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March 1, 2012

For the first time - in a long time – this latest overseas trip was more personal than anything else. Oh yes…  I did the single dance workshop, the one performance, the lone lecture demonstration and single conference appearance, but the three weeks were spent recovering old friendships and reconnecting with important memories of my student days.

New Orleans at Mardi Gras is another planet. The dimensions of uninhibited partying, day long OTT campy dressing, exquisite masks worn and paraded in broad daylight and fabulous jazz music all day in the French Quarter has remained in the’ Big Easy’ (the nickname for the city like Big Apple for New York) for over a century. Walking into the Drama Department of the University of New Orleans, where I was a graduate student of Theatre and Television, and stepping onto the boards of the main stage where I performed, danced and acted in so many student productions was a pleasant time travel moment.  The campus is all spruced up, the cafeteria looks more elegant though all around are ravaged homes and  boarded up residences as witnesses to the devastation of hurricane Katrina. Watching the fabulous marching and dancing groups during the Mardi Gras parades reminded me of the new category in the Olympics from this year – Artistic Dance. A combination of gymnastics, choreography and whatever else, dance as a spectator sport has come of age.

Des Moines, Iowa, took me face to face with 74 year old Penny (Thangam) Furgerson, who migrated to the mid west USA 50 years ago and established Gateway Dance Theatre. Not in the NRI celebrity guru and dancer list, Penny brings her personal homemade warmth and generosity to her students and all her interdisciplinary collaborations from performance, drumming, music, theatre and fashion productions. Also in Des Moines, I tried the exquisite Aqua Detox treatments for hands and feet, where tiny electronic signals sent through warm water removed deeply embedded toxins from my body in 30 minutes. The clear water changes into an unappealing muddy colour and the chemist analyses the sediments to warn me of which glands and muscle areas are of concern. Now THAT is something that dancers who are exploring newer ways of staying clean and healthy should seriously look into. It felt totally fantabulous!

London was an entirely different ball game. Arts presenter and producer extraordinaire – Mira Kaushik (AKADEMI) – accomplished an exciting mix of writers, dancers, actors, choreographers, directors, scenographers and academics for her day long discussion of the “abstract” in South Asian dance. LOOKING FOR THE INVISIBLE was the enigmatic title which was discussed and illuminated through the many short talks and presentations the challenges that our classical dance training and traditions seem to have with the idea of Abstraction.  The evening was capped by the breathtaking multimedia performance by Kathak-BN performer Aakash Odedra. His four solos had three “duets” with magnificent lighting and stage craft in which kinetically demanding choreography became more “dance design” than choreography. Aakash is the latest sensation from the UK, though his post performance comments sounded too pat and a little too smug. Well… he is 24 and an exciting performer. Humility? Wazzat? 

Akram Khan was hobbling around with a broken leg but was as charming as ever. Excited about dancing in the Olympics and his tour of India this September, he remains the uber superstar of contemporary dance and Britain’s poster boy for the triumph of their multicultural arts policy.

Watching Aakash perform and an earlier memory of Aditi Mangaldas’s shows in India brings me to the importance of lighting and staging our classical dances for the international stage. Aditi is being encouraged by Akram and she is always like a sponge, wanting to explore, improve and expand her art and production standards. Lynne Fernandez has brought a sophisticated staging for the neo classical repertoire of Nrityagram, currently on a US tour. None of our BN divas have invested in that kind of stage and lighting design. Content with rim lighting and garish colours that often clash with their silk and gold costumes, the wonderful dancing of Malavika, Priyadarsini and Rama could benefit so enormously by a truly inspired lighting designer. Who said that lighting is only for contemporary dance? Just imagine an ensemble of 25 BN dancers lit and enhanced beautifully on a magnificent mainstage in Europe, USA or China. The kinetic richness of the style will benefit enormously in today’s changed environment when audiences want to engage with professional and sophisticated presentations. If only… if only…
This year we had that extra day in February – 29th. A day which marked the birth anniversary of the magnificent Rukmini Devi Arundale and the annual classical dance festival at the Kalakshetra auditorium named in her memory. For the last 8 years, the sprawling campus has become witness to sea changes in programming and a variety of events from classical and contemporary dance, month long workshops, lectures, international residencies and soon to be opened high tech main theatre.  Kudos to the never flagging zeal of Director Leela Samson and here’s wishing that even though she wears many hats, that she continues to live in my home town and bring her unique ‘zing’ to the 75 year old legacy of Bharatanatyam’s holy grail. 

OUTLOOK magazine was conducting a national survey about the kind of President the Republic of India should have. I recounted the moment many years ago when Rukmini Devi was a strong candidate for that post. Can a dancer be the President of this complex country? The question can be discussed but the life of a performing artiste involves a high degree of necessary narcissism.  Perhaps a successful NGO worker like Ela Bhatt or a corporate like Ratan Tata would be a good choice. People who have connections with swathes of people across various social demographics in urban and rural areas and a high degree of accountability within their respective organizations.  As long as it is not a cricketer, fashion designer, chef or movie star who currently dominate media and all public discourse. 

I continue to be amazed and humbled by the popularity and success of this web portal. Dancers approach me in airports, where I am waiting for a connection and discuss an editorial I wrote months ago with enthusiasm. They argue with my comments about dancers they adore – Priyadarsini and Rama are the current favourites of the US circuit. E-mails appear within minutes of these thoughts which are sent out by the superbly efficient team of Lalitha and Sumathi unfailingly on the first of each month. There is so much more to do and the new convergence of APPS and delivery systems to our handhelds, I-pads and androids must be explored. YouTube has become the mandatory screening and viewing of any dancer and more links need to be made for diversity of voices. But the bare truth is that the most interested visitor to this site is the average dancer who lives OUTSIDE India. It is there that our site becomes the “daily darshan” for thousands and the news and interviews – though of varying standards – gets the most  readership. As I travel the world and share the remarkable story of, I send my gratitude for all those who believed in the little voice that whispered into my ear 13 years ago, “Build it and they will come.” 

This is the month of the national performing arts awards and in New Delhi (SNA awards), the best of India’s artistes and the emerging generation will be performing as well as receiving their awards from the President of India.  For a reminder of the list of awardees, click here.  

Shivaratri is behind us and Holi is ahead. Spring colours are everywhere and the heat is on. Enjoy the colours as you shed the layers of wool and coverings. Look to the joy in your step and the lightness in your hearts. Dance is a wonderful connector of hearts and bodies.

Until next time.

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Delhi / Mumbai

Twitter: @aratnam
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