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July 1, 2013

Still floating on the memories and experience of a wonderful musical collaboration on the last day of June, I write this message on a high note. Listening to Anil Srinivasan (piano), Jayanthi Kumaresh (veena) and V Shekhar (cello) was a testament to superb art and creativity on a happy collision course. As a dancer I was jealous. How easily the three systems met, diverted and blended.... So much less troublesome than the human body that binds and ties us down with cultural specificity, density and gravity.

June was highlighted by my week long trip to Russia – a country so distant in my imagination with my mind screen jostling with images of Dr. Zhivago, White Nights, sinister looking men, very large women, vodka/caviar and the brilliant writings of Tolstoy, Chekov and Dostoyevsky. The Indian artiste community, however, have a very different story from the bleak and ominous country that most of us have of Russia. Ask Guru Maya Rao, who admits that she has left a part of her heart in Moscow several decades ago. The courtesy, admiration and adoration for artistes in this nation are still very palpable. Ballet is a revered art form and the many exquisite museums for dance and theatre are shining examples of how a people who braved wars, starvation, bombing and deprivation still refused to tear down their cultural edifices and actually rebuilt them square inch by square inch when Hitler's troops retreated in 1941. I walked in the vast expanse of the Red Square and the Kremlin where Chandralekha showcased her famous NAMASKAR production for the Festival of India in 1985. She opened with "Pavamana Suthudu Battu," the traditional Mangalam or final song of a Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam programme. The words of the song contained "Rajiva Nayana Tyaga" – O Lotus eyed One. And Rajiv Gandhi was watching as Indian Prime Minister!

My days were spent marvelling at the sheer scale and magnificence of their theatres – the Bolshoi and the Kirov are so much more than anything I had imagined or read about. The theatre at L'Hermitage, the superb Amber Room were more visual treats, almost too much beauty to absorb in one visit. Catching an impromptu performance of a Russian quartet lookalikes of the Italian IL DIVO hunks while roaming in the gardens of Queen Catherine's Winter Palace was a serendipitous treat. Watching ballet classes and listening to many tour guides who patiently and proudly led me to the museum-homes of prima ballerina Galina Ulanova and poet Alexander Pushkin, marvelling at carefully preserved costumes, original librettos of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, lithographs, letters and rare photographs in more than five museums for the performing arts showed me how a cash rich economy and a bling- loving consumer base can still protect and preserve the treasures of their nation. Looking at the worn ballet shoes of famous divas sharing space in a small display area was a touching moment that reminded me of the tough and arduous world of a dancer. Just look at our feet! They are not a pretty sight!

Today Russians are everywhere – shopping the world and buying everything with their new found wealth. But the government continues to pour billions into the ballet, theatre, literature, music and all creative ventures. While the idea of SOFT SKILLS is being touted as an Indian USP, we in India do so little for our cultural ambassadors or our precious heritage. I am told that our culture spending is less than 1% of our total budget! Shame!

However, do not think that all young Russians know the names of Pavlova, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Diaghilev or Plisetskaya. At a wine tasting of a newly opened Moscow nightclub, many twenty-somethings stared at me when I mentioned these names. And so did two business men from Taiwan who I met at the hotel's breakfast room. When I told them how much I admired Lin Hwai-min, Artistic Director of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, they stared blankly and said they had never heard of him! In fact, the guide at the Ulanova Museum told me sadly that the present dancers of the Moscow Bolshoi have not bothered to come to visit the home and neither have the students whom Ulanova trained and mentored! So it is much the same story in urban centres around the world. Despite the gruesomely horrendous airport experience that made me remember the Soviet days before 'Perestroika' and 'Glasnost,' in spite of bad international press, crude oligarchs, brutal mafia dons and gorgeous models apart, Russia is one country that has left a very deep impression on me. I look forward to visiting again! If only to sail again on the night waters of St Petersburgh's canals and experience the famously invigorating Russian baths!

