A big thank you

Ni Madé Pujawati

Ni Madé Pujawati

I wish to thank the Brunei Gallery for hosting the exhibition, Akademi for acting as sponsor and the Centre for Media and Film Studies, SOAS, for hosting the colloquium ‘Photographing Asian Dance Theatre’ which accompanied the exhibition, together with a special dance performance by artists Mavin Khoo and Ni Madé Pujawati on 25/2/09. I also wish to thank the photographers for lending their work , the dancers and all the people that gave me emotional support during that very busy and very uncertain time that preceded the finalising of the exhibition.

A reflection on the exhibition


Mavin Khoo

Mavin Khoo

This is a paper I originally drafted soon after the exhibition but I never got round to finishing and then forgot all about it, until I found it quite accidentally earlier this year. I decided to update it  and  add it to this portfolio, even though it’s been five years since the event.

Asian dance theatre through the photographic lens: photography and the dancing body in contemporary Britain.


This paper examines the dynamics of photography and dance performance by focusing on photographs of dance, and of Asian dance theatre in particular. The starting point for this discussion of the dancing body and its photographed representation is an exhibition I curated in early 2009, at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London[1], as part of a series put on by the Gallery on photography and Asia. The exhibition was entitled  ‘Asian Dance Theatre: performance through the lens’. It was a self-contained project, which I undertook as an independent curator. In this paper I am revisiting the research questions underpinning the exhibition, providing an analysis of a few examples of the images on show and drawing some tentative conclusions about the practice of dance photography and its subject(s). I feel that the  concerns of this project are still relevant: even now, five years on, no discussion of photography ever deals with dance photography as a specific genre, let alone the photography of Asian dance theatre.  I find this neglect of the photographed dancing body and the lack of attention to the dynamics of visuality and performativity in current discourses of representation somewhat perturbing[2].

The rationale for the exhibition was a reflection on how contemporary imaginaries inform new styles of presentation of the self and determine new ways of perceiving, and consuming, Asian dance theatre as a visual medium in the UK context. I use the term ‘Asian dance theatre’ with reference to performance practices of Asian origin which, though often loosely talked about as dance, do not easily fit within the Euro-American ‘dance’ category, as they encompass dance, acting and, sometimes, singing.

The exhibition ran from January to March 2009 and focussed on case studies of Asian dance theatre as seen through the lens of six UK based photographers  – Chris Nash, Hugo Glendinning, Nick Gurney, Vipul Sangoi, Helen Burrows and Allan Parker. The time period covered was from the late 1970s to 2008. The images exhibited by these photographers included a range of dance theatre forms, some tradition based, others created by artists who see themselves as working in a contemporary hybrid mode.

The idea was to present photographic images of Asian dance theatre, that is, of  dancers/performers, regardless of whether they are soloists or dancing with touring companies from Asia or whether they are resident UK Asian performers – the common denominator was that all images were taken in the UK by these photographers, in the context of advance publicity shoots, editorial, portrait work and/or photo-journalism.

The exhibition was sponsored by Akademi, a South Asian Dance organisation which in 2009 celebrated its 30th anniversary. Akademi was in receipt of funding from the Arts Council of England and Natwest Bank in order to present, throughout 2009, events aimed at marking its anniversary. After some negotiation, Akademi agreed to take on the exhibition at the Brunei Gallery as part of its portfolio of activity for the 30th anniversary and it also contributed by lending its own collection of photographs which it had specially commissioned through the years, since its foundation. Akademi additionally requested and obtained a separate exhibition space in the foyer of the Khalili lecture theatre in the SOAS building[3]. In that space, Akademi exhibited old programmes and leaflets as also some costumes and artefacts, all part of the celebration of the history of South Asian dance in the UK, as spearheaded by Akademi, originally founded with the name Academy of Indian Dance in 1979 by Indian dancer Tara Rajkumar[4].This paper will, however, only discuss the photographs in the main exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, conceived independently of  Akademi’s celebrations.

The chosen photographers had all an international reputation, as would befit a major gallery such as the Brunei, and had been photographing dancers for several years. The exhibition comprised 23 images, of varying sizes. Thus, even through such a small sample, it was my contention, as curator, that the exhibition would allow for an identification of a local idiom in British dance/performance photography, as an emerging photographic genre of the latter part of the 20th century.  Simultaneously, it would account for a possible uniformity in the photographic representation of distinct performance genres in the opus of these particular photographers. One of the questions underpinning the research that informed the curatorial project was whether it would be possible to identify specific aesthetic photographic conventions relating to the performance genres photographed, and whether a distinctiveness of representation could be acknowledged. The exhibition was an attempt at addressing these concerns.

The exhibition project was perforce limited in its scope. It was also constrained by financial hardship: a print catalogue for the exhibition had been planned with essays to be contributed by a number of leading academics, featuring more work by the photographers, but the prohibitive costs involved prevented us to go ahead with this plan.

There was however a colloquium,’Photographing Asian Dance Theatre’ that took place during the exhibition period. At this small symposium, a range of questions could be explored, investigating the significance of the photographic image for performers, choreographers, photographers and the general public.[5]

The overall project, inclusive of exhibition and colloquium, sought to engage with issues of self-representation (how performers and choreographers choose to be represented); the aesthetics of dance/performance photography as a genre and how this relates to other photographic genres, such as fashion, editorial and portrait photography – in view of the fact that photographers may work in fashion, editorial and portraiture as well as take photographs of performers; the ensuing perception and consumption of Asian dance theatre on the part of the general public, whose first encounter with a performance is always through the print flyer and/or the poster, produced well in advance of the performance itself (and often even before the choreography has been finalised). Despite the increase in the practice of emailed ‘flyers’ with video-clips for pre-view, the print flyer and brochure continue to be utilised as marketing tools.

