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November 1, 2012

We begin with Nature and her wrathful moods that have thrown Malavika Sarukkai’s latest offering SPIRIT OF THE BODY off course. SANDY stormed through New York City leaving devastation and the Lincoln Centre’s WHITE LIGHT FESTIVAL  has been affected. Malavika’s concert is already sold out and new dates will be announced as the city limps back slowly from misery and mayhem.  I left New York on one of the last flights allowed to take off and landed back home safely while monitoring my son’s situation as he coped with the storm. I returned to another local cyclone called NILAM (what is it with this female naming and sheer malevolence?) and the city is afloat with mosquitoes and swamplands.

My mind screen, however, continued to swirl with the many magnificent thoughts of shows that I had seen all October. In three countries, so many South Asians came out in their finest presentations, making an international statement and a unique stamp on world stages. But first I HAVE to begin with the last performance I watched before boarding my return flight.  It was MOSS ON STONE by late German choreographer PINA BAUSCH. To call what I watched dance, performance, theatre, live art, acting... words fail me. Dancers of all ages, sizes and shapes – each uniquely brilliant – in complete surrender to the arc of the work and the ideas of the late seminal cultural thinker, left me and the house full audience at the immense BAM auditorium in complete amazement. This is the ADBHUTA RASA that many of us yearn for in all live performance. Pina Bausch demands much from her dancers and her audience. A poet and an exquisite editor of her own work, MOSS ON STONE was almost three hours long. Superb solos – 12 of them and none more than 4 minutes each – executed with the individual personality shining forth – were immensely moving. Women as sex slaves, Kama Sutra babes, whip and chain dominatrix, coquettes, sexual aggressor, girlfriend... the images came cascading and left us dazed. Sitting alongside Bharatanatyam dancer Rama Vaidyanathan, we discussed the performance from two completely different perspectives. Could superb solo Bharatanatyam actually WORK in this intimidating space if executed and presented with such flair and precision? Mature women, surely past 40, looked so assured and confident in flowing gowns and glossy unbound hair, performing with the aplomb of an artiste who was just now “performing” the choreographic vision but “embracing and owning” the work. Fantastic!

The previous day we had seen the AKRAM KHAN COMPANY at the Lincoln Centre festival presenting VERTICAL ROAD – the British choreographer’s take on the Sufi poet Rumi. Stark, brilliantly lit and fabulously danced, the work was hypnotic but after watching PINA, it seemed almost tame and safely “middle of the road” contemporary dance. Taking nothing away from the success of Akram Khan’s offering when the audiences whistled and cheered at the end as the white shimmering curtain came plummeting down, the words that came to mind were “lovely” and “beautiful.” Perhaps that is more than enough for most but not for me anymore. I want to be gut wrenched and shaken. Not just stirred. And THAT is what Pina’s work gave me. However, at the Akram show, it was interesting  to watch many Indian socialites and art patron diva /devas Rajika Puri, Ranvir Shah and Umang Hutheesingh and many other Wall Street tycoons in the crowd. 

Speaking of Akram, his recently performed GNOSIS in India came in for so much diverse comments. The most unflattering were his choices of performing classical Kathak at the beginning and then TALKING at the microphone and in between the show. “Why does he want to do the same mike thing?” was the wail of so many of his admirers. Talk is what many dancers are doing now in between their show, the latest being Aditi Mangaldas, whose brilliant Kathak is not served well by this dramatic diversion. Please watch PINA when she chooses her words so carefully and delivers them through her performers like missiles. Talk like a dancer and not like an actor. The joining is mostly jarring. Anyway, I, who began bringing my life and work together 23 years ago should not complain too much. I have always felt that personal mythology is more compelling than the larger tropes of Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. However, with everyone around me opening their hearts, maybe I should return to silence and movement.

