(Photo © Simon Richardson)
‘I’m standing exactly at that place in terms of working with older people in this country. It’s exactly the same issues, and I’m thinking, “My goodness, how is it possible we’re talking about almost the same language, the same arguments, that we’ve done nearly thirty years back?” ‘
We’re sitting in the lounge of a chain pub, talking about how ageing changes everything about a dancer’s art, to a soundtrack of piped pop music. I’m wondering if the dancers on the video will be half as active and creative as Bisakha 50 years from now.
Bisakha Sarker is a dancer and teacher who moved to the UK from Kolkata in the early 1970s. She belongs to the pioneering generation who established Indian dance as a part of British culture, often in the face of indifference and ignorance. One of the first dance animateurs, she went on to create a rich and reflective workshop practice, especially with disabled people. She’s also an old friend and colleague.
Now, in her 60s, when most people are thinking of retirement, Bisakha finds herself a pioneer again, looking for ways of dancing in, with and about ageing – or as she says ‘engaging with age’. Whether it’s her performances or her workshops with elderly participants, the incomprehension of those who aren’t affected is back. Only this time, it’s not about Indian culture but age.
‘The definition of dance should change as my body is changing, to find the new meaning of dance. I feel very comfortable dancing wherever my body is.’
Unlike her counterparts who write, paint or play music, the older dancer cannot mask her ageing body. Worse, trying to do so would drain energy and sap the integrity of the dance. It has always been the tool and medium of her expression. Its shape and capabilities are the disciplines of her form. As Yeats asks, ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ As the body changes, so does the dance.
‘The story telling element of Indian dance allows you to tap into other forms of expression in the body, not only physical and shape based. Maybe the footwork or the dynamic isn’t there, but because the body gets more finely tuned every time you dance there are all kinds of hidden things that come out and protect the integrity of the dance.’
The older dancer, the dancer who is and intends to remain an artist, has to recreate her art in every performance, in each workshop. In doing so, she has to remake her audience, to help it see and feel differently. She is moving to a new place.
Musical calisthenics belong to pop singers. Older dancers can create something more profound and truthful that might help reconcile us with the unavoidable – if we’re lucky – experience of ageing.