The point about advance publicity shoots is crucial as these allow to understand better the dynamics of choreographer/performer/ photographer interaction and the impact this has on the choreographic process itself, specifically in relation to Asian dance theatre forms. There is evidence of a creative collaborative partnership between performers, choreographers and photographers, whose outcome is a ‘photowork’ or ‘performed photography’ as discussed by Shanks[6] rather than a photographic document in a more conventional sense, with a working relationship that is quite unlike that of the  photographer/model relationship in the context of commercial work, where models tend to be directed and put into a pose selected by the photographer and artistic director. However, it must be pointed out here that for art photography, models do have a say:  ideas for a shoot are discussed in advance and the model is asked about her preferences and praised for her input[7].

Altogether this curatorial project attempted to bridge a gap, by considering the role of the photographic image in fostering changes in viewing practices, specifically of Asian dance theatre, and the dialogic relationship between choreography and its photographic representation, also in relation to Asian dance theatre. Framed by the critical and theoretical debates which underpin contemporary visual culture as a disciplinary field, and thus drawing upon methodologies deployed in researching visual culture and visuality (Rose 2012), especially in terms of the photographic image and its ontology (Wells 2004), the project was concerned with the photographed dancing body, paying special attention to Asian dance theatre and its representation.

I was particularly concerned with how the dancing body, in relation to Asian dance theatre, is re-imagined through photography in the British context and the issues this raises. My expectation for this investigation was for it to be a contribution to discussions in a range of fields, from those addressing the relationship between dance, performance and visual media, exploring the visuality of dance and performance, to debates pertaining to the marketing and promotion of Asian dance theatre in a global context. Among the photographers whose work was exhibited at the Brunei, Allan Parker, has an excellent  track record relating to design and marketing work, as does also Vipul Sangoi: the exhibition, I felt, was a way to initiate a review of current marketing strategies deployed for Asian performance practices in Britain and the colloquium presented an opportunity for initiating such a discussion.

 The photographed dancing body

The academic study of photography has systematically grown since the shift from art history to visual culture courses, within the British university context of the 1990s, with a number of critical studies which integrate photographic theory and photographic practice (Sontag 1979; Barthes 1984; Edwards et al 1992; Wells 2004, Shinkle 2008, Walden 2008, Bate 2009). Some of such studies, focusing as they do on documentary photography, the representation of the body in photographic images, advertising and the commodity culture and photography as an artistic endeavour, are indeed relevant to and intersect with the concerns of my research.

There are however no specific studies of dance/performance photography as a genre, apart from some articles, mostly published by photographers themselves (Mitchell 1999, Lopez y Royo 2007) and virtually no critical engagement with photographic images of dancers and performers, though interest in it is awakening.[8] Even more so, photographic images of Asian dance theatre have received comparatively little attention, barring the images produced for tourist consumption, as for example the numerous images of Balinese dance or of the South Indian bharatanatyam dance, seen as the quintessential Indian temple dance, which are part of picture library collections and are printed in tourist brochures and in-flight magazines. These images have been to some extent commented upon in the context of critiques of tourism[9].

Other photographic images of Asian dance theatre, such as those taken in the context of ethnographies from the early 20th century onwards have also received scholarly attention[10].  This is however a sub-genre of dance/performance photography that is only tangentially relevant to my project.

As said, the photographers whose work was exhibited at the Brunei[11] were a group of  relatively well known British photographers who specialise in performance/dance shoots. Nash’s work in particular has received some acclaim and has been featured in some dance –themed exhibitions. These professionals photograph Asian dance theatre as a matter of course but also photograph other dance /theatre genres, such as western contemporary dance, especially Nash and Glendinning. They also work in other photographic genres, such as fashion and editorial, thus inevitably making genre boundaries very porous. Their dance/performance focused work has not yet received full critical attention as a separate genre of photography; instead, it tends to be looked at as representative, more broadly, of British contemporary photography. Nash, however has been acknowledged as a dance photographer and has had exhibitions of his work (Mackrell 2001, online), including a current one with Hugo Glendinning at Central St Martin’s , to celebrate 35 years of Dance Umbrella (3-12 October 2013).

The lack of recognition of dance photography as a genre is quite significant. In terms of exhibitions, one can certainly say that dance photography is not really regarded as a mainstream genre. Tony Amstrong Jones (Lord Snowdon) has taken beautiful photographs of ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Darcey Bussels, yet no one would ever discuss this work as dance photography, it would be regarded instead as ‘portraiture’, as would the photographs by Henri Cartier Bresson of his Javanese dancer wife, Ratna Mohini.  The 2008 ‘Vanity Fair’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London[12], a major display covering almost a century of photography, featured portrait photography by names such as Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Annie Leibowitz, Mario Testino. Though dancers such as Fred Astaire were featured, these images are always subsumed under the portraiture category and this is the fate that dance photography tends to suffer: when the photographer is well known, he/she, with a few exceptions to this rule, is inevitably seen as a portraitist, in the manner of a painter, and whether he/she photographs dancers, boxers, socialites or politicians, it is his/her gift as a portraitist that is emphasised – the fact that he/she may have been photographing a dancing body somehow becomes unimportant, in the larger scheme of things.

This relative lack of interest in dance/performance photography and lack of recognition of it as a photographic genre is in utter contrast with the attention that dance performance, including Asian dance theatre genres, has received in the context of film and television (Allen and Jordan 1992, Dodds 2001, and Mitoma 2003, Branningan 2011 and for Bollywood, Munni Kabir 2001, Kothari  2003, David 2010). When talking of media in relation to dance and/or theatre, it is the film or digital video that seems to be privileged in all accounts, perhaps because it is perceived as being better equipped than still photography to capture the dynamism of performance, as part of an underlying assumption that film can document it more fully “as it is”.

