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April 1, 2018

HAPPY BIRTHDAY NARTHAKI !!!


SHE WAS WARNED
SHE WAS GIVEN AN EXPLANATION
NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED
- Chant for Women's History Month (March)

This month's thoughts come to you from the freezing cold of Minneapolis, where I made a brief but joyous visit to reunite with my high school friends. The simple pleasure of connecting with gal pals with whom you once shared lunches, brief crushes, sports, gossip and mark sheets cannot be replicated at any other phase of your life.

My school mates just happen to be extraordinary women. Many firsts in our class batch from Presentation Convent Church Park are now Cabinet Ministers, Academic leaders, medical experts, CEOs and National Arts Awardees. However, all these prefixes fall away as do the years when we gathered.

Except for me, nobody else in the group is in the arts although one dynamo is on the board of the Guthrie Theatre and a generous arts patron. Still, we attended the opera, a jazz concert and spoke in unison about the arts being the humanizing glue to our lives.



Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarajan

Minneapolis is the city where the wonderfully creative couple Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarajan live. Founders of Pangea World Theatre, their cutting edge work that explores the lesser known and suppressed voices of immigrant and forgotten communities has always attracted a niche audience and garnered many admirers. Dipankar directed me twice in the Sangam poetry inspired THE INNER WORLD (1998) and VAITHARANI (2003). Pangea is now preparing for the premiere of ISLA TULIRO (The Island of Confusion) about the colonization of the Philippines.

However, the dance stars of the state of Minnesota are Ranee Ramaswamy and the Ragamala Dance Company. They are by far the most successful Bharatanatyam repertory in the US with an enviable touring calendar both nationally and now, overseas. Having departed from their flirtations with contemporary dance and the wearing of black gowns while moving to the voice of Billie Holiday, star daughter Aparna Ramaswamy - student of Alarmel Valli - has accumulated glorious reviews and an impressive entourage of fans and supporters in the USA.

While many South Indians may not agree with Ragamala's interpretation of traditional texts like ANDAL's TIRUPPAVAI (SHE WOKE AT DAWN), the superb staging, lighting and production values that embed this company's image are unmissable hits.


#DESI IN NYC

Sonali Skandan

Kiran Rajagopalan
From basement studios, high schools and churches, classical Indian dance has become more and more prominent in the educational network in the USA. I had the opportunity to watch a lovely morning featuring Sonali Skandan and dancers of the JIVA DANCE COMPANY at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. The 900 seater auditorium was filled to capacity at 10am with noisy school kids as part of a Music Appreciation Series focusing on India. As a prologue to the morning dance and music presentation, these students had already done their "homework." They knew what they were going to watch and some of the salient features of Bharatanatyam.
The opening chorus with teachers featured three popular words for HELLO.
HOLA. NAMASTE. WHAT's UP?

Sonali's crisp editing of a traditional Bharatanatyam repertoire made for pleasant viewing, and I marvelled at how quickly the noisy chatter subsided and the hall was in pin drop silence during each item. Even theatre manners were discussed and practiced in advance by the teachers with their young students!

The same evening, I attended a rehearsal of another Bharatanatyam dancer Kiran Rajagopalan for his new solo work called TWIN RIVERS. Exploring mythology from India and Nigeria, this talented performer has made interesting departures from his comfort zone of Alarippu to Tillana. What I notice each time I watch these rehearsals is how much these young dancer/choreographers need editing in their work. Too much movement and too much choreography is a temptation that is often surrendered to. Yet TWIN RIVERS has the kernel of a truly new pathway for Kiran.


#OF VARNAMS AND ARANGETRAMS
With so many performers, there seems to be a yearning for many to perform a FULL VARNAM - the 30 to 40 minute exploration that has already become a yawn factor for audiences in India. In fact, it is perhaps only the Chennai December Festival where we get to watch these varnams but times are a changing and with it should come a reality check for many classical dancers. Why should dancing a 40 minute varnam become so vital today? What can you say in 40 long minutes that you can't say in 20? Is it not time to rethink and revisit these compositions and return to crisp "sancharis" and taut abhinaya? No presenter in the US wants to watch these long solos. In India, audiences walk out in droves as soon as the varnam concludes, leaving the hall half empty for the second part of the program. It feels like a collective "WHEW!"