I have always maintained that dancers in India are brilliant, talented with much better ‘abhinaya’ than their NRI colleagues. And I have also stated time and again, that Indian dancers are lazy and resting on the crumbling edifices of tradition, ritual, divinity and ecstasy – without applying the rigour of daily practice and honing their training in the fabulous art of dance. Watching the über-fit and supple forms of all the dancers I saw in New York, London and The Hague, who obviously cross train in a variety of physical disciplines reminded me of the very low threshold of tolerance from today’s audience. If we are going to worry about how to draw new and younger audiences to classical and artistic forms of contemporary dance in India, then we also have to retrospect about what and how we are presenting ourselves and our art. Fat is out. Fit is in and always will be in the future. Kinetic excitement on stage is also now a given and too bad if you don’t agree. What can the magnificent human body, the ultimate machine, actually execute? Watch Akash Odedra this month in India and marvel at this slim young man and his superb Kathak /contemporary explosion through his acclaimed three solos- RISING. I watched him in London earlier this year and just recently in the Korzo Theatre in The Hague and was thrilled with his delicate yet assured dancing. Yes, he is supported by amazing technicals and a dream lighting plan, but his dancing is delicate and cutting-edge brilliant.

Bringing Akash to India is Anusha Lal and her partner in contemporary dance-crime Mandeep Raikhy. Their GATI initiative has become India’s go-to destination for all young dancers who are experimenting and searching for new vocabularies. The biennale festival has grown to become the most coveted platform for emerging and established talent around India. Making their mandatory appearances this year are Navtej Johar, Maya Krishna Rao, Padmini Chettur and Preethi Athreya but new names are also making their mark. Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, whose choreography won the top prize in the recently concluded Prakriti Dance Festival makes his appearance as does Attakkalari’s lyrical group work MEI DHWANI. Good luck to all and here’s to the rising interest and standards of India’s new dance scene.

Nrityagram /Chitrasena combine also feature in the programming, making for many raised eyebrows. I am pleased that neo classical work, reframed and restaged for modern audiences has found its way into the roster since clinically superb dancing, executed with precision and reformatted for global stages needs to be seen – but NOT to be confused with contemporary dance. As is being done more and more with critics when they see Malavika, Aditi and Surupa/Bijoyini on western stages. Their work is NOT contemporary but rather classical dance re-imagined for today’s optic. Europe knows that but try telling that to retro US writers. They are still seduced by the pretty exotic Asian geisha images.

Not swayed by her brilliance, fans of Malavika Sarukkai almost unanimously rejected her experiments with costume and movements in her New Delhi performance on SUFI/AMIR KHUSROO last month. And so she has returned to the traditional BN pyjama costume of yore and her expected loved image. Even her most diehard fans had harsh words about her adventures. Why cannot an artiste try out a new silhouette? Having not seen the work I am not able to comment but perhaps Malavika’s unfailing geometry of line was blurred by the billowing skirt and full sleeved bodysuit that she now seems to prefer to the traditional choli. Participating at London’s Roehampton University’s discussion after a showing of live-art artiste Sheila Ghelani, I wondered about the rapidly blurring borders between dance and multi-media performance. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I like to see skill and rigour at work in performance and not a pastiche of found objects and non-stop talk-images masquerading as performance. Then what is the point of daily practice, research, rehearsals, planning, dreaming and dancing?

Premiering new ideas through film and performance are Justin McCarthy and Navtej Johar, both Bharatanatyam students of Leela Samson. Navtej shares his new collaboration with a German performer DONT ASK DONT TELL and Justin develops his love of the Kshetrayya padam through a film called O FRIEND, THIS WAITING. The two days at KORZO theatre in The Hague was a refreshing departure from my usual North American stops. Anchored by former dancer and India admirer Leo and strengthened by artistic director in residence Kalpana Raghuraman, the theatre was a bustling centre of dance and activity during my rainy weekend visit. Judging a dance competition with Revanta Sarabhai of the immortal Ahmedabad clan, we watched a parading of Dutch Surinamese Indian immigrants for whom BN is the single most important link to India, culture and identity. I also watched a rehearsal of Revanta’s latest performance LDR (long distance relationships) – his own being terminated by incessant travels – as it prepares for a two month tour of Holland. Using his various skills and training in classical and contemporary dance, martial arts and theatre, this young Sarabhai is trying hard to make his mark on the performance landscape.

