Anusha Kedhar on the Limits of Flexibility
About the episode
The dance world and academia are two creative industries known for innovative thinking and vibrant collaborations. But they also share a sustainability problem, as burnout and exhaustion are par for the course and the vast majority of jobs are temporary and precarious.
Today’s guest—dancer, scholar, and choreographer Anusha Kedhar—suggests that the increasing demand for more and more flexibility is at the root of such unsustainable relations. The global pandemic has made this even more apparent, as the work/life shifts we’re all experiencing are compounded by historical racial and gender regimes shaping whose flexibility is required to keep everything going.
In episode 120 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Anusha Kedhar about the limits of flexible labor regimes in the dance world and higher education, the methodological ethics and challenges of being part of groups you’re also writing about, sustainability lessons from dance that can help improve academic life, and why building a world around the needs and desires of marginalized groups is how Anusha imagines otherwise.
Guest: Anusha Kedhar
Scholar, dancer, and choreographer Anusha Kedhar is an assistant professor of critical dance studies at the University of California, Riverside.
Her new book, Flexible Bodies: British South Asian Dancers in an Age of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2020), examines the work of contemporary South Asian dancers in the UK at the nexus of neoliberal and postcolonial cultural politics. Bringing together economic theories of flexible labor with dance-based notions of flexibility as an embodied practice, Anusha argues that flexibility is both a tool of labor exploitation and a bodily tactic that dancers use to navigate global dance markets.
She has also collaborated and toured with various dance companies and choreographers in the US, UK, and Europe. Her solo choreography has been presented in London, Malta, Los Angeles, Colorado, and New York.
- The limits of flexibility in bodies and labor markets
- Setting up sustainable writing routines to support your whole body
- Restructuring the art world to better support artists and dancers of color
- Putting marginalized populations at the center of political and social life
“Looking at the dancing body enables us to see how flexible we can actually be, but it also reveals the limits of flexibility. There’s only so far the body can stretch or only so fast it can go before it feels pain or suffers an injury.”
— Anusha Kedhar, Imagine Otherwise
Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build a better world. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach [00:23]:
The dance world and academia are two creative industries known for innovative thinking and vibrant collaborations. But they also share a sustainability problem, as burnout and exhaustion are often par for the course and the vast majority of jobs are temporary and precarious.
My guest today, Anusha Kedhar, suggests that the increasing demand for more and more flexibility is at the root of such unsustainable relations. The global pandemic has made this even more apparent, as the work/life shifts that we’re all experiencing are compounded by historical racial and gender regimes shaping whose flexibility is required to keep everything going.
Cathy Hannabach [01:02]:
In our interview, Anusha and I chat about the limits of flexible labor regimes in both the dance world and higher education, the methodological ethics and challenges of being part of groups that you’re also writing about, sustainability lessons from the dance world that can help improve academic life, and why building a world around the needs and desires of marginalized groups is how Anusha imagines otherwise.
Cathy Hannabach [01:26]:
Thank you so much for being with us today.
Anusha Kedhar [01:29]:
Thank you, thank you for inviting me. It’s quite an honor. I’m really glad for the invitation.
Cathy Hannabach [01:34]:
You’re the author of a brand new book called Flexible Bodies: British South Asian Dancers in an Age of Neoliberalism. First of all, can you tell our listeners what that book is all about and what got you excited about writing it?
Anusha Kedhar [01:50]:
Sure. Broadly speaking, my book is about contemporary South Asian dancers in the UK, looking at the creative ways in which they navigate multicultural dance markets through what I call flexibility.
My understanding of flexibility draws on two different fields: economics and dance. For your listeners, in theories of political economy, flexible labor refers to a shift in labor practices that became widespread after the 1970s, and, arguably, continues today.
Anusha Kedhar [02:23]:
Just to break it down simply, prior to the 1970s, the typical factory or office worker worked from 9 am to 5 pm and enjoyed long-term contracts and benefits. Today, the quintessential worker is a flexible worker who has many jobs with little-to-no job security, reduced hours, lower wages, temporary contracts, and fewer, if any, benefits.
