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Jaan R Freeman: The joy of the Balasaraswati style
- Lalitha Venkat

February 24, 2010

Jaan R Freeman is the Artistic Director of Dakshina Palli Inc, an educational and cultural organization in NYC. Dakshina Palli preserves and perpetuates the Bharatanatyam lineage of the late great dancer T Balasaraswati. Freeman began studying Bharatanatyam in New York from Kamala Cesar in 1995. In 1997, he began advance training and became a disciple of Nandini Ramani of Chennai, India and Priyamvada Sankar of Montreal, Canada - both senior disciples of T Balasaraswati. Freeman had his Bharatanatyam Arangetram in 2005 at the historical Henry Street Settlement Playhouse Theater in NY. He has been invited to perform Bharatanatyam at Downtown Dance Festival, Ganesh Temple in Flushing, Queens, the Sri Balaji Hindu Temple of Bridgewater, NJ and the Asian Heritage Celebration and recently performed for Dance Theater of Harlem's Open House, hosted by Arthur Mitchell and legendary Actress Ruby Dee among other venues.

Jaan comes to Indian dance as a modern dancer who has performed and choreographed for the past 21 years in the USA. He has performed at the Kennedy Center, BAM, Lied Center of Nebraska, Madras Music Academy, NJPAC, Asia Society and Carnegie Hall among other celebrated venues. Freeman has taught modern dance in every major city in India since 1997 and toured Sri Lanka, Poland and India. Freeman was in the original 1995 production of 'Purush: Expressions of Man,' which highlighted male dancers from India and the USA and was in the 1997 tour of 'Songs of Tagore,' both presented by the Battery Dance Company. He has performed as a guest artist with Rita Ganguly's Kaladharmi of New Delhi and the Deepasikha National Dance Theater of Sri Lanka. In June 2009, Freeman choreographed and performed for the Elegant School of Modern Dance (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the late Mr. Alvin Ailey. Freeman's solo Bharatanatyam program has been touring the USA with programs in Fort Lauderdale, Charleston, Indianapolis, and San Francisco with upcoming programs in New Orleans and Boise Idaho.

As a dancer of Western contemporary style, what inspired you to learn Bharatanatyam?
My first experience of Bharatanatyam was while on tour with the Battery Dance Company as a modern dancer. In 1995 I was a part of the original 'Purush: Expressions of Man' tour which celebrated male dancers from India and the USA. At that time, I was a modern dancer with the troupe. How great it was to tour around with male dancers from the forms of Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kathakali and Kuchipudi. Watching Guru C V Chandrashekar and the then young Keerthik Nair perform, put the inspiration in my heart. I knew then, I wanted to experience this art. To see those dancers, was like turning a corner for me, life has never been the same.

There are many schools of Bharatanatyam like the popular Kalakshetra, Pandanallur and Vazhuvoor. What made you choose the Balasaraswati style?
Interesting question. I don't think I chose it at first. In Manhattan, there were not many places where one could learn Bharatanatyam. Anita Ratnam did tell me of a teacher in NY by the name of Kamala Cesar who was an American disciple of T Balasaraswati. In 1995, when I began my studies, style didn't mean much to me. All I knew was I wanted to experience and learn. Kamala began to introduce Balama's bani through the teaching of Adavus and the approach of Abhinaya. In 1997, I returned to India to teach modern dance but then decided I wanted to dive deeper into the style, I began my studies with Nandini Ramani, the torch bearer of this tradition. Nandini-ma was able to impart her strict teaching style and her subtle approach to Abhinaya inspires me whenever I learn from her... nothing is overdone. I am having the privilege of studying with Priyamvada Sankar (living in Montreal), Balama's seniormost disciple and sister of Nandini-ma. Priyamvada-ma brings a different aesthetic to her teaching of this art; to see her perform is a treat for the eye and heart. The combination of all the above mentioned I can now say I am glad I have stumbled upon Balasaraswati's Sampradaya. I would not have it any other way.

Are you the only African American to perform Bharatanatyam? How does it feel? How have your classical dance performances been received?
I am not sure if I am the only African-American performing this art. I must say I have not seen or heard of any other performing in the USA or abroad. I don't have any special feeling towards being African- American performing Bharatanatyam. I don't think of myself as an African-American performing Bharatanatyam, I AM A DANCER PERFORMING. The beauty of dance is, it should go beyond race... when a dancer arrives on the stage, the dance takes over.

My performances have been well received. Many Indians have come up to me to express their joy to see me perform with so much dedication and love for this art. I performed at a private school here in New York a few years back. A south Indian woman originally from Chennai came up to me to say she enjoyed the program. The following year, this woman brought her grand daughter to Dakshina Palli to study with me. That was a moving moment for me; the grand daughter is now an advance student of my organization. I will share a quote with you from an audience member from a performance I gave in San Francisco two years back.

"Your adavus are very strong and your abhinaya is just very powerful and utterly poignant and moving." From a disciple of C Subbaraya Pillai.

How difficult is it for you to understand the lyrics/meanings of the songs you perform to?
My gurus give very clear and thorough explanation and translation of the poetry. At times, I will take it upon myself to do additional research on the item. It is interesting... after a while one begins to build a vocabulary, as many of the words repeat in other items. At times, I do wish the language was my first language (smile) but with good teachers I don't feel at a loss. I had the opportunity to study a little Tamil in NYC. What a great teacher I had, she made sure I knew how to write first. I can now go back to some of the Tamil items I have learned from Nandini-ma and review and read those notes. I am proud of that small accomplishment.

You give regular Bharatanatyam performances in the US. Do you continue to perform the western contemporary style also?
I don't perform modern dance as much as I used to, there is so little time. My organization Dakshina Palli keeps me busy; I began a career in health as well. I ran my own Freeman Repertory Modern Dance Company from 1989-2003. I continue to choreograph in modern dance when I am given projects. I continue my visits to India to conduct workshops in various cities as I did from 1997-2006 teaching in the cities of Chennai, Bangalore, Kerala, Kolkata, Lucknow, Delhi, Mumbai as well as Sri Lanka.

With so many Bharatanatyam dance teachers everywhere, how do you manage to get students to enroll in your school? What about your teaching experiences in imparting your knowledge?
As stated before, in Manhattan where our organization is based, there are not many institutions or individuals teaching. Dakshina offers students a consistent study program, meaning, we don't allow drop in or single classes. Students must come for regular class every week. Many students with Dakshina Palli are familiar with Balama's style and wish to learn in this tradition. We have students who have learned from other teachers in other styles and have observed our classes and have made the decision to relearn in Balama's bani. Students who come from other styles must relearn, we don't do any picking up from where one has left off.

I don't claim by any means to be a master teacher or guru. Our tradition is such a small community and all I wish to do in whatever way I can is to continue to pass on the priceless repertoire that I am learning from my gurus. I am still learning and growing in this art but I give my students my best and undivided attention. I feel a good teacher must continue to learn. I have taught modern dance and performed for 21 years, so I come with a skill in pedagogy and a skill in performing. I bring to my students the best of both worlds.

Any particular plans with regard to your Bharatanatyam dance career?
I hope to continue to learn, that is my main goal. I want to know more and experience more. I have wanted for so long to showcase and feature Balasaraswati's tradition, to show it is still around, that there are disciples performing. In 2008, Dakshina Palli formed its National Touring Program in the USA. I am now taking my program around the US. The program has been performed in the cities of Fort Lauderdale, San Francisco, Charleston and Indianapolis with upcoming programs in New Orleans and Boise Idaho. I want to see Balama's tradition continue, this is my only desire. This art has given me so much joy and spiritual awakening; this is my way of giving back.