We believe in championing all beauty,
Living with courage,
And standing fearlessly together
To celebrate our differences
Even if we stumble
We will never stop
Building a community where
Diversity if expected
Self expression is honoured
And YOU are included
- Hoardings inside SEPHORA make up stores in NYC to mark PRIDE MONTH
Are we already at the half way mark of the year?
We are just getting the hang of readjusting to a post-Covid world. The murmurs of yet another wave looming is not a dampener for the majority who are travelling and vacationing with a vengeance.
In New York City, where I visited for a brief 7 days, masks were off but theatres were still asking for Vaccination proof as well as masking up indoors. The streets, bars, stores, cinema halls, Broadway theatres, ballet and opera houses and auditoriums were completely packed with tourists and many Americans who were travelling to the Big Apple after two years. It was lovely to feel the electric vibe of this city pumping again.
June is PRIDE MONTH and yet another opportunity for each of us in the creative industries to stop and take a look at our own lives and to examine how inclusive we have been over the past two years. I think of all those non binary artistes - some of whom are lucky to have found their soul mates and others who are still struggling for visibility and connections. As an ally, all I can say is "I see you. I hear you."
As if on cue, the Pakistani Trans drama JOYLAND won the QUEER PALM awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Salim Sadiq, the film tells the story of a son of a patriarchal family who is expected to marry and produce a child. Instead, he joins an erotic dance theatre company and falls for the troupe's director, a trans woman.
#CURATING WITH CARE
May - my birthday month - began with the superbly curated DR MAYA RAO CONFERENCE in Bengaluru. Meticulously planned and produced by Madhu Nataraj and her capable team at NATYA, this 5 hour event was packed with such an intriguing mix of talks and performances held at the Bangalore International Centre.
Mental health experts, museum curators, dance managers, media experts, folk musicians, social entrepreneurs, food researchers - each speaker brought exciting insights and intersections with the performing arts world. Mental health expert Prabha Chandra enthusiastically stated that dance was among the best activities to alleviate depression. She also suggested that we should strive to engage in only MEANINGFUL GATHERINGS - a coming together of people who will support and encourage one another. Malavika Sarukkai spoke wonderfully about staying the course and acknowledging the sometimes punishing rigours of being a dancer. Her lasting words came from a sign she saw on a giant tree, "THIS WAS ONCE A SEED THAT STOOD ITS GROUND". Words that resonated with every member of the audience long after the event concluded.
Madhu Nataraj and her excellent technical team ensured that all bio datas and relevant background material on each speaker was not read out but projected onto a giant screen with only the essential bullet points, thus saving time and allowing each session to segue into the next without a blip. The seamless removing and placing of furniture and tables between short performances ( beautifully executed by the NATYA STEM KAMPNI) was itself like a production, and the strict time keeping ensured that attention spans did not flag.
The fourth edition of the conference has set a bench mark and will be hard to surpass!
#WHOSE GAZE IS IT ANYWAY?
Even as the excitement faded after the PECDA Contemporary dance festival and competition in Bangalore last month, questions were being tossed around about why an ALL WHITE jury represented the judging for contemporary dance in India. Is validation from the Euro Centric/Anglo west still so important? Perhaps the questions carry a double edged sword. It is only in Western nations that the entire eco system of funding, grants, touring opportunities is in place. MainStage invitations and professional treatment of dance artistes has been the practice for nearly 50 years. An invitation to SADLERS WELLS, SOUTHBANK CENTRE or THE JOYCE continues to carry prestige around the world. When Bijayini Satpathy spends a whole year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a residency, it skyrockets her brand. Even though Bijayini continues to only perform slow motion Odissi in the various spaces of the MET, the tweaked music (vocalist Bindhumalini sings effectively in a variety of Indian accents and styles) and the gorgeous non proscenium backdrops of the cultural centre automatically lend a new patina to an age old style. For my eyes, Bijayini is not creating new movement or responding to the site specific interventions in a radical or fresh way. However, it is almost hypnotic to watch a beautifully trained dancer execute each bend and move to mechanical precision. So what if some of us find Bijayini too clinical? She is a diva to the WHITE EUROPEAN WEST and is smart enough to know where her star brand will be further enhanced.
# YOUNG GUNS ARE TOP GUNS
The June issue of TIME magazine featured the movers and shakers of the world. Looking at the list was a cascade of young talent being hailed as "the next big names to watch". The only dancer in the list was Ariana de Bose, the first openly queer woman to win the Oscar. Several musicians, film stars, social workers and politicians made the list. My idol Rafael Nadal was the only sportsperson in the roster. The Indian names were Karuna Nandy, Supreme Court lawyer, Bella Bavaria the television hit maker and business behemoth Gautam Adani.
The dominance of young talent in several fields as lodestars of the future of our planet was worth taking a moment to consider. This impatient surge of ideas and inventive curiosity is hard to ignore or brush off any more.
As I watched NO RESERVATIONS, a food travelogue and television series featuring the enigmatic chef Anthony Bourdain, I noticed the episode that was filmed in Paris featuring a slew of young chefs who were breaking all rules and redefining casual/fine dining on their own terms. Watching and tasting these new dishes was a multiple Michelin star French chef who praised, applauded and confessed that these young chefs were "brilliant artistes". They cared less about the stars or awards but were determined to make great food available at accessible prices.
