The America Diaries
Chapter Four: DC and decadent living!

February 17, 2008

Flying within in the US has become a real chore. Airport check in kiosks, self help counters, luggage limits of a ridiculous 50 pounds per bag and a hefty surcharge if you are overweight by a mere 2 pounds. Security checks, shoes to be removed, hands held up in the air as menacing women stare at you; no food on flights, perhaps water if you are lucky, cramped seats and broken video systems. It makes me long for Jet Airways or even 'namba' Indian Airlines where we get smiles, service and edible food!

So when I checked in to the flight to Washington DC, I did so with a deep breath and steely determination. Having rushed to the airport immediately after the morning conference at University of Irvine in sunny California, the arrival time on the east coast with the 3 hour time difference brought me into Dulles past midnight. A cheery woman called Barbara greeted us like a hot cuppa coffee. "Hi there," she said in a bright tone that lit the dark and lonely airport at the hour after midnight. "Welcome to DC." Mithran Devanesen, who was accompanying me for the duration of my tour, was busy collecting our many bags filled with costumes, props and warm clothes. Suitcases deposited on luggage carts, and we finally made our way to Barbara's home for the night. A veritable encyclopedia on politics, Barbara was discussing the crowded presidential race where Obama was the crowd favourite and Hilary the party's chosen one. "Give me a ticket that reads O-C," she said, reflecting the two alphabets of the popular TV show, "and there goes my vote." With Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton clearly adversaries, nobody thought that would ever happen.

Early next morning, we were driven to the posh centre of America's capitol city. In the Georgetown district, famous for artistes and young business tycoons, an elegant townhouse welcomed us. Our bags were hauled effortlessly up the stairs by a smiling and burly Paulo. He opened the main doors and the vision unfolded before my eyes. Every inch of the house was a work of art. The owner and altruistic creator of the "Artiste Inn Residence," Terrance Gerace had translated his dream into a magnificent haven for adventurous travelers with deep pockets. Each room was a homage to a famous artiste Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Monet. The interiors were custom made with brocade, chintz, velvet, crystal, glass and silk. The bathroom floor and toilet seats were heated for the cold winters and the high tech bathtub dried itself out after a shower. A plasma flat screen TV rose from a teak table with the touch of a button and the radio turned on with another discreet switch. A four poster bed with high-count Egyptian cotton sheets and goose down pillows greeted me along with a hot steaming cup of coffee and a large plate of buttery pancakes dripping with maple syrup. Unlimited variety of teas were arranged neatly in the dining area and smiles enveloped my jet lagged body.

How did I get so lucky? I had to pinch myself to stop dreaming. Having traveled for 30 years and staying in a variety of places, I have experienced the entire gamut of hospitality for dancers. Rat infested holes, bad bathrooms, non-working faucets, cold food, broken beds... you name it, it has happened to me. I remember storming out of many such places and staying with friends in cities, completing the performance, thanking the organizers with a false smile and then writing them a strong letter about the basic tenets of hospitality. Of course, I have also experienced unnecessary luxury when a fancy car would greet me at the airport or train station and whisked away to a glamorous five star hotel while my troupe would all have to be cramped into a small Maruti and hosted in a less than modest lodge. No sooner had I checked into my hotel room the first of several phone calls would start coming from Lalitha or Vidhya, the team managers. The litany of complaints would be never ending. The non-availability of tea and coffee, inedible food and dirty rooms. It has never failed to amaze me as to why dance organizations could never get it right. The simple rule of clean rooms and vegetarian food can never go wrong or out of style. And yet, in India, it happens to rarely that I vowed that all artistes invited by ARANGHAM would never have to complain or go through what I had to endure for so long. No surprise then, that when we started festivals in 1994, our invited artistes were so happy and we came to be known for setting the benchmark for organization and courtesy for artistes around the country!

For now, back to my waking dream! It was with a constant look of 'adbhuta' that I walked about "Artiste Inn Residence" listening to Terrance speak about his passion to create a haven for artistes and his own support for the arts and for Daniel Phoenix Singh. It was Daniel, a Tamilian with a passion for Bharatanatyam and modern dance, whose company Dakshina had invited me to DC. (Singh is an abbreviation of his last name Singham quite misleading since it conjures images of turbans!) Terrance was on the Dakshina board and had agreed to host the festival artistes for the weekend. While Malavika Sarukkai , another guest artiste in the festival, had chosen to stay with friends, Hari Krishnan and Indance artistes from Toronto were our companions in this modern day palace.