In conversations with many dance teachers in the USA, I realized that dance is still a powerful CULTURE TOOL for the young Indian Americans. But so are other musical avenues. Listening to a New York high school music ensemble at Carnegie Hall, I saw two smart Indian teenagers playing the OBOE and the CELLO.

And of course, after the arangetram, dance classes stop abruptly. But the year leading up to this important debut is becoming more and more like entry into an Ivy League University. Students are urged to give up all their weekends, social lives and any extra curricular activities. They are expected to sign a contract with some gurus who ask them to pick any 3 or 4 days of their choice to skip rehearsal. The day after Prom night is also no excuse to bunk classes. I watched as two young girls squirmed and wailed while the teacher was unflinching in her demands. My vote was with the teacher.

If you want to do your arangetram, invite your friends, take the photographs, pose for selfies, then you need to make the sacrifice! Try wiggling out of baton, lacrosse, ballet or piano debuts! See what happens then!


#I LOVE NEW YORK
My last day in the city where my children were born was marked by a wonderful celebration hosted by Rajika Puri in honour of my receiving the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for contemporary dance. I was surrounded by friends of almost 40 years who had known me in a totally different avatar - a television journalist and producer. During the 3 hours, nobody reached for their phones to take photos for social media. What a relief! Engaging conversations about politics, the growing threat to democracy in the US, trends in visual arts, curating and fund raising dominated the evening.

One of the questions asked during the evening to my childhood friend Radha Hegde, Professor of Media Studies at NYU, was why Dance Academics in the US sneer at practitioners. I have not found such snobbish attitudes among the theatre crowd but have felt a definite "cold shouldering" of embodied experience with the Indian-American academics in the USA. Being a tenured professor may be a huge coup but it is the performing artistes who are at the vanguard and the front lines of the creative process. To "pooh pooh" the entire performing community and engage in disdain is short sighted and pointless.


#RELIGION AS FASHION
Religion and Dance are not novel topics when discussing classical dance from India. The compositions are embedded with the dual adoration/worship of God as lover and companion. The syncretic intertwining of India's dance history and the visible borders being drawn by right wing fundamentalists have made today's classical dance an ideal vehicle to demonstrate India's Hindu 'identity'!

In the West, the separation between Church and State was far wider until recent events of the past few years. Now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will unveil their new fashion venture titled FASHION AND THE CATHOLIC IMAGINATION. Supported by Italian fashion diva Donatello Versace and Vogue magazine's editor Anna Wintour, the gorgeous exhibition will reveal the power of the CROSS and the endless fodder for ways in which Christianity was woven into the fashion world. I remember when the murdered designer Gianni Versace put the image of Virgin Mary onto his crosses almost 30 years ago and the furor it created with the Vatican.

Does anyone remember when the label URBAN OUTFITTERS placed Goddess Lakshmi and Hanuman on the butt of jeans and down the legs of trousers? The huge ruckus that the Hindu groups in the US created until the clothing line was withdrawn? That was in the 1990's. Today, with the growing anger and rage all around us, there would be a body count instead of mere protests.

Yet, please note that most yoga wear have the OM and the outline of GANESA etched on butts, bikini tops and leggings. Nobody comments!


#YELLOW FEVER IN DC

Ragamala Dance

Thari
Continuing on the topic of fashion and dance, I recently came across two images that seemed remarkably similar. Featured on the Kennedy Center website for dance events in November 2018, the photos were of RAGAMALA DANCE COMPANY and MALAVIKA SARUKKAI's group composition THARI.

Both photos feature Bharatanatyam dancers in YELLOW COSTUME. Both look so similar and I wonder why the PR designer of the Kennedy Center did not request either or both companies to send in different photographs! And why would anyone program two Bharatanatyam performances back to back in the same month? RAGAMALA does not cater to the DESI community while Malavika has a greater pull with both Indian and American audiences.

Inching towards the golden 60 year mark, Malavika seems to have reinvented her career with greater resources and a world tour of the most prestigious mainstream venues for her new ensemble production THARI. Chennai, however, received the work with muted response.


#FAREWELL AKRAM

Akram Khan
Across the oceans, dance fans in the UK are all abuzz with the farewell performance of Akram Khan. XENOS is this superstar's final hurrah as a performer. The exhausting solo is already getting rapturous reviews from Australia and the UK performances are sold out months before the date.

