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April 1, 2015

"Success is the best deodorant!"
- Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor

It was a strange month. There was so much excitement and OTT expectations from so many quarters. And mostly outside the world of dance.

A family wedding of my favourite niece had me prepped with all guns firing as a producer of several events. Planning and executing weddings today calls for nuanced management and people skills. Indian women have it as a natural ability and it is mostly undervalued and unappreciated. I have to admit that my many years of producing weekly television shows and later creating and staging my own dance works and festivals over the past 35 years has more than equipped me for the vagaries of human ego, erratic behaviour and substandard vendors.

What was apparent is that we are now a world of voyeurs, consuming almost everything through our hand held gadgets. With the beautiful bride and groom on the elegantly decorated jasmine pandal, the visiting guests from overseas were all glued to the tiny screens on their phones. And so it is in many auditoriums in Chennai when performances occur. Life, as we know it, will be lived only through our gadgets.

Fresh from the exhilaration of the wedding, I ran into a group of businessmen and women who were debating the importance of management experience in manufacturing sectors. When I offered to join the conversation, a younger cousin, head of a large company, glibly remarked, "You don't have ACTUAL management experience, do you?" This was the opening I needed to take off on how many balls we dancers have in the air. Planning, creating, rehearsing, executing, coming in on deadline, budgeting, distribution of the product via touring and calculating cost of the "product" were only some of the issues that could compare to any global CEO pushing his machines towards "zero defect" results. What we performers have to do besides enduring the sulking musicians and members of our sometimes lazy entourage is no mean feat. And the 'product' we have at the end of it disappears into the blackness of the stage and beyond - out of our bodies into a different stratosphere that cannot be measured by ROI (return on investment) or Profit margins. Needless to say, there was dead silence after my passionate monologue!

A major drawback in the live arts compared to the world of manufacturing and managements is that we don't factor an accountability clause. If a musician forgets a line or the conductor says the wrong 'bol' during a complicated 'jathi', or the lighting director forgets his cue and... Well, I can go on and on... What does one do? Can we pull them up like a boss and have them pay a penalty for the fault? Of course not. We, the dancer/producer are demonised - called the B word and no apology or repentance is offered. We are supposed to placate egos and pretend that nobody goofed.

I bring up this point because I experienced a collective failure of sorts during my recent show of A MILLION SITAS in Kolkata. It was the sheer experience of my 40 plus years on stage that pulled me through the evening and at the end, I was almost in tears. Of course, I could not show it. I had to smile, accept the flowers, thank my team and move on. How did I feel on stage? Betrayed. That was it in one single word. Even the rave reviews that the show received in so many platforms has not erased that bitter memory.

Am I over-reacting? Perhaps a wee bit. But after rehearsing and going over cues and notes, I have to get up onto the stage and PERFORM. I have to zero into the core of the work and put 200% of myself on stage. It is such a scary and vulnerable moment. Powerful and empty at once. There is no retake, no going back, no way out except through. I expect, as do all dancers, to be supported and embraced by the team I have trusted. Not left alone to fend for myself through blips and bloopers. The worst outcome is that we still have to pay them for THEIR mistakes!

There are slivers of light in dark skies. Designer Paromita Bannerjee stepped in and helped me with the entire wardrobe steaming and preparation in the green room. Tanusree Shankar's gorgeous daughter Sreenanda organised the makeup person Tapas Mondial to transform me into a Tagore-like Devi (erased 20 years from my face!) and organiser Shahana Chatterjee's family became my emotional backbone. Hooray for the marvel of sisterhood!

The Kolkata experience was a great learning curve for me. As a result the Malaysia and further touring versions of A MILLION SITAS has been enriched by a more eclectic score and some new theatrical interventions that have taken the work into a different dimension. A new avatar from the Chennai sabha premiere 4 years ago, this SITA is set to cross many oceans to share her story. Lesson learnt - with crisis comes opportunity.

As you read this, I am already in Malaysia preparing for the premiere in Penang. Under the baton of actor-producer Sabera Shaikh, a 3 day festival titled NAGA WOMEN will see New Yorker Rajika Puri, Sabera and myself on three evenings of dance, theatre, word and movement. How exciting and how wonderful to be travelling now for solo women-centric festivals. After Malaysia, A MILLION SITAS goes to New York City (May 3) and then onto Laguna Beach, California (May 8) for its US debut.