For an artiste to live amidst an atmosphere of great beauty is an inspiration by itself. Like a finely tuned tambura whose vibrations soothe every fiber of the being, my four day stay in the Van Gogh suite was certainly a major highlight of my US tour. Meeting Daniel for the first time was also a very pleasant surprise. Having heard of his passion and vision through my friend and collaborator, Hari Krishnan, I was very pleased to meet this soft spoken young man who has created a clear niche for his company and his craft in a city where politics and intrigue are protagonists on the main stage.

Daniel had obviously worked towards creating a wonderful and supportive board of directors who ensured that his love of Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance were balanced throughout his annual programming calendar. Having chosen to perform "about HER in five chapters," I began preparing to go through the inevitable routine of technical rehearsals, sound checks and a run of the show at the historic Lincoln Theatre in downtown DC. The beautiful restored dance hall greeted us in silent majesty but the stage crew was another story. With six stagehands and technical staff at our disposal, Mithran could not get them to work in unison quickly enough to give me even one run through or a cue to cue lighting rehearsal. Fortunately, I had Aniruddhan Vasudevan from Chennai as my punching bag to vent my frustration and the show began with me in a totally off mood. I realize that this is not permitted for a professional artiste, but I am intensely human and I get mad very easily. Just as Aruna Sairam's voice floated through the feedback monitors with her Devi hymn triggering the yoga stances for the opening item ANDARI, another sound broke through my concentration. Sonorous Buddhist chants were breaking up Aruna's voice and added to my already foul mood. I indicated the problem through mudras to Aniruddhan in the wings, who immediately conveyed it to the tech booth. Obviously someone in the booth had just turned the DVD on by mistake and the music from 7 GRACES also began to play at the same time. Fortunately, it was only on the feedback monitors and not heard by the audience who would have been thoroughly confused. It threw me off so completely that I sort of walked through that first dance which was one of my favourites.

After completing the performance I realized that I had made a vital programming error. I had crowded too many items in that evening. I had added one more dance to the repertoire, deleting the storytelling, which was performed at Irvine and adding a Meera bhajan. I had also decided to do the 35 minute version of 7 GRACES instead of the 15 minute version that had worked much better in Singapore where I had performed earlier that year at the GREY FESTIVAL. Being too eager to show too many dances was not the right decision. As Hari Krishnan pointed out, the innocence of Goddess Tara was missing when cramped with too many other images. Well, seemed that I still had a lot to learn about programming for audiences while on tour.

The Indians in the audience loved the familiar Andal and Meera. The Westerners loved the abstractions of Tara in 7 GRACES. Well, there was something for everybody, I thought. While mamas and mamis crowded Malavika's performance the previous night, I seemed to attract a younger crowd and significantly no mamas and mamis. In fact, one elderly relative whom I saw in the foyer the previous evening pointedly told me that she would skip my show the next day since "parking downtown is a headache and I want to be entertained and not confused by modern ideas." Point noted.

Two young Indian girls approached me after my show and asked in an earnest voice, "How can I learn Neo Bharatam?" I was touched and surprised at the impact my performance had made on them. For years I have come to accept that my organically created style of movement and dance would not have mass appeal and would attract a small crowd of mature viewers. Young dancers, specially Indian kids living overseas, are so attracted to speed, patterns, new jathis and anything under the umbrella of 'innovation' that they have been consistently disappointed at my medium-paced dances with a predominantly meditative mood. So this reaction from teenagers really surprised me. It was also gratifying to receive this compliment far from home where, Bharatanatyam has sprouted a veritable Hydra Head with more than a thousand 'avataras' of its form. There were still young people out there, I thought, who could find a place in their minds for my approach that seeks to establish a quiet tone of modernity within the heart of our great dance tradition.

The previous day, Malavika danced a selection of her favourite items from Kalidasa to Kasi. She was majestic and lovely in her deep pink and mustard costume. Malavika danced to recorded music. Watching her, I notched one up for myself my stubborn stand from 2000 against dance musicians and their uncontrollable greed. I refused to use live accompaniment from 8 years ago and consciously switched to commissioned music with concert singers. I was also urging all the dancers to do so in order to maintain the acoustical standards of performance and not increase their blood pressure with the unprofessional behaviour of dance musicians. With artistes of the stature of Malavika and Valli touring today with recorded music, the signal was being sent loud and clear to all younger dancers for whom these two have been international icons.