Congratulations to Hari Krishnan who has been invited to curate three international dance works influenced by the diversity of world cultures and by contemporary dance today as part of New York City’s Fridays at Noon dance series at the 92Y.

In case you are wondering if I find the dance scene in India inspiring or not, the answer is YES. Of course. But more and more OUTSIDE the classical dance world. Just watching Atul Kumar’s Piya Behrupia inspired by Shakespeare’s 12th Night and Veenapani Chawla’s superb performance company drumming a dream makes me realise the wealth of the tradition that can inspire our dancers as long as we are willing to stop, interrogate and reflect on several aspects of performance. As long as learning items is the most important, classical dance will continue to weaken at the foundations and become a decorative element in the INDIA 101 learning module.

Meanwhile, the classical dance juggernaut rolls on. Workshops, basement living, arangetrams, shows, festivals, screaming publicity and relentless online PR bombard many of us asking for our eyeballs to pay attention. But little is retained. The ‘araimandi’ is stressed for part time students and wannabe professionals, ‘anga shuddam’ is mentioned in passing and rarely paid attention to, music is rarely mentioned and neither is the nuance of language. The organisers rake in the moolah and plan the next international money vacuuming session. And the beat goes on...

EPIC WOMEN has almost come upon us. The line up is so exciting and the morning  discussions and evening performances promise a very rare opportunity to watch new and established artistes at their best. We have four world premieres at the event and are honoured to have such a wide variety of ‘epic women’ being presented and discussed – Savitri, Yashodhara, Rukmini, Bala, Amba-Shikhandi, Hidimbi, MS, Eleni, Frida, Panchali, Sita, Kausalya, Devaki, Aung San Suu Kyi, Arundhati, Chandralekha, Indrani, Mrinalini, Kannagi, Maya, Medea.... the names continue to roll on and the images and moods are resonating through myth, history, legend and life. For more details, log on to our website and our Facebook pages. Excitement and excellence is assured. There is so much more to be done for this ambitious event. Pre-production is 80% of any event. Whew!

Before EPIC WOMEN arrive at our doorstep, we have the annual KAISIKA NATAKAM at my ancestral village - Tirukurungudi. It is on November 24th and the all night 13th century theatre ritual will be preceded by a Kathak performance by Madhu Natraj and her dancers. The village folk will be riveted by Kathak. They have never watched this form before and for me the home of my great grandfather beckons with its quiet, charm and the fabulous food from traditional cooks. No phones, TV, social networks. Silence. Bliss. For three days at least.

Here at home, as the winds howl outside my window and cyclone Nilam sweeps across my city, I close down with a prayer for all those who are homeless and bereft of shelter, food and comfort during this difficult time. How easy it is for us to complain of power outages when millions are left to the elements! Give thanks for all that we have and send your positive thoughts to all those who are in dire need. At least these two disasters – Sandy and Nilam – can remind us that we MUST live sustainable lives that show care and concern for others.
In a dark room in a home with no power, and the charge in my computer dying, I retire to cover myself in mosquito repellent and hope to get a good night’s rest.

Have a great month ahead and prepare for the excitement of the coming SEASON!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/New Delhi/Colombo/Tirukurungudi
 
Footnote: Anita recommends these videos
1. Forwarded by dancer Madhu Natraj via designer Wendell Rodricks
DEGAS - PRIVATE LIFE OF A MASTERPIECE, How one image influenced the world of ballet
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5qH_NRFeyk&feature=youtube_gdata_player
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9FivoFcir4&feature=relmfu
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNoiDxI-MAo&feature=relmfu
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f_ineWwGlk&feature=relmfu

2. Forwarded by dancer Chitra Sundaram
One possible future of classical dance in competitions: Performance by Karan Singh Pangali
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3dupT4yCu0&feature=em-share_video_user