Yet photography is performative. A photograph is a performance moment, often very theatrical, at best staged by both photographer and photographed subject, even though that relationship can be an uneven one, heavily slanted towards the photographer in terms of power. Dance photography has not been sufficiently theorised, but as mentioned earlier, it is apparent that photographers and dancers tend to work on the basis of a collaboration and this is a significant point of departure. Unlike other genres, dance photography is based on this premise of collaboration, particularly if we consider those photo sessions which are taken outside a direct rehearsal or performance context, in other words, photo shoots staged by photographers, dancers and choreographers, in a studio- like set up, or outdoors.

Steve Clarke, a New York City based photographer, in an article published in 2006, writes that there are at least four reasons for photographing dance.  Here I am summarising his arguments, adding some observations of my own.

The first reason for dancers to be photographed is to do with the need for a portfolio, for promotion and for documentation, all of which dancers themselves, as also dance organisations, constantly need. One can hardly imagine, in this day and age, a dancer approaching promoters, unless the dancer is an established name, without a photograph of himself/herself in action and a brochure highlighting his/her performance work record[13]. Dance photographs today are part of the currency of exchange in the economy of performance. As such, it is all dance forms performed on the global stage and circulating globally – hence Asian dance theatre too –  that are in  need of representation  through the photographic medium.  The second reason for being photographed, says Clarke, is to do with the dancing itself. During the photo session the dancer may be encouraged to try new things, thus photography can help to develop choreographic ideas. The third reason is to do with the dancer’s self.  Photography, according to  Clarke, reveals the inner self: this is where the intersection with portraiture occurs, for  portrait photography is most prized when the camera succeeds in capturing the sitter behind the quotidian mask. The fourth reason, he goes on, is to help dancers see themselves, understand how they move, thus “assisting in self-scrutiny” photography here is seen to be acting as a mirror (Clarke 2006:2).

Whereas some of the reasons listed by Clarke clearly reflect an understanding of dance and of dancers derived from a Euro-American perspective, what is interesting is that the idea of collaboration is fully acknowledged. This acknowledgment is a fairly unusual development: in most published commercial photography the name of the model is never mentioned, the assumption being that she/he is simply being photographed using a particular product which is the most important element of the picture. Conversely, unlike professional models, celebrities endorsing a product will always have their name clearly printed.

Photographers, on the other hand, are always credited, except in the field of dance photography, where apparently the practice is not regularly followed. When interviewing the six photographers, in the course of my research, they all complained, with no exception, about images being used by this or that organisation without their name being credited on the flyer. This shows the relative low status of dance photography and photographers, who also uniformly maintain that photographing dancers is a financial loss: “they want free images or offer ridiculously low sums, without realising the work that goes into it” sighed one the six photographers while we chose the images that would  be sent over to the Gallery.

An interesting development in the context of dance photography, in the broadest sense, and one that potentially impinges on newer perceptions of the female body, is the intersection between the world of fashion, advertising and dance. This is particularly evident in occasional photo shoots involving famous ballet dancers, such as Darcey Bussels or Sylvie Guillem, pictured modelling high street fashion, as opposed to haute couture. On the surface, one may dismiss such an occurrence as being part of the celebrity culture: Bussels achieved some celebrity status, in the UK, while dancing with the Royal Ballet[14]. But the involvement of dancers in fashion and advertising marks a shift.

In these shoots it is the idea of acquired elegance and grace that is emphasised through the ballerina modelling outfits available in high street department stores –  the elegance of her posture and stance is being transferred to the garments. Here we are not seeing  the impossibly young, thin and tall woman’s body favoured by designers on the catwalks, but, with either Bussels or Guillem, we see a poised woman in her mid thirties to early forties with an athletic body, sculpted by years of exercise. Not a waif, but a healthy woman, in control of her body. It is a message about real women’s bodies that cannot be dismissed even though the body is still idealised, still a disciplined body (Threteway 1999): what is of interest is that to be effective it draws on the transformative power of dance.

These shifts are important and point to the role that dance photography –  in tandem with sport photography – can play in generating a different understanding of the body and its physicality and newer ideas of beauty, especially for women.  However, one also has to acknowledge a slippage, as the dance /fashion connection seems to be enmeshed in a complex and often contradictory discourse. Earlier this year English National Ballet, as part of its rebranding, under the new artistic director Tamara Rojo, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, launched a campaign in which the dancers were photographed by fashion photographer Guy Farrow, wearing Vivienne Westwood creations. Tom Sharp, Creative Director of TBM, the agency behind the campaign, named ‘Like humans, only more graceful’ said in a press release that it was all about

“ taking dancers out of tutus and moving away from conventional backstage images to show the intensity and creativity of the dancers. The Company’s directive is to respect the tradition of ballet but build on it, and our copylines are designed to reflect but challenge a perceived view of the art form. Tamara Rojo inspires unusual collaborations so to create a campaign that combines choreography, amazing fashion and beautiful photography demonstrates her ethos in every single image” (Ballet News,2013, online)

The use of fashion photography techniques to highlight the theatricality of ballet and make it more contemporary and appealing to a non-ballet going audience is significant as also the emphasis on the dancers’superhuman difference, subtly equated with the aspirational role embodied by the fashion model – more beautiful, more graceful, more perfect  than ordinary human beings. Westwood’s clothes lend a slightly subversive nuance, due to her punkish roots and the green lighting used in some of the images is reminiscent of  la fée verte or absinthe and its historic link with Parisian avant-garde (Lanier 1995), synonymous with creativity and genius: altogether a masterful advertising coup.

 Asian dance performers in contemporary British photographic work

In the context of Asian dance one of the most debated questions is to do with modernity versus tradition, what is to be regarded as traditional and what is to be regarded as contemporary. My research contributes to the debate by considering images of Asian dance performers, pointing out how such understandings (i.e. ‘traditional’ or ‘contemporary’) are framed by particular photographers and by performance makers in subtle ways and how their perception on the part of the general public is linked to these representational strategies.