What do young dancers and musicians REALLY think about our Padma awardees and senior dancers? Do they TRULY respect and admire many of us or is it mere lip service? Do they wish to follow in the footsteps of their esteemed gurus or break out on their own? Are their comments just lip service? Observing the enormous fan following of some dancers on social media and the comments their short videos elicit, I wonder if today's millennials are genuinely concerned about my generation and older artistes who have spent more than 50 years in the practice of dance. Does experience matter anymore? Is dance such a casual consumption for free watching, a cursory discussion over coffee and then forgotten? Can this jittery, wound-up generation pause for a moment - on stage and off- to allow themselves to be truly "seen"?
#OLD IS NOT GOLD
With Ananda Shankar Jayant, Jaya teacher, Shangita Namashivayam
An impromptu visit to Kalakshetra's beloved Jayalakshmi teacher occurred in Chennai. Ananda Shankar and fellow Kalakshetra alumni Shangita Namashivayam flew down to visit with the ailing octogenarian guru. Jaya teacher was in good spirits and delighted to see us. As she meandered through her memory bank, the obvious adoration and respect she had for Rukmini Devi was apparent. I watched her graceful face and wondered how many of her own students visited her and how easy it was to forget those who taught, nurtured and helped us during our teenage years at Kalakshetra. Jaya teacher, along with Neila Sathyalingam made my years in that institution bearable. There were many times that I was in tears and almost quit with the punishing schedules and disparaging remarks I would get from two of my teachers. Those very same remarks would be construed as unacceptable today but Jaya teacher helped smooth out the wrinkles and always found a way to make me smile.
#BEYOND OUR REACH
So, classical dance is expensive. Classical dancers are elitist and privileged. It is contemporary dance that is inclusive. This is the popular chant. That contemporary dance attracts the young and restless and that classical dance is for the more mature generation. While this may be partially true, I watched the iconic American choreographer Trisha Brown's company at the JOYCE and observed the median age group as being 50 years. Tickets for the main theatres of dance in Europe, UK, North America and elsewhere are not affordable. My orchestra seat cost $65 US - not something a young person wants to spend for 90 minutes.
To combat that price barrier, every modern dance company in the US participates in the summer outdoor festivals all across the country. The shows are free for all and held in outdoor venues - parks, riverside boardwalks and gardens. Marquee names are often featured and are a great way of making the best of contemporary dance and theatre available to every citizen. In India, since most of the dance shows are free anyway, this system is moot. But it is an idea worth considering.
#TRISHA BROWN PEDAGOGY
Trisha Brown Dance Company
Seated next to me at the JOYCE was a young-ish man who remarked that Trisha's works were part of the Syllabus in his dance department. With the Indian system of guru and sishya still fairly feudal, it is time for the young dancers to not only study dance history but also the life and artistic works of our great performers. YouTube is a great resource but nobody has actually codified our generation of senior choreographers and their processes. This would contextualise Indian classical and contemporary dance traditions for the past 75 years alongside the nation's growth.
In the first of two pieces FORAY/FORET, the dancers moved in silence while I heard the faint sounds of the Indian wedding band in the distance. I thought it was a sound coming from the street but it grew louder and was unmistakably a "desi" band in full play. The programme notes said that Trisha Brown heard the bands play in a nearby street when she visited Barcelona, Spain. But the tunes were pure Bollywood! The familiar hits "Mehendi Lagake Rakhna" and "Buddameezi Dil" were hard to miss.
The sounds grew louder as the dance progressed and the finale was 5 musicians dressed in the shiny satin red jackets playing the trumpet, trombone, saxophone and drums walking across the stage! I must have been the only audience member smiling widely and tapping my feet!
Bollywood via Barcelona and onto the main stage of the JOYCE in New York City!
#THE NOVEL AS A DANCE TEXT
There is much excitement of a Hindi novel becoming the first of its kind to win the prestigious Booker Prize for writing. Proudly holding up her book TOMB OF SAND was Geetanjali Shree along with her English translator Daisy Rockwell. The story of an 80 year old woman who decides to travel to Pakistan has shattered the linguistic glass ceiling for writing. This award has highlighted that not all the best writing has to be in English and that indigenous languages hold vitality, humour and astonishing exuberance. If only we had more adaptations of books into dance productions like FOREST OF ILLUSIONS and LIFE OF PI, the repertoire would become invigorated and more diverse.
Even the fictitious meeting of RAM and BHIM from our legends made for the compelling hit movie RRR. What if Sita and Draupadi met? What if Andal and Lal Ded had a conversation? The possibilities are endless and the field is wide open.
We will start seeing more and more compilations of how the two year Covid pandemic have impacted the arts, particularly the live arts. Several universities and private foundations have spurred scholars and students to focus on the crippling and, sometimes, surprising effects of the on-and-off hiatus for the performing arts. More importantly, it is interesting to see how some dancers have condensed their experiences into an evening of art and how they have chosen to distill their individual journeys for a public sharing. Geeta Chandranís IN SEARCH OF INFINITY is one such effort as was Malavika Sarukkaiís ANUBANDH.
For finally, Art is that piece of the giant puzzle that helps the understanding of oneself and our belonging to family, community, city, country and the world.
Until next time
Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Reykjavik (Iceland)
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
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