After completing her performance to great applause, Malavika diminished the aura she had created by taking the mike and saying that she was suffering from 103 degree fever and that she wanted to perform for Daniel so much that she willed herself to do so. Having heard her once before saying almost the same thing in New Delhi, I was irritated with this statement that destroyed the magic she had created on stage. With no thermometers around to check her fever, such statements were not necessary. In fact, it ruined the mood she had created with the final aarti of Shiva at Kasi.

On all three days, Daniel and the Dakshina company performed before the international guest artistes-Malavika, Hari Krishnan and myself. Their program contained a selection of Bharatanatyam and modern work. A duet which is a work in progress with Chennai's Aniruddhan Vasudevan seemed an interesting appetizer and the modern ensemble work that followed called 'BellSong' was flowing and very pleasing to watch. Daniel is far better as a modern dancer though I sensed that his love was situated firmly in Bharatanatyam. However, the organization, teamwork and sincerity of the Dakshina board members touched me the most. Millionaire CEOs and important DC citizens all worked together to ensure that the Dakshina Fall Festival was a success. Undoubtedly, one of the best South Asian presenters in the US, Daniel understood the psyche of Indian dancer and ensured that every aspect of the relationship, from the first communication to the final goodbyes were professional and respectful. Kudos to Daniel and Dakshina!

The post performance dinner after my show was at an Ethiopian restaurant opposite the theatre where fragrant Injira bread, like our Kerala Appam, took centre stage. A large group, including Hari Krishnan and his dancers, shared drinks, food and camaraderie. How I missed these moments in India where dancers rarely meet and talk. I sipped my wine and reflected on my tour, which had completed 3 cities in 3 weeks with one more to go. As I watched stunning Ethiopian waitresses balancing large trays while their men sat around drinking at the bar. Typical, I thought. Hard working women and lazy men. Where have I seen that before? Hari caught my eye as if to say, "Don't start on me now, girl! I don't want to hear your rants against men." I just raised my glass to him as a toast and took a large sip of wine.

Frigid New England was looming ahead for me - Amherst, Mt Holyoke College and Boston. Universities, curious and vigorous minds awaiting NEELAM in its many forms formal performance, classroom sessions, story telling master classes every day needed me to be on my toes in every way. But for now, I had a few days off to relax back in New York City and catch up on some much needed sleep, walking crowded streets in my second home and watching shows instead of performing in them!

Three weeks into the tour I weighed in at the same 65 kgs. I was certainly enthused since it was obvious that my new regime of yoga and pranayama was working even through the changing weather, travel and interrupted meal patterns. While I was silently thinking of my personal trainer Johnson chastising me for sipping an occasional glass of wine, I consoled myself that in the zero degree cold bundled up in many layers of woolens, I needed that extra zip to warm my ageing bones!

The next time I returned to DC it would be to a changed America and a new President. Nobody was so hated and despised within his own country as President George W Bush. Scorn, shame, rage and sheer anger was etched on the faces of most Americans during my three week tour when they spoke of him. As I was driven past Vice President Dick Cheney's home inside the Naval Headquarters, I got the sense of both power and ruin that has taken the image of America into the sewers and made them the laughing stock of the world. Ah well! Politics and art when did they ever mix except at certain key moments in history which saw the coming together of rulers and artistes having a common dream of galvanizing society by provoking fresh thought. It was Rukmini Devi who was once considered by Prime Minister Morarji Desai as a Presidential candidate. That was over 30 years ago. Today, we overlook cultured citizens like Karan Singh and Sonal Mansingh who would be magnificent as national leaders and opt for rubber stamp nondescript people like Mrs. Pratibha Patil who needs Shobaa De or anyone as a personal groomer/stylist.

Indian dancers today are mostly looked on as entertainers or keepers of a tradition that exists only in the minds of some and the fantasies of many! We are but trained acrobats needing to make people happy and comforted through the familiar contortions of a culture that we are not close to. Who regards an Indian dancer as a contemporary woman with a world view of her own? "Don't talk, just dance," said one impeccable Brahmin banker in London. "I want to see beautiful women dance, not spout theory." Anger then becomes my second nature when I am confronted with such facile attitudes. It is this anger that has kept my inner fires burning and which kept my mind and body dancing through many tough years.

And so onto New York and New England!

Anita Ratnam