I strongly feel that performance standards in Chennai have fallen alarmingly. There is such smug satisfaction in applauding mediocrity that the situation is actually very dangerous. A house full hall with old and young people waited eagerly to see the world premiere of DON QUIXOTE, a Bharatanatyam adaptation of Manuel Cervantes' iconic novel featuring the impractical dreamer Alonso Quixano. The novel represents the golden age of Spanish literature and contains the many layers of inter textuality, realism and meta theatre in its impressive sweep. The word "quixotic" emerged from that very story. Forcing contemporary relevance into the story of desire, misadventures and irony, this presentation aligned the windmill tilting hidalgo-hero as the parallel of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara!!! Gimme a break! Why not let the performance throw up these ideas?

I thought I had entered a Punjabi-Malayalee play... DAWNN KI HOTHEY? was the unnatural emphasis on the last name of the hero - QUIXOTE. It sounded like they were asking me, "How is it going?" Strongly accented English soaked in Malayalam is a challenge even for Indian audiences to follow, and the dialogue delivery was often stilted as it was evident that many dancers did not have voice training. I stayed until the intermission, having to catch a flight and did hear that in an attempt to be post modern or whatever, Dusty Springfield's 1964 much loved top single "Windmills of your mind" was also evoked!

As for the choreography, Sheejith Krishna is a very talented artiste, with lots of good ideas but little sense of editing. His navel gazing fetish showed in this almost 3 hour long work. Ideated and encouraged by a US producer, DAWNN KI HOTHEY is to tour the States later this year. Will editing and reframing be on the cards or is there too much self satisfaction to take an objective look at the work?

There were, however, two moments of good cheer for me - Joy Antony, the show's costume designer and dancer Madhusudhan as Sancho Panza, the comedy side kick. Joy had a terrible accident years ago in Sri Lanka while on a recreational break and was almost paralysed for more than 6 years. His total recovery is great news for the dance world. Joy worked with my company for 5 years and together we created the history making DAUGHTERS OF THE OCEAN in 1996. Welcome back, Joy! Madhusudhan was a 14 year old when he first performed in my first international co-production PURUSH (1995) and has since become an indispensable part of many international tours. His role was a touch filmy, the comedy not needing such front bencher over acting but Madhu was able to carry it off quite well.

Can dancers overrule the producer and director of an ensemble work? In India, dancers consider themselves as the ultimate SWAYAMBHU (self created and complete). Almost a year ago, I was disappointed by the mediocre staging of Kalidasa's MEGHADOOTAM that went on to tour 16 cities in the USA to moderate success. I later found out that the producer and the music director were not completely happy with the final product since the dancers and choreographers had overruled many of their original ideas. Even the costume designer was unhappy when the dancers refused to wear a particular costume citing "the colour does not suit me." So much for professionalism and team work. Chennai dancers have to learn what it takes to be on the international stage. US based NRI audiences who are mostly generous and want a nostalgia pill are not the touchstone for what is actually happening on the world dance stage. A visit to the UK will deflate many of these puffed egos. It is mostly the US patrons and audiences who seem to endorse and encourage this sort of childish work that often resembles high school plays! Perhaps not even that, since the TV show GLEE reveals how rigorous and endless the performing arts training is even in high schools.

Sanjukta Wagh

Okay, enough of this complaining. What can we cheer about? Well... not much if the dismal showing in the recently concluded World Cup Cricket semi finals is to be believed. After the Indian team's debacle, hotels and stadiums emptied out and airlines flew plane loads of sulking Indians back to their homes. Amidst all this hoopla of cricket, quietly two women made the news. Badminton star Saina Nehwal attained the world number one ranking and dancer Sanjukta Wagh stunned and stirred audiences in New Delhi with her moving performance. Sanjukta Wagh, a Kathak dancer from Bombay performed at the annual META theatre awards last month. Her intelligent adaptation of Marathi feminist writer Iravati Karve's GANDHARI impressed me greatly when I saw its premier last year. I wrote about Sanjukta as an artiste to watch. A year later, my instinct was proven correct. RAGE AND BEYOND - IRAWATI'S GANDHARI won two awards at the META festival. Best Actress and Best Music. More importantly, Sanjukta established herself as a performer to watch. Her elegance, stage presence and thoughtful performance was like a bolt of lightning for the jaded Delhiwallas. Congratulations, Sanjukta!