How do dance images impact on the perception of dance on the part of the public? What do they tell us in terms of how to place a particular performance work on the traditional/contemporary scale? If a dancer/dance company is photographed by a particular photographer, how will that change the perception of their work? These questions relate more explicitly to the concerns of the political economy of dance and to its consumption. Photographs determine that very first impression on the part of the audience and it is for this reason that they are important: a savvy choreographer will work with a photographer in a very calculated fashion to surround a forthcoming performance with a particular aura, by creating a whole frame of references. Clearly the performance will either confirm or negate the first impression but that first encounter with the still image has a crucial impact on the viewer.

To clarify what I am talking about, I will examine a few examples taken from the work of the photographers featured in the Brunei Gallery’s exhibition. The images by Helen Burrows which I have chosen to discuss here were not eventually included as she opted for the Skin on Skin series[15], but I particularly liked these and I believe they represent the range of her work more fully.

Photographer: Hugo Glendinning

Photographer: Hugo Glendinning

Photographer: Hugo Glendinning

Photographer: Hugo Glendinning

My first example is taken from Hugo Glendinning’s body of work.  An art photographer known for his collaborations with live artists, Glendinning was commissioned a series of portraits of British kathak dancer Sonia Sabri, which appeared on the British Council’s website. The entry for Sonia Sabri and her company described her work “as presenting kathak dance in a new light, through integrating contemporary inventions and ideas into productions…relevant to audiences of all ages, experience and educational backgrounds”[16]. If we look at the two images by Glendinning we see this idea being put across. The first one shows Sonia’s face illuminated by a ray of reddish light which hints at a transformation: she is seen wearing a bindi – interestingly so, because Sonia Sabri is actually a Muslim dancer, though she was trained by teachers in the Briju Maharaj gharana of kathak, which emphasises the Hindu connection. Her hair is demurely plaited and off the face, and she wears heavy pendants in her ears.  The second photograph shows Sonia wearing a costume which is quite simple, a figure hugging kurta, no bells, she is performing a typical kathak gesture. Simplicity is what is being emphasised, to a degree of minimalism, to suggest modernity.

Hugo Glendinning became famous within the British dance world in the 1990s for his portraits of the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, at the time regarded as producing cutting edge contemporary British South Asian dance, as also for his very interesting takes of British contemporary dance, theatre and live performance. His editorial work was equally, if not more, acclaimed: his portrait of a young, somewhat shy, teenage star footballer David Beckham is now famous all over the world.  An English literature graduate, Glendinning did not come to photography through the art school route, but, as he admitted in an interview with me in 2006, he was drawn to photography in a strongly cerebral way and was primarily self-taught. Of his work he says: “In the current digital world it is always tempting to collect large amounts of information and then filter and combine material in order to interpret or tell stories… I will be shooting slowly and with consideration of the changing scene before me aiming to find a single moment that works to make visible the true complexity of the shifting order of things before the camera.”[17]

Next comes Chris Nash. I confess to having a soft spot for Nash’s photography. I love his heavily constructed images, which can only be achieved in the studio and with heavy editing afterwards. I have always found the idea of ‘documenting reality’ through photography somewhat lopsided, one which does not sufficiently recognise the manipulation that a photograph undergoes – already so in pre-digital days. Nash is not afraid of citing the old masters of European painting in his work, in a very post-modern double coded representational mode, and is also fairly close to the grandeur of the very best fashion photography, as seen in the work of the American  Richard Avedon, for  example his ‘Dovima with elephants, evening dress by Christian Dior’ (1955) .

Photographer: Richard Avedon

My chosen image by Nash is ‘Chinese Takeaways’, Bi-Ma Dance company, 1997[18].


Photographer: Chris Nash

As Chris Nash will say, his photographs are not to inform but to make the image suggest more. The photograph is a fiction.  Here the image is framed by the suggestion of length given by the woman’s arm, in the foreground, as also the suggestion of her nakedness, which is subtly implied by the camera angle. This contrasts with the other figures in the background, dressed alike and wearing loose white tunics tucked at the waist into what seem to be baggy dark trousers. The figures, of indistinguishable gender, appear to be pierced by long wooden sticks – they are balancing these sticks on their upper backs  but the angle of the photo is such that there is an illusion of pierced bodies.  Maroonish hues dominate the composition and the light seems to irradiate from the head of the woman,  whose face we cannot see. Not knowing the dance piece it is difficult to link the image with its title, but the power of Nash’s photography is in the way it simultaneously evokes a range of ideas, reminiscences, recollections, associations which only loosely refer to a specific choreography. He may be illustrating a moment from the dance or simply an idea triggered off by it and reworked for the camera together with the choreographer Pit Fong Loh.

Photographer: Vipul Sangoi

Photographer: Vipul Sangoi

With Vipul Sangoi, we return to images of South Asian dance and particularly of bharatanatyam dancer Anusha Subramanyam. This particular image has been seen a lot throughout  London.  It relates to a project by Beeja Dance, the company directed by Anusha, entitled  ‘Colour Contacts’, which involved dancing  at London Underground Southwark station. Commissioned by the Museum of London, ‘Colour Contacts’ imagines the City of London through the eyes  of its inhabitants, exploring memories. Vipul Sangoi’s photography is never heavily constructed in a studio setting, he loves the performance moment.  What is brought out here is a sense of movement and a sense of time flow by having the dancers photographed in  bharatanatyam costume on a vaguely visible platform of a London Underground station. The movement is accentuated by the visualisation of the underground as a tube of light, through the speed of the fast moving train. The ‘tube’ is also the name by which the underground is colloquially known in London and in this photograph we get the very clear sense of a tube, of a narrow passage, even though it is far from being dark.

The two dancers, one English, the other Indian, wear the distinctive half sari costume of bharatanatyam, with some of the customary jewellery. The emphasis is on their half smiling faces. There are different themes that can be picked up through this photograph: that of a traditional dance which engages with modernity, that of cultural and ethnic diversity, that of London, a city sprawling underground as well as overground, that of the quick passage of time and of course, the sense of colour which relates to the main theme of the production, a site specific performance work. Vipul Sangoi only photographs dancers and performers, but is also involved in design and has created a number of websites for artists and organisations.

