Follow us

Ellen Stewart: Embracing world theatre and dance for fifty years
(Nov 7, 1919 - Jan 13, 2011)
- Rajika Puri, New York

January 18, 2011

Ellen Stewart, the founder and director of the famous - and sometimes infamous! - New York experimental theatre club, La Mama, was a force of nature, a true earth mother in spite of her relatively petite form. For fifty years she nurtured artists whose work was on the cutting edge - actors, writers, and directors, dancers, musicians and composers - and gave them the resources with which to produce their work. She also gave them a home, in fact, often literally housed them. The roster of talent is a virtual "Who's Who" of the theatre/music/dance world: Peter Brook, Julie Taymor, Al Pacino, Bette Midler, and Philip Glass, to name a handful.

A striking personality, known for her thick mane and colourful scarves and bracelets, Ellen's vision always encompassed the world. As early as her first season in a basement on East 9th Street, she presented a Korean play. Thereafter, included in the programming were productions not only from Europe but from Africa, Hispano-America and Asia including, of course, India which she recognized as being a fount of world theatre. In 1971, at about the time that I first moved to New York, she set up with Cecile Guidote of the Philippines the Third World Institute of Theatre Arts Studies TWITAS, which, incidentally, had a temporary home in Mumbai during that year.

In the '70s and '80s, I remember La Mama's current home at West 4th Street as the hub of activity for many of us dancers from India. Ellen used to call me "one of her granddaughters" and would introduce me to other TWITAS artists, urging me to do something with my dance. In 1979, I participated in Cecile Guidote's Third World Liturgy, a mass in which each section was performed by an art form from a different part of the world. On another multi-cultural evening, Uttara Coorlawala danced to a lilting 'bhajan' in English. A highlight was the 1981 Ramayana, which included Indrani's son, the photographer Ram Rahman, as a Balinese-style Ravana!

Apart from presenting Indian dancers like Medha Yodh, a shishya of Balasaraswati (1978), Darpana with Mrinalini and Mallika Sarabhai (1983), Ellen, whose interest was ever in developing theatrical work, also organized workshops in Indian dance for local actors. Fascinated by Kathakali, she incorporated as an integral part of the TWITAS Ensemble a Kathakali dancer-choreographer (and writer of the above mentioned Ramayana) from Bengal, Sukhendu Dutt, for whom a Shraddhanjali was held when he died in 1982. As late as 2002, Ellen, who also had a deep connection with the mythologies of the world, herself directed the 'new Kathakali opera' Draupadi, which included participation of a team of Kathakali dancers, musicians and a make-up artist whom she went to Kerala to assemble.

Beyond the works presented in New York, Ellen toured La Mama productions all over the world and established La Mama centres in Canada, Tel Aviv, Italy. From La Mama were launched several theatre companies, now flourishing, like the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre which produced the world premier of the English translation of Vijay Tendulkar's 'Ghashiram Kotwal' (1985); involvement in this production as choreographer led to my own adjunct career in western theatre. Acknowledged internationally (she received the MacArthur 'genius award' in 1985 and awards from the governments of Japan, France and the Philippines), Ellen became a national icon and was inducted into the Broadway Hall of Fame in '89 a singular honour for someone who was the 'mama' of Off Off Broadway. A veritable Titan, with an enormous heart, large enfolding arms, and god-like vision, her spirit endures in all our works, our aspirations, our hearts.

Rajika Puri, a shishya of Sikkil Ramaswamy Pillai and of Debaprasad Das, is best known for a form of danced story telling in which she accompanies her dancing with narratives in English, and songs and chants in Sanskrit. She also writes, and is a board member of the Dance Critics Association (US).