To have Akram at age 46 say FAREWELL seems unbelievable since South Asian dance can keep step with the ticking clock and age. Still, this poster boy of British diversity and a true genius, has always said that he was terrified of his body letting him down some day. And so Akram has taken charge of his narrative by picking a project and the time for the spotlights to turn on and off onto his mesmerizing frame one last time. With music by young Aditya Prakash (live vocals) XENOS will not come to India, but Akram's several presences will be always remembered.

And to think that I had the unique honour of inviting him for his very first India visit in 2000 to THE OTHER FESTIVAL in Chennai! Thank you, Akram Khan, for all that you have brought to the dance canon and for the many hours and moments of truly superb artistry!


#NEW DANCE IN MARCH

Padmini Chettur
March is becoming the month for contemporary dance in India. In Chennai, there is an annual showcase of new works supported by the Max Muller Bhavan/Goethe Institute and the carefully curated week (Basement 21 Collective) is always interesting to watch. In Kolkata, SAMABHAVANA, the widely publicized seminar and festival of contemporary dance was a resounding success with so many ideas and new names emerging from the classrooms of classical, modern and popular dancing. Our site carries several versions of the multiple events and I hope you find time to read the various viewpoints.

To see Koodiyattam artiste Kapila Venu in the programming roster is surprising but contemporary arts curators find her theatrical intensity a fresh counterpoint to the overtly melodramatic nature of what classical dance seems to have become.

In fact, Kapila's father G Venu's NATYASASTRA NAVARASA INTENSIVE is gaining popularity and rightly so. This ten day immersive experience is a perfect training ground for facial and muscular rigour. Theatre actors are flocking to sign up and I feel that classical dancers should also. How to amplify a movement and a moment is gloriously demonstrated by Venu ji.


#AND....
Kuchupidi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa performs for the opening of the LOUVRE MUSEUM in ABU DHABI

RAJIKA PURI's annual NYC DANCING FOR THE GODS festival will present the SATTRIYA dancers with drummers from Assam monasteries. A real coup!

KAMALA CESAR, founder of Lotus Music and Dance in NYC, celebrates the company's 30th anniversary with a gala in memory of her guru BALASARASWATI

MYTHILI KUMAR's Abhinaya Dance has won the IZZIE at the 32nd annual Isadora Duncan Dance Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Performance - Company for its fall production 'Vaanara Leela - Monkeys in the Ramayana.' A first for an Indian dance company!

JATINDER VARMA of Tara Arts, London, is working on a new international play on the MAHABHARATA, revealing that the Indian epics are endless fodder for theatrical interpretation.

DHANANJAYANS celebrate 50 years of their academy BHARATA KALANJALI with a world tour and Chennai presentations of their senior students throughout the year.

By the end of this month, ABHAI, Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India, will have a new President. The current President, Chitra Visweswaran and myself as Vice President, will step down and a new committee will take over.

NATYA VRIKSHA/Geeta Chandran mounts another edition of the now much anticipated YOUNG DANCERS FESTIVAL as a two day event at the IIC in New Delhi.

Culinary superstar PADMA LAKSHMI has unveiled a new line of lipsticks at MAC stores with one stunning colour titled MITTAI PINK as a nod to her Tamil heritage! "Shocking pink is India's Navy Blue," once declared fashion diva Diana Vreeland.

AKADEMI, UK is gearing up for its 40th anniversary celebrations. Watch for more news from the mind and energy of current director Mira Misra Kaushik

The New Delhi government seems to have joined the dance competition band wagon. An official announcement has called for dancers and teachers to enter this grand event to become the STAR OF DELHI. Hmmm... We will watch as details unfold.


Revathi Ramachandran
After a gap of 8 months, KALAKSHETRA gets a new director. Bharatanatyam dancer REVATHI RAMACHANDRAN has been selected and appointed by the Culture Ministry to take over in the next few weeks. The contentious issue has preoccupied many sections of the arts world for months and several in the dance fraternity are questioning as to why no alumni was considered for the post. Of the 12 candidates, only P T NARENDRAN was an alumni and after being requested to apply, was considered unsuitable in spite of his 6 years of study and 16 years of performing as the company principal dancer. REVATHI RAMACHANDRAN has a tough challenge ahead of her. Staff, syllabus, rules, files, discipline, repertory... all need a closer look for streamlining and supervision.

