ordinary workers toward “flexible accumulation,” enticing dancers to be “flexible” in their choreographic choices to fulfill shifting funding mandates (1). By revealing how dancers’ labor is “invisibilized under neoliberalism” as they struggle to earn a living under harsh economic and political policies, Kedhar makes a powerful argument against “the very real dangers of labor flexibilization . . . on the dance labor market” (2–3).
Chapter 1, “Innovation,” critiques the privileging of newness over tradition. Arts funders favor hybridity that challenges classical frameworks, especially if “hybridization with Western choreographic and movement aesthetics makes innovation legible to non-South Asian audiences” (33). South Asian British dancers have therefore had to, paradoxically, be both “ethnic” and “British.” In this chapter, Kedhar explores her four years of dancing with Angika, a company that retained its classical bharata natyam training, but added elements of lighting, visual design, and staging to provide this required “newness” (35). Angika’s success was rooted in the political environment of the 1990s and early 2000s, which fostered cultural work that was designed to ease the racial tensions of the previous two decades. It also helped that Angika was an all-female company, since most British Asian men were regarded unfairly as potentially violent. Angika dissolved in 2008, “an example” as Kedhar states, “of flexibility’s breaking point under neoliberal conditions” (67–68). Ironically, their success leading to assured funding went along with “increased monitoring and control of the company’s work in both artistic and financial terms” (67).
In chapter 2, “Assimilation,” Kedhar analyzes the crisis of British masculinity after the July 7, 2005 terrorist attack, which led to the racial profiling of South Asian men, all suspected of being terrorists (72). Using a “Foucauldian...