Before travelling to Russia, I was in the scenic city of Bhubaneswar for SAMAKALA, the annual contemporary dance festival produced and presented by the Odisha Tourism Department. I have to raise a hearty cheer to Mr. A K Tripathy, the dynamic Secretary of Tourism and his able team for a truly superb effort. From the moment I arrived at the airport until my departure, I had a personal assistant who never left my side, accompanied me for my purchases of saris and bedspreads (I am a fashionista – what can I say!) and acted as translator and media relations manager. The uber wonderful Aruna Mohanty's curatorial vision had included five dancers from India and Ramli Ibrahim from Malaysia (although Ramli is an honorary Oriya bhai by now) to showcase solo and ensemble presentations in a well attended and extremely well organised festival. For the first time in more than a decade, my tech director, Victor Paulraj, did not need to haggle with or harangue the local team about working late, hanging and focusing lights. All that we requested was made available and a sense of courtesy and genuine warmth was palpable. My three part presentation of "About HER" was well received. Although my opening piece based on Sita's refusal to accompany Hanuman as an escape route back to Rama was neither understood nor grasped through five repetitive and accumulated gestures, I enjoyed presenting two excerpts from the Tagore production AVANI, which were appreciated and applauded. The morning after, I visited some Odissi schools and was struck at the high standard of dancing. This is surely the golden age of Odissi dance and music with demand for teachers, performers and DVDs of this style surpassing the popularity of Bharatanatyam and Kathak worldwide! With almost 23 dance and music festivals produced throughout the year, this one state is showing the rest of India – and especially my home state of Tamilnadu – that if there is a dynamic individual at the helm of a state institution who wishes to make a difference – IT CAN BE DONE. Bravo Tripathy-ji and your terrific team!

In Chennai, the Music Academy inaugurated the TAG Digital Archives for Dance. This is a long cherished vision of the Academy Committee who have yet to face the issues surrounding artiste copyrights and other points that may emerge in the coming months. But good news it is for the dance community who now have a chance to view some amazing historical footage of great dancers who have stepped onto the mainstage of this important cultural landmark.

My travels to varied countries and cities over the first half of 2013 have given me time to think about the crucial need for effective documentation and archiving. Watching the superb condition of 18th and 19th century theatre, dance and music artefacts in Russia, we now know that technology exists to maintain and preserve important objects and memorabilia. In India the focus is so heavily weighted towards performance alone that the value of teaching, process and methodology gets lost in the hoopla and halogens. In one of the many museums I visited, historical photographs and pamphlets were embedded in four rows of tall room dividers! Sliding them out or swivelling them around in any order served as a visual history mosaic as well as cutting off a room from the main space. A marvellous idea!

Elsewhere around the world, Indian dance is making its way slowly, surely and regularly into the mainstream media of the US and UK. Recent successful performances by several Indian choreographers and western directors working with Indian dance motifs for theatre have once again revealed the long and historic relations between jazz dancing, modern dance and the language of gestures. Scholar Uttara Coorlawalla has several interesting insights into these pre-colonial connections between the dance cultures of India and the West.

As the annual PURUSH conference/festival approaches, I have been watching and speaking to many male dancers in the cities I visit and live in. What continues to surface is the delicate and unspoken issues of sexuality and identity. Mandeep Raikhy's premiere of his contemporary work THE MALE ANT HAS STRAIGHT ANTENNAE had a mostly positive reception in New Delhi but the subtexts of choice, gender and social power structures came through clearly in the rehearsals I watched – although somewhat diffidently. Classical male dancers who are unable to articulate sexuality issues then become awkwardly hyper-feminine on stage with red lipstick and un-aesthetic costumes. What are the male gurus transmitting in the name of tradition? How do the gurus themselves see their dual roles as teachers/performers often competing for the same performance opportunities as their protιgιs? Canadian choreographer Hari Krishnan's new work "I-Cyclops" confidently concludes with a surprising "gay kiss" on stage. New York Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay described the moment as "both arresting and absurd." Does cultural conditioning dictate choreography choices? These are interesting questions that the conference hopes to explore or at least raise.

I sign off and immediately begin another journey winging my way again across the oceans. This time, my travels are a combination of performances, lectures, conferences, family reunions and personal downtime. It has been a particularly hectic time for me but the invitations cannot be ignored as a dancer's life is both fragile and brief. Maybe I will see some of you in transit as the annual mass exodus begins from the West towards India for the various dance intensives.

I slip into my Fit Flops and wish you all the ease and warmth of summer holidays, sandy beaches and balmy days.

Stay well, stay positive and stay alive to the joy and power of the dance!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ New York/ Laguna Beach/ London/ Florence/ Barcelona

Twitter: @aratnam
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