Flexible labor has now become the norm, rather than the exception. I’m sure this is a model that many of us recognize in many different professions because of how widespread it is as a practice.
Anusha Kedhar [02:59]:
In economics, flexibility is a metaphor for the ways in which we, as workers, are stretched thin, asked to do more with less, and have to work multiple jobs just to get by.
But in dance, flexibility obviously has a different connotation. It’s a real physical skill that we cultivate, and it’s central to our training. Most of us, whether we do ballet or Bharatanatyam, work for years to increase our flexibility because we know it’s a highly valued and important skill to have as a dancer.
Because dancers are presumed to be naturally flexible—both physically and in terms of how we work, that we’re able to subsist on very little and make do with very little—the increasing flexibilization of our labor has been harder to track than in other professions. My research tries to uncover this for the reader.
Anusha Kedhar [03:58]:
In my book, I bring these two understandings of flexibility together—one economic and the other embodied—to think about how dancers cultivate flexibility to be more supple, responsive, and malleable to quickly changing work conditions and labor demands.
I understand flexibility as itself a flexible term that encompasses a wide range of embodied practices. So it could be anything from versatility, agility, speed, mobility, or risk-taking. These flexible maneuvers may include things like a dancer’s ability to stretch her limbs or bend her spine backwards to meet the demands of a particular choreographer, or it might be the way that she blends multiple dance styles together to create new hybrid movements.
But I’m also thinking about flexibility more broadly, to think about things like a dancer’s ability to negotiate immigration regulations to move more easily across national borders or the ways that she might reduce the risk of pain and injury through particular choreographic choices or regimens of care, or her ability to pick up multiple movement vocabularies as a way to increase her employment prospects.
Anusha Kedhar [05:11]:
All of these different flexible practices have helped dancers to survive and thrive despite volatile economic and political conditions over the past few decades.
I’m especially interested in the flexibilities that are demanded of racialized dancing bodies. While neoliberalism has produced many flexible workers, both dancers and non-dancers alike, the racial climate in Britain has required particular flexibilities of British South Asian dancers. I’m centering race as part of the conversation around neoliberalism and flexible labor by considering the rise of neoliberalism alongside the rise of multiculturalism in Britain, and arguing that multiculturalism demands its own kind of flexibility of British South Asians to perform both South Asianness and Britishness—to be exotic yet legible, different yet accessible, essentially other but not too other.
Anusha Kedhar [06:15]:
Lastly, my book attends to the limits of flexibility. British South Asian dancers push themselves to be stronger, more agile, and more versatile in order to remain competitive, but often to the breaking point. So I’m looking at dance as a form of flexible labor helps us to see the bodily limits of flexibility more clearly.
Going back to the other question that you asked about what got me excited is that I worked as a dancer in London for a number of years before I even entertained going into academia, so the book was inspired by my own experiences as a dancer there.
Cathy Hannabach [07:02]:
The book isn’t an autoethnography per se, but, as you point out, you do talk quite a lot in it about how your methodologies intertwine with your own career. You worked with a lot of these artists, choreographers, and companies. I’d love to hear more about that process.
What are some of the pleasures or the challenges of writing a scholarly book about artists that you had worked so closely with over so many years?
Anusha Kedhar [07:28]:
Yeah. Writing about your friends and colleagues is definitely both a pleasure and a challenge! Most of my interviews were not really formal interviews per se. They were casual conversations, intimate conversations, that happened at the kitchen table or on the living room couch or at a pub.
Many of the dancers in the book are still friends or very close acquaintances. As a dancer, I was an insider, which gave me a lot of access and insight into the lives of dancers. But, on the flip side, that also made it really hard. It made me really hesitant to write this book. I wasn’t sure exactly how to convey the intimate details and stories that my friends were telling me without undermining the very intimacy that bound us.