Photographer: Helen Burrows

Photographer: Helen Burrows

Photographer: Helen Burrows

Photographer: Helen Burrows

The final images I will discuss here are by Helen Burrows. A young, very versatile photographer, she is involved in fashion, reportage as also in performance photography. Her fashion images are dynamic and she is clearly interested in the moving body. The one we see here is from a shoot of young fashion, with a model jumping  – she could be a dancer, for all we know. The image is not necessarily taken mid air, but constructed in the studio, against a white background. The model is a young Asian woman, conventionally beautiful as expected of a model, with an athletic build. The focus is on the clothes and the boots she is wearing but clearly the body image and the sense of dynamism are also important, lending credence to the style of clothing, an instance of young street fashion. The second picture is taken in mid-performance, a festival event, featuring a mature belly dancer, surrounded by musicians. It is a very interesting portrait which manages to achieve a strong musical quality rendered through visualising the  rhythm of the dance.  A very articulate photographer, and a writer, in all her work, Helen tries to bring out the relationship of movement, space and emotion.


My analysis seems to have focused primarily on photographs which attempt to transform tradition to make it as contemporary as possible. This has not necessarily been a conscious decision on my part, but one determined by the material available, provided by the photographers themselves[19]. I have discussed a small number of images, all in digital form, which were featured in the exhibition  (barring the ones by Burrows, as explained earlier). The exhibition featured other images as well, including analogue photographs which are not published on websites, thus not easily accessible. Also, the exhibition had a very specific brief – images taken in Britain, by British photographers of some repute. This is not to say that there is no traditional Asian dance consumed in Britain today. But many touring companies from Asia provide their own photographs for posters and flyers, usually taken in their country of origin – these images were not featured in the exhibition.  Some of the photographers whose work was exhibited have been to Asia and have taken a number of images of ‘traditional performance’, for example Hugo Glendinning has completed a project on Japanese kabuki, with stunning photographic work done in Japan[20].

What is interesting in all this is seeing  how a personal photographic style develops in the case of each photographer, inflected by the performance genre but also influenced by the unique predilections of the photographer, and how a local British idiom seems to have developed, albeit tentatively.  Without falling onto stereotypes of national character in photographic work, differences in other photographic genres show evidence of distinct American and British styles, as seen in the 2007 exhibition at Tate Britain  ‘How we are now: photographing Britain’: as Williams and Bright, curators of the exhibition, point out in conversation with writer Nigel Warburton,  in American photography, one notices a preference for action, the road, the landscape and the individual, as also a greater concern with technical issues, whereas British photography was influenced by pictorialism, neo-romanticism and  the peculiar combination of fashion and royalty (Warburton 2007; Williams and Bright 2007; Schuman 2008). In the age of globalization differences tend to be flattened, nevertheless even in dance photography one can detect a different slant, apparent when British dance photographic work is compared with that of contemporary American photographers, such as those featured in the art journal 2wice. (Tarr and Miller 2004)

The local idiom we seem to detect is determined by the tension between two separate impulses. One is the desire of each photographer to create a recognisably individual photographic style in the making of photographic work, impinging on his/her own photographic representation of diverse performance genres. The other is to do with the gradual crystallisation, over years of photographic practice, of specific aesthetic conventions relating to the photographic representation of each performance genre i.e. ballet, modern dance, Asian dance forms, and this is to do with a genre-related distinctiveness of performance representation, sustained by the practice of imitating or citing a known photographer’s style.

‘Asian dance theatre: performance through the lens’ was a curatorial project motivated by questions. Some of these questions are genre specific and to do with what a dance photograph is about, what it tells us about dance (here Asian dance theatre), how photographers work with dancers/choreographers, how dance has been represented through the medium of photography over the years,  how performers/choreographers use photographs. But there are also larger questions, to do with the impact of aesthetic conventions of other photographic genres on the way images of dance performance are conceived by both photographers and choreographers and questions to do with  how such images are consumed by audiences and the general public and whether they  affect the public’s perception of  dance performance and its appreciation.

There are other questions too, namely, how does photography document dance events and the performance of dance, and what kind of histories can a dance photograph tell?  Is an exclusively photographic history of dance at all possible? Here dance photography enters in a dialogue with photo-journalism and its historical import, engendering a  reflection on how photographic mediation transforms live performance and its meaning. In this context, a history of the photographic representation of Asian dance theatre clearly awaits to be written.

The aim of the curatorial project was to raise these questions, through the images themselves, rather than provide answers, and point to gaps, some of which were addressed through inviting a discussion in the context of the colloquium. Thus it seems appropriate that I should end with even more questions than when I began.

And if I have managed, through this paper, to make you more aware of how a study of contemporary Asian dance practices intersects with a study of their visual representation through photography, how through such imagery the dynamics of vision and kinaesthesia are played out, then the goal I set myself through the curatorial project will have been achieved in full.


Ballet News ‘English National Ballet unveils new rebrand and collaboration with Vivianne Westwood’

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____________(2008) “The Transfiguration of Indian/Asian Dance in the UK: Bharatanatyam in Global Contexts,” Asian Theatre Journal, 25, 2 (Fall): . 298-329.

Mitchell, J.  (1999) “Capturing emotion in motion – photographing ballet dance” Dance Magazine, December,  1-5  online version

Mitoma, J. (2002) Envisioning Dance on Film and Video London/New York: Routledge

Munni Kabir, N. (2001) Bollywood. The Indian Cinema Story London: Channel 4 Books

Picard, M. (1996) Bali: Cultural tourism and touristic culture Singapore: Archipelago Press

Rose , G. (2012) Visual Methodologies: an Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials London: Sage Publications Ltd

Shanks, M. (1997) ” Photography and archaeology”, in B.L. Molyneaux (ed.) The cultural life of images. Visual representation in archaeology, London: Routledge,  74-107.