When will the present government remove the blindfolds from their eyes? So much of culture is in jeopardy. Will they remain like stoic Gandharis, oblivious to the rot that is coursing through many institutions?

The NCPA is in trouble. Details about the promised funding from the sale of heritage property in Mumbai have been stopped and the fabulous cultural centre could be on the brink of a cataclysm. As details emerge, we shall keep you all in the know. After all, so many of us have admired and enjoyed the hospitality and audiences at one of the many NCPA auditoriums.

Dance companies are in jeopardy. Salary grants have all but stopped and those with large repertories may have to completely shut down if there are no emergency interventions. In Kolkata, I heard the lament from many prominent and successful artistic directors who are tired of dipping into their own pockets to keep their companies afloat.

This situation is especially ironic when the spending budgets for weddings, celebrations and anniversaries are at an all time high. Take a peek at the just completed Fashion Week in New Delhi. Apart from the actual runway shows, where clothes were priced as high as 15,000 US dollars, there were extravagant jaunts taken to the banks of the Yamuna river where models strutted their stuff and locales outside plush hotels which were transformed into temporary Xanadus just for a few hours. India continues to be a land of extreme contrasts with value and emotion attached to what can be bought, owned and possessed. Dance, in comparison, is ephemeral, dissolving into the imagination, or, sometimes just vanishing.

Sudesh Adhana's scenography for
the theatre version of A FLOWERING TREE in Paris

Time has stopped for so many of our legends. March witnessed the last breath of too many special people... Vilasini Ramachandran (daughter of Guru Gopinath), BN gurus Udupi Laxminarayan and Leela Ramanathan, R. Krishnaswamy (Secretary of Narada Gana Sabha), and mahari Shashimani Devi. It is happening too soon and too fast. Soon they will all be gone. Those with a link to our historic past, those dancers and teachers who had watched the seismic changes in India's dance history and its subsequent reinvention for modern times are disappearing. Let us take a moment to salute those heroes and heroines of dance. May their lives continue to inspire future generations.

Inspiring a new generation is India born dancer-choreographer Sudesh Adhana, whose brilliant choreography in the Hindi film HAIDER has won him the 62nd national award. I picked out the filming, choreography and actor Shahid Kapoor's performance in the song "BISMIL" to readers several months ago. With Dadi Padamjee's giant puppets, this smart adaptation of Shakespeare's HAMLET is a must see for all dancers. Shahid is the son of Kathak dancer Neelima Azeem. Sudesh Adhana, trained in Mayurbhanj Chhau and Kathakali from New Delhi, now lives and works in Oslo, Norway where he runs his own contemporary dance company XPROARTS.

Here is the song BISMIL again for those who may have missed the film.

Jai Women National Awards for 2014 goes to Kathak dancer Sharmistha Mukherji for Social Work, and Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran for the Performing Arts. As we close comes news via diva dancer Aditi Mangaldas. In a country that favours the birth of sons, Piplantri, a village in Rajasthan has initiated a tree planting initiative whenever a girl child is born. For each baby girl, 111 trees are planted. Money is raised from the village and the girl's parents and kept as a fixed deposit for the girl. What a lovely idea in eco feminism. Read more

April brings us to the annual day of DANCE. April 29th is the WORLD DANCE DAY and each year there seem to be more and more events to celebrate why we do what we do. So let us move the smiles beyond our shoulders and onto our toes and become HAPPY FEET.

Watch some great dance films.
Take a friend to a dance performance
Have a cup of coffee with another dance colleague
Read a great dance biography
Teach some moves to non dancers
Speak passionately about Dance.
Go out there and shake it... DANCE! DANCE! DANCE!

Anita R Ratnam
Penang / Kuala Lumpur / Chennai / New Delhi / San Francisco / New York ....WHEW!

Twitter: @aratnam
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Instagram: @anitaratnam
Blog: THE A LIST /

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