Anusha Kedhar [08:18]:
As I write in the book, intimacy can be a powerful tool to resist more masculinist approaches to scholarship that privilege objectivity and distance. But intimacy as a methodology can also lead to betrayal. So I had to think carefully about what I included and what I intentionally chose to leave out of the narrative, and to be okay with the fact that there were gaps and the reader wasn’t going to know everything.
Anusha Kedhar [08:48]:
It was also important for me to really think about not just what I was writing but who I was writing for. I grappled with how to reconcile my obligations as a scholar to be critical with my obligations as a friend to protect my interlocutors and honor their stories, and also my obligations as an ethnographer to address my positionality.
Ultimately, I decided that my obligation to my interlocutors should take precedence over any other obligation. People might not consider that unscholarly because it’s not objective enough, but to me, scholarship has to be ethical and ethics is a part of my scholarly methodology. Here I’m not just talking about IRB [the Institutional Review Board] and research on human subjects, but an ethics that’s specific to my relationships with the people I write about.
Cathy Hannabach [09:45]:
This month at Ideas on Fire, we’re talking about sustainability, or the kind of practices and workflows that enable or restrict our ability to do the work that we love over the long term. Both dance and academia are industries that have real problems with sustainability. Things like burnout and exhaustion and, as you point out, some really complicated and unfair labor relations are often par for the course.
I’m curious what sustainability lessons you’ve learned in the dance world that you’ve carried over into your academic life, or maybe vice versa as well.
Anusha Kedhar [10:22]:
Yeah, thank you for that question. As I talk about in the book, looking at the dancing body enables us to see how flexible we can actually be, but it also reveals the limits of flexibility. There’s only so far the body can stretch or only so fast it can go before it feels pain or suffers an injury.
But with writing, we don’t often think about our limits or stopping to take a break before reaching that limit. Our brains can’t stay sharp without rest and exercise, so sleep is very crucial to writing. Walks are very crucial to writing.
What I realized when I was writing the book was that writing can mean so many different things. I would often come up with my greatest ideas just as I was waking up from a nap or coming back from a hike. I read a lot of fiction, which also helped me to tell the dancers’ stories better. Talking to friends also helped to clarify my argument.
So writing, to me, doesn’t always mean sitting in front of the computer for hours—although, of course, there was a lot of that too. Writing, in my view, is much, much more than that and has to be for it to be sustainable.
Anusha Kedhar [11:35]:
Another thing that dance taught me was to let go. It was very hard. I’m sure a lot of people go through this, but it was very hard for me to finish the book because I was so anxious about the permanency of it all. In dance, we understand that performance is ephemeral. Compared to the written word, dance can’t be reread or reproduced in the same way that writing can.
There’s a certain freedom in performing that a book doesn’t give you. For example, if you make a mistake in performance, you can always fix it the next day or in the next performance. Or, if you don’t like something, you can change it the next time. That’s just not the case with a book.
Writing tends to, or at least felt like to me, fix ideas. Because my ideas kept changing as my thinking evolved, I really struggled with the medium. I was constantly editing, adding new material, tweaking language, and sometimes trashing and rewriting entire chapters. In fact, the last interview I did for the book was just a couple of months ago.
What finally allowed me to let go was realizing that a book can also be thought of as ephemeral. For me, the book is a snapshot in time of my thinking about a particular subject. Even though it’s in print, I still have the freedom to change my thinking.
Anusha Kedhar [13:02]:
That’s not to say I’m not accountable for what I’ve written, but I’m also not beholden to it. It doesn’t have to define me. That there’s still room for change and evolving.
Anusha Kedhar [13:15]:
The last thing that dance teaches us is that all creative practices, including writing, are collaborative. Even a solo dance is not really a solo. There’s a lot of labor that we don’t see that goes into making that solo. Costume designers, lighting designers, stage managers, composers are also a part of the performance, or the making of the performance, and the solo couldn’t have been produced without this backstage and offstage labor. Similarly, even though my name is on the cover of the book, there are so many people whose voices and inspirations are on every one of those pages.