_____________ (2012) “Photowork  – performed photography”  (here)

Schuman, A. (2008) “Review of ‘How we are: photographing Britain” Aperture 190

Shinkle , E. (2008) (ed) Fashion as photograph  London: I.B.Tauris

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography Hardmonsworth: Penguin

Tarr, P.  and Miller, A.  (2004) 2Wice dance London/New York: Phaidon

Threteway, A. (1999) “Disciplined bodies: women’s embodied identities at work” Organization Studies May 1999 vol. 20, no. 3,  423-450

Vickers, A.  (1999) Bali: a paradise created Harmondsworth: Penguin

Warburton, Nigel (2007) “Interview: Susan Bright curator of ‘How we are:photographing Britain’, Tate Britain” Art and Illusion

Wells, L. (ed) (2004) Photography: a critical introduction London: Routledge. First published 1996

Williams,V. and Bright,S. (2007) How we are: photographing Britain London: Tate.

[1] The name of the gallery is Brunei Gallery, SOAS where the acronym stands for School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

[2] Details about the exhibition and the photographers can be accessed through the Brunei Gallery’s website  

[3] The issue of funding is not focused upon in this paper, which though about an exhibition, does not dwell on curatorship . However, funding and its source were essential to the shape the project took. The gallery agreed to provide the space, technical assistance, insurance and security. As an independent curator I had to find a sponsor to cover all the costs involved. The sponsor, in turn funded by public as also private money, had specific requests, which had to be accommodated, yet maintaining the curatorial project’s integrity. This is normal practice in curation but the negotiations involved are not often openly discussed.

[4] For a history of Akademi and its role in developing South Asian dance in the UK see Meduri 2008 and 2010.

[5] The colloquium was held on 28/02/09 in the Khalili lecture theatre, SOAS. The papers and the general discussion they generated were recorded and they are available online as mp3 files 

[6]  Shanks  first defined photowork  in 1997, and reprised the concept in 2012  as ‘performed photography’ and further discussing the photo-work, that is, everything that goes into the making of photographic imagery, the mediation (Shanks 2012, online).

[7] Alongside my academic career, I have had a parallel one as a model and I have worked in fashion, commercial and art photography, drawing on my dance background. These observations therefore come from my embodied practice. For an account of the model’s experience see Hollander 1991 and  more recently Entwistle and Wissinger 2012.

[8] Dance organisations, such  www.worldwidedanceuk, and internet dance resources such as www.londondance.com pay some attention to photography, publishing a directory of photographers specialising in dance shoots. Dancers and dance companies presenting their work as part of major festivals are also often briefed on how to produce good quality publicity images and occasional workshops are held by professional photographers to teach less experienced photographers how to photograph dancers.

[9] For Bali see Picard 1996 and Vickers 1999. See also the photographic collection of Dutch art collector Leo Haaks 

[10] See the Spies and De Zoete collection, discussed by Hitchcock and Norris 1996

[11] To this list I would like to add Simon Richardson, active in the field of dance photography for at least two decades, but whose work could not be included in the exhibition. Richardson did however participate in the colloquium.


[12] Vanity Fair, National Portrait Gallery

[13] Actors too need portfolios and so do models, especially when attending castings. The need for an updated ‘book’, as this is known in the business, has given rise to the practice of TF (originally Time for Prints but now Time for Digital Images on a CD) where actors, models and dancers agree to give their time for free to the photographer  in exchange for processed images. Model releases are usual signed as photographers tend to use/sell the images and for this they need the written consent of the photographed subject.

[14] Bussels was  among the women selected by retailer Marks and Spencer to head their Autumn/Winter 2013 campaign.

[15] Skin on skin was Helen Burrows second project in the series Movement and dealt with shape space and identity. She worked with dancers of different backgrounds

[17]  Glendinning made these remarks in connection with his 2007 collaboration with Paul Andre Fortier for Dance Umbrella but it seems to me that this could also apply to Sonia Sabri’s portraits.

[18] Bi-Ma is a Chinese Malaysian dance company founded by Pit Fong Loh who studied at the Place. Bi-Ma featured in a few runs of the festival Re:orient, now discontinued. Bi-Ma enjoyed success throughout the late nineties.

[19] I am aware here that the categories ‘traditional’, ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ often posited as universal signifiers are highly contested for their Eurocentric orientation .  This article however does not deal with the cultural politics of the global stage and for this reason I am happy to stick to this terminology, albeit with a caveat. For a recent discussion of such categories and of ‘contemporary dance’ in particular see Chatterjea 2013, 7-21.

[20] See Hugo Glendinning Kabuki 

Visitors to exhibition

The Japanese roof terrace, Brunei Gallery

John Hollingworth, Brunei Gallery Curator: “Figures recorded by our electronic counter at the entrance to the Gallery  point to  6,000 visitors”.

Comments from visitors:

 Sanjeevini Dutta, editor of pulse, Asian Music and Dance,  spring 2009 issue : “These images have helped to change how south Asian dance is seen. The  aesthetic, creative and unusual photography shown in this exhibition has contributed to packaging the genre for a modern sensibility thereby reaching new audiences”

Chitra Sundaram , bharatanatyam dance artist and writer, emailed comment following private view, Feb 2009: “I thought the exhibition was a very interesting idea in that showed both the different approaches the different photographers had taken to the dance and dancers, and over different periods of the history. I also thought that using space in landing areas of a staircase pretty much framed the exhibition setting provocatively”.

Workshop in Yogyakarta: photos discussed during presentation

Sonia Sabri

T Photographer: Hugo Glendinning

Photographer: Helen Burrows

Photographer: Vipul Sangoi

Photographer: Richard Avedon

Photographer: Richard Avedon

Photographer: Helen Burrows

Photographer: Helen Burrows

The Workshop in Yogyakarta had five panels and my presentation was part of the Body Project.