NARTHAKI.COM congratulates the Chennai dancer and guru and wishes her the best in this new appointment.


#EMERGING TALENT

Shashwati Garai Ghosh

Christopher Gurusamy
I have watched more dance last month than I have in a long time. Surprising me was Odissi dancer Shashwati Garai Ghosh. Student of Sharmila Biswas, Shashwati's new solo DHWANI was an evocative though over long performance of sound in its various manifestations. None of the syrupy sensuality that Nrityagram has made so popular. This is powerful Odissi, strong and clear. With editing and the right mentor, Shashwati will be a dancer to watch.

Not as successful though showing definite promise was Bharatanatyam dancer Christopher Gurusamy. His mixed parentage is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Strong and clear dancing needed better stage spacing and blocking and his 'bhakti bhavam" needing more conviction. Also, the attempt at the fast turns between the finishing "arudis" reminded me of Mavin Khoo minus the sharp precision. Christopher needs time to mature and hone his talent that is unmistakable.


#RED SPARROW

Watching the stunning dance-espionage film RED SPARROW brought home to me the DIKTAT of the Soviet Union to all their professional performers. The heroine is the prima ballerina in the Bolshoi and an unfortunate stage accident forces her to become a tool for the ruthless spy campaigns of the State. YOUR BODY IS NOT YOURS. IT BELONGS TO MOTHER RUSSIA is the mantra dinned into her in training camp.

Who does the dancer's body belong to?
Family? Spouse? Parents? Children? Guru? Society?
What is the spirit that moves us?
When we perform are we part of the collective whole?


#BACK TO BEGINNING

April is also the month where I will return to rehearsal in the Bharatanatyam mode after 20 years.
As the recipient of the KITAPPA PILLAI MEMORIAL AWARD for sustaining and promoting traditional and ritual arts, I am now forced to relook at the dance pieces taught by Guru Adyar K Lakshman in the 1970's and try to remount some of them for a performance at the BIG TEMPLE in Tanjavur later this month. The event is part of the CHINNA MELAM festival organised by the Tanjavur Academy of Dance. Am currently working on strength training for my legs! That ARAIMANDI... That ARAIMANDI!!!!!!!!

Why do dancers pour out all their snorts, farts and hiccups on Facebook and Instagram? Why don't more share views and opinions instead? Do I really want to know if the pizza man came late or the calamity of a food stain on a badly fitting LBD? Why are dancers so self obsessed as to not think beyond themselves and the next gig? Unless we put down those mirrors and realize that the world around us is shrinking and getter uglier and meaner, we cannot fight the good fight for excellence and quality in an environment that is getting tone deaf to anything but money and mediocrity!


#WORLD DANCE DAY

April is also WORLD DANCE DAY and I take this opportunity to wish my colleagues around the world to pause and remember why we dance. Why we love dance and why we obsess about this art form that is at once both vulnerable and powerful.

NARTHAKI TURNS 18 this month and this teenager is now entering its NINETEENTH YEAR in cyberspace!
Thank you to the tireless team that has maintained this site and watched it grow and enter your homes, hand helds, desktops and hearts.
Thank you for all who have supported and cheered us on. Your memberships, advertisements and writing have made this the GO TO dance site.
For all our writers and contributors - famous and not so - continue the passion to watch and report on dance!
And
Thank you for reading my thoughts each month and responding in a variety of ways. Having a voice takes time to cultivate and it has taken me an entire lifetime of experience and observation.

Sustaining NARTHAKI.COM as a free site has taken time, energy, resources and fierce commitment. That dance belongs to all of us and not to any one person, group or entity is more important than ever.

The great tennis legend Roger Federer has taken the summer off to rest and prepare for the next season. Will we dancers realize that we too need time off? To reflect, read, take a holiday, a long walk, hike, swim, spa and just not worry about dance and dancing?

It is important to listen to our bodies. We don't need Oprah or Deepak Chopra to tell us that.

So as the summer scorches on... cool off... smile and rest...


Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Mumbai/Tanjavur



Twitter:
@aratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
Facebook: www.facebook.com/ARthecontemporaryclassicist?ref=hl






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