Anusha Kedhar [13:55]:
Writing can seem like a very solitary practice, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it rarely is. I had a core writing group that provided a lot of intellectual, emotional, and moral support through the process. I also had mentors and senior scholars that read different chapters, and the artists themselves gave me feedback. All of their voices found their way into the book.
Cathy Hannabach [14:22]:
I find that, often, sustainability conversations tend to focus on the individual level, or what we can do in our own personal lives to make our work more sustainable. This can be super helpful, but one of the things that I really love about your book is that you focus on collective sustainability, particularly how the lives of entire populations often are rendered sustainable or unsustainable by things like public policy, immigration law, political discourse, etc.
In your opinion, what do you think are some of the most significant policy shifts or cultural practices that would increase the sustainability of British South Asian dancers’ worlds?
Anusha Kedhar [15:04]:
Well, the first thing to know is that most British South Asian dancers are part-time freelancers. This is often the case for dancers, but especially South Asian dancers in Britain. They often work other jobs as engineers, accountants, teachers, waiters, even though there is funding from the Arts Council and other funding bodies, which doesn’t exist in places like the US. So they have an advantage there. That funding is still very piecemeal, which means you’re working project to project.
In order to really sustain artists, I think artists need funding that’s more long-term. They need money to fund their ongoing creative development, not just their creative output. In other words, funding shouldn’t always be just about producing.
Anusha Kedhar [15:51]:
But it’s not just about increasing support for artists. There also needs to be a shift at a structural level. There needs to be more diversity at all levels of the arts industry, including producers, arts administrators, theater programmers, funders, and policymakers. These are the gatekeepers and tastemakers who determine what gets seen, what gets funded, and what gets publicized.
You can’t increase diversity without addressing the underlying racist ideologies that underpin the arts infrastructure. Otherwise, you’re just asking artists of color to participate in a violent system that tokenizes them. You have to change who controls resources, capital, and decision making.
In order for this to happen, those in positions of power need to make space for those who have not been in positions of power by stepping aside and giving up power, and they need to do this at multiple levels: at the levels of policy, funding, and programming.
Anusha Kedhar [16:50]:
There was a recent open letter to the Arts Council England that made the case for an investment fund led by Black artists and artists of color in order to give artists of color more autonomy. I think this would be a really great start and a step in the right direction.
Cathy Hannabach [17:07]:
I think that’s a really nice dovetail into my final question, which gets at the heart of why you do the work that you do in the world, and that’s that version of a better world that you are helping build when you do these kinds of projects.
I think you gave us some really great examples just now about changes that could be made to make British South Asian dancing worlds a lot more sustainable for dancers, for arts administrators, for all the people involved in producing dance.
I’m curious, in a broader sense, what kind of world are you working toward? What kind of world do you want?
Anusha Kedhar [17:43]:
That is a huge question.
Cathy Hannabach [17:44]:
It is a huge question. I love asking it. When else do you get to answer this?
Anusha Kedhar [17:52]:
Yeah. I’m going to defer to a quote from someone else. I attended an online talk this summer with Cornel West. Cornel West was one of the speakers, and he said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that oppressed people must be the lens through which we see the world. That has stuck with me. That really resonates with me. It aligns with who I am as a person, not just as an academic or a scholar.
The kind of world I want is the kind where the most oppressed, the most vulnerable, the most marginalized among us, are the lens through which we imagine and reimagine all of our policies, efforts, and social movements. That’s the lens through which I design and teach all of my classes and the question that drives my research interests.
Anusha Kedhar [18:40]:
In terms of the increasing neoliberalization of work and life in general that my book points to, I want to see a world where care is central to our individual and collective practices, where rest is normalized, and where all kinds of labor—whether that’s artistic, emotional, intellectual, or bodily—are valued.
Given what’s happening in the world right now and our current climate, to be honest, I would gladly settle just for a world where everyone can breathe.
Cathy Hannabach [19:15]:
Thank you so much for being with us and sharing all of the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.
Anusha Kedhar [19:22]:
Thank you. It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you so much.
Cathy Hannabach [19:29]:
Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions. You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guest and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.