Other workshop participants from outside Indonesia involved in discussions were:

Ananya Chatterjea (USA), Janet O’Shea (USA), Marta E. Savigliano (USA), R.Diyah Larasati (USA), Lin Yatin (Taiwan)

From Indonesia:

AM Hermien Kusmayati, GR Lono Simatupang, Julianti Parani, Sal Murgiyanto.

All these photos, apart from that by Richard Avedon, were contributed by the photographers featured in the exhibition at the Brunei Gallery

Abstract of paper presented at Yogyakarta Workshop March 2008

Photographer: Helen Burrows

I was keen to participate in the Yogyakarta Workshop as this gave me an opportunity to discuss a much neglected topic. I was also keen to talk about the forthcoming exhibition, hoping to generate more international interest in the curatorial project.

This is the abstract of the paper I presented


The photographed dancing body: perceptions of Asian dance theatre and its performers in contemporary Britain.

This paper will focus on  a forthcoming exhibition  at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London, to be held during the summer of 2008. The exhibition project aims to investigate how contemporary imaginaries inform new styles of presentation of the self and determine new ways of perceiving, and consuming, Asian dance theatre as a visual medium in the UK context.  The term ‘Asian dance theatre’ refers here to performance practices of Asian origin which, though sometimes loosely talked about as dance, do not easily fit within the Euro-American dance category as they encompass  dance, acting and, sometimes, singing. The exhibition will present a few case studies of Asian dance theatre as seen through the lens of five British photographers (Chris Nash, Hugo Glendinning, Nick Gurney, Vipul Sangoi and Helen Burrows) from the late 1970s to present times.  The images will include a range of dance theatre forms, some of which tradition based, others by artists who see themselves as working in a contemporary hybrid mode. It will consider images of individual dancers/performers regardless of whether they are of touring companies/individual performers from Asia or resident UK Asian performers – the common denominator will be that all images will have been taken in UK by these five  photographers, in the context of advance publicity shoots, editorial work and/or  photo-journalism.  The exhibition will be accompanied by a colloquium where a range of questions will be explored, investigating the significance of the photographic image for performers, choreographers, photographers and the general public.

Taking this exhibition as a starting point, and drawing upon current methodologies deployed in researching visual culture and visuality, especially in terms of  the photographic image and its ontology, this paper will endeavour to consider how Asian dancing bodies are represented through photography in contemporary Britain (and elsewhere), and the issues this raises, thus contributing to discussions in a range of fields, from those addressing the relationship between dance, performance and visual media, exploring the visuality of dance and performance, to debates pertaining to the marketing and promotion of Asian dance theatre in a global context.

Call for papers: Research Workshop in Yogyakarta, March 2008


This workshop held in Yogyakarta from 27th to 29th March 2008 was internationally attended with scholars from USA, UK, Singapore,Taiwan as well as Indonesian scholars and performers. As the call for papers indicates, the workshop included  a  publication project, with  papers in English and in Indonesian – however the book project was never completed.




Entering the 21st century high modernity, dance scholarship has gradually been moving away from East and West dichotomy. Yet, so seldom do we encounter a chance to discuss discursively about what links and separates the many dance cultures in Asian countries, especially the discourse of its modernism and contemporaneity.

The art modernism in the 20th century was marked by the emergence of new creation by artists who challenged the old ideas through their artistic works. In dance, there has been quite a body of choreographic work of these artistic in the past decades, running from Japan to India, from China to Indonesia. However, this “so-called” modern/contemporary dance in Asia has not been well-documented, let alone critically historicised. A continent so rich with dance culture-many countries in Asia also share some forms of traditions and experiences-yet so little documentation and on-going discourses on this particular subject.

The workshop aims to first map these different strands of histories and experiences in modernising dance as taking place in various countries in Asia, thus engage the scholars, critics and practitioners alike to discuss several key issues that kept surfacing in previous forums. Some key issues are the historiographies, traditions, politics of bodies and identities, the relationship between dance and nationalism and/or feminism. This workshop also intends to address some core issues related to the contemporary dance practice in the Asian countries. ‘Asia’ here is used as a point of reference which still proved to be useful in framing a discussion, under which the core themes are set against, although we are fully aware of its trapping. After all, there is arguably so much difference between countries like Indonesia and Japan, as much as between countries like Indonesia and Iceland – regardless in which continents Japan and Iceland are.


Objectives of the workshop first and foremost is to map out (construct) the existing discourse on contemporary dance in Asia, locating them across various studies (dance and other interdisciplinary ones), in order to provide a platform on which scholars, independent researchers, critics and practitioners alike engaged in exchanging ideas, knowledge, thus – hopefully – this provides enough materials and resources to initiate network of discourses in the region.


Asia has a rich dance culture but most of the lately effort has been devoted more into certain forms such as classical and folk dances. Whilst these two often become a source of inspiration for the new generation of artists to create performances of their own, little has been done to particularly look at the new works and how the two – traditions and modernisms – linked, and more thoroughly, reflect the present, multi-dimensional situations faced by Asians through this particular artistry. Many dance phenomenon in Asia are closely linked to other aspects of the society it lives, such as nationalism, post-colonialism and modernity.

Meanwhile, dance studies in particular are slow in taking part in the on-going discourse, and specifically for Asian region, there is barely an effort to communicate the findings and thinking across countries, be it within the scope of Southeast Asia or the larger Asia regions.

More specifically, it is also significant to start effectively contribute to the existing discourse on contemporary dance which is still – unfortunately – very much dictated by the Euro-American thinking and practice hegemony. Hence, discursive and critical intervention/interference are necessary to push the discussion forward since the two realms of thinking and practice – as the history indicates – are actually intertwined for the term ‘modern dance’ was coined to refer the early dance modernists emerging in the beginning 20th of century as much as the two have been interacting through various forums such as international festivals and more recently, inter-cultural/inter-region artistic collaborations. Therefore, the workshop is expected to strengthen the voice from the Asian continent which in itself represents strands of diverse dance histories and complex contexts in which contemporary dance is operating.


The workshop’s conveners identified five core issues to be discussed further in each panel during which two paper presenters will draw a perspective that will be shared to the engaged, intimate participants.

1.         Dance and Politics of Identities

Dancing bodies often become a site of contestations in which identities are being formed and formulated. From Indonesia to Taiwan, postcolonialism often engages dancing bodies with ethnic or national identities; whilst the advancing of modernity in Asian big cities opens up a discussion on gender construction and other complex subjectivity in dance such as trans/gender subjectivities in modern dance. How dance artists respond to this constellation of dance and politics of identities? How does it impact their creation? Eventually, how transnationalism affects the modern dance artists as identities tend to also move around and contextualise?

2.         Interrogating Traditions

Nestor Garcia Canclini’s notion on ‘traditions are not quite past, whilst modernity not wholly arrives’ applies as well to many countries – and cultures – in Asia. Traditions feed in and influence the new work, often appear as burden as much as inspiration. How Asian dance-makers respond to the tradition they are trained of? Do they break away? Do they embrace? What about to other Asian traditions other than their’s owns? How does it relate to the issues of global exoticism of being an ‘Asia’ artist? What are the (possible) relations of tradition and modernism? This panel can touch on many layers of tradition in dance performances. For instance, some notions on rituals; on the shared martial-arts tradition as movement materials or dance vocabulary that can be found in the works of Asian-origin choreographers.

3.         The Body Project

In the beginning is human body – dancing or not dancing. How does the body project – all theoretical development in critical study on the body – contribute to the dance studies and scholarship? When does the body not succumb to something outside itself? What does it mean when choreographers say, ‘.. to be still is also dancing..?”. How social and cultural bodies’ presentation in dance?

4.         Dance and Institutions

What – who – makes a dance is a dance? Who establishes the definition? Who directs the aesthetics? What is the role of critics, curators, festivals in building the connotation of what is ‘artistic dance’ and what is not. Who determines what choreography is? What about general media? What has new commercial spaces to do with dance? What – and who – are these ‘new’ institutions after the post-traditional ones?

5.         Research and Methodology

Are there any breakthroughs in dance studies/scholarship when it comes to research and methodology? Does dance scholarship find its own approach, method that is peculiar compares to other cultural study?

The papers resulted from the workshop will be published as a book, preferably both in English and Bahasa Indonesia 


Welcome Dinner:

Time: March 27, Maret 2008

Venue: Auditorium Lembaga Indonesia Prancis

Jl. Sagan no 3. Yogyakarta 55223, Central Java, Indonesia.

Workshop Schedule:

Time: March 28- 29, 2008

Venue:  Driyarkara Room , Main Building,  Sanata Dharma University

Jl. Affandi, Mrican Yogyakarta 55281, Central Java, Indonesia.


Dr St Sunardi (Universitas Sanata Dharma)

Antariksa, KUNCI Cultural Studies Center

Helly Minarti (MPhil/PhD Roehampton University)

Supported by:


Lembaga Indonesia Perancis (French-Indonesia Center) Yogyakarta

Universitas Sanata Dharma, Religion and Cultural Studies

Kunci Cultural Studies


The Photographers in the Exhibition


Photographer: Hugo Glendinning

Click on link below to view the original Brunei gallery page

The Photographers in the Exhibition  A biographical note on the photographers whose work was exhibited at the Brunei Gallery 


Photographer: Nick Gurney


Photographer: Helen Burrows


Photographer: Vipul Sangoi


Photographer: Allan Parker

with the addition of Simon Richardson as panellist in the Colloquium convened on 28/2/09 to discuss the research project


Photographer: Simon Richardson

Asian Dance Theatre:performance through the lens


Photo from Leo Haks collection

Exhibition at Brunei Gallery  Jan-March 2009

Invitation to the private view

Invitation to the private view

Click on file below to view original text for panels and labels in the exhibition and images arrangement on gallery walls

Text for panels and labels

Click on link below to view original Brunei Gallery web entry

Asian Dance Theatre:performance through the lens

Click on link below to view Press Release


About the project

Photographer: Vipul Sangoi

Photographer: Vipul Sangoi

Photographing Asian Dance Theatre is a research project which grew out of unpublished interviews with British photographers known for their engagement with dance performance, originally commissioned by the magazine pulse in 2006-2007.  I subsequently began to research  the concerns articulated in the course of those original conversations.
The research considers how Asian dancing bodies have been represented through photography in contemporary Britain, and the issues this raises, in terms of photographic aesthetics. It also contributes to debates pertaining to the marketing and promotion of Asian dance theatre in a global context. What changes can be noted?
 This was a curatorial project, sustained by research, from inception. A proposal was submitted in 2007 to the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, to curate an exhibition. The Gallery agreed to run it, the first of its kind, in summer 2008, later postponed to early 2009.
 A British Academy Overseas Conference Grant allowed me to present a paper at the March 2008 international research workshop Contemporary Dance in Asia: Mapping out a discourse to discuss the project and its research concerns.
The exhibition ran from January to March 2009 and drew 6,000 visitors. 
It was sponsored by Akademi, a major South Asian Dance organisation in Britain, with funding from ACE and NatWest. Akademi also lent some old photographs and was given a smaller complementary exhibition space in the foyer of the Khalili Lecture Theatre, SOAS, to exhibit more images as well as South Asian Dance costumes and artefacts collected over 30 years. 
I also convened a colloquium, as part of the curatorial project, on 28/2/2008, in the Khalili Theatre.
This website is a digital portfolio including complementary writing about the processes and outcomes of the research.
Photos courtesy of Akademi