“In all affairs, it is a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”
- Bertrand Russell
After two years, I returned to the USA. And spent most of my time walking the streets, absorbing the gorgeous Fall colours in Central Park and observing the many changes that Covid had forced upon this vibrant city. Especially in the arts. As Martin Wechsler, consultant for New York’s FALL FOR DANCE festival confessed, “Even as dancers stayed home with no shows, the producers, directors, fund raisers, editors, camera people and administrators worked harder than ever to keep this sector alive and ready for a time of return.”
A highlight during my brief trip was to be present at opening night for the MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY. As I settled into my seat, a loud cheer rippled through the packed auditorium. Spontaneous. Joyous. The deep carmine velvet curtain shimmered for a second before it quietly rose. A collective breath was held. The music began. The dancers emerged. A loud sigh was audible as the Martha Graham Company opened their Fall season at New York’s JOYCE THEATRE.
The programme contained some old favourites and one world premiere. DIVERSION OF ANGELS, first created in 1948, introduced audiences to the very recognisable movement pedagogy developed by Graham. The extended arms, palms facing outward. The crunched torso, the undulating spine (gorgeous!), the arched neck (Graham was inspired by wolves!). Each movement reminded me of how “classical” the Graham technique now looked in the 21st century and how radical it must have been when this adventurer first set out to create her own language 90 years ago.
The solo IMMEDIATE TRAGEDY (first danced by Graham in 1937) was re-imagined through recently discovered photographs. It was in one word – mesmerizing! Inspired by the resistance of the Spanish civil war, Xin Ying danced a masterful cameo of abhinaya - the pliant body ‘speaking’ with determination and resilience. A perfect metaphor for our times!
Truly a piece of modern American art is APPALACHIAN SPRING. Created and performed by Martha Graham accompanied by her life and dance partner Erik Hawkins with the young Merce Cunningham playing the preacher, this classic appeared as fresh as it was first danced in 1944. The story of a pioneering woman with her dreams of a promised homeland, this is a classic in the Graham repertoire, much like REVELATIONS is for the Alvin Ailey company. There were many elders in the audience who spoke with reverence of how impactful it was when they first saw it in the 1960s.
What passion New Yorkers hold for dance! All dance! Curious. Exploratory. Modern. Classical. Contemporary. Mixed movement. There are crowds and ticket buyers for every kind of artistic expression. I was reminded of what this fabulous and complex city holds for all creative souls. There is no other place in the entire world that offers the diversity of arts and culture in that slim strip of land called Manhattan.
For me, the short trip to the USA was made much more meaningful with this single evening experience, facilitated by the one and only New York dance patron Rajika Puri, who never ceases to amaze me with her vision for Indian dance in the USA.
And talk about the thrill of meeting writer Karen Greenspan who exclaimed, “Anita Ratnam - NARTHAKI! The wonderful dance portal I read so often!” Now that was a moment that could not be stage managed!
Did I miss living in NYC? A part of me, that loves the variety of artistic expression, the sympatico with other rasikas and the sheer range of excellence has always spurred me to reach higher and go further, DOES wish it was closer to my Chennai. For it was in NYC that I hit my stride and found my voice as a cultural commentator, television host and arts curator. But I love my India and am so fortunate to be able to live in the country of my passport and travel to the only other city I once called home - even if it was just to reboot and recharge in one week!
America is bustling. People are on the move. Theatres, auditoriums, stores, restaurants, transportation areas are crowded. Broadway is open and ticket lines are growing. Masks are everywhere. Vaccination certificates mandatory for every eating establishment. Movie theatres also demand to see it before allowing audience to enter. Entry to the JOYCE demanded showing the certificate. I wish we could implement that system in our auditoriums.
Part of the JOYCE programme booklet contained QR codes. One for the JOYCE THEATRE and its many dance connected programmes. The other QR code was for the MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY. It was a very effective way of introducing the programme notes, the artistes’ bios and the many classes that the company offers. The beautiful introduction by the Artistic Director Janet Eilber felt like a collective cheer and a new hope for an iconic company whose tag line reads:
MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY
THE FIRST. THE FUTURE.
Which other company can lay claim to that phrase. Only Martha. Only Graham.
# JAYA THE DANCER
When I left India soon after Navaratri, the talk around me was about the biopic of Tamilnadu’s beloved former leader J Jayalalithaa. Played earnestly by Kangana Ranaut, I discuss the film in the context of Jaya’s Bharatanatyam dance training. A brilliant student in every subject, Jaya was a charismatic dancer and briefly studied with Adyar K Lakshman who also conducted some of her programmes. I remember watching one at the Music Academy when the difficult Khamas ragam varnam ENTA NINNE was performed. Those of us who have learned and danced this composition know what a difficult varnam it is to deliver. The tough jathis, composed by mridangist Trichur P Ramanathan, demands the dancer to be at the top of her/his game. Jaya could not execute them in the original way and her training with Guru K J Sarasa lent a softer aesthetic to the overall effect. It was, however, a very good performance with her mentor actor/politician M G Ramachandran in the front row.
Kangana as Jayalalithaa in a brief dance scene was, in one word, APPALLING. She could not even hold a “katakamukha” HASTA properly. Thankfully, we were spared more attempts from that part of Jayalalithaa’s life.
# URMILA’s ARPANAM
My very first live dance event was early in October. It was Bharatanatyam dancer Urmila Sathyanarayana’s generous “Welcome back” gesture. A 3 day festival at Chennai’s Narada Gana Sabha auditorium was sparsely occupied with social distancing norms in place. I watched excellent dancing by URMILA’s students but missed the softer lines of the Vazhuvoor style of her training. The orchestra led by a very competent Saikrupa Prasanna kept up to the impossible speed of the jathis and long rhythm passages.
# A GLITCH, A GLOBAL HEART ATTACK
On October 4th the world stopped. At least it felt like we were all suspended. Facebook and Instagram had a glitch and there was a global panic. Had we been hacked? Would I lose all my hard won followers? Has somebody taken control of my handles and thereby, my voice? I was among the millions gripped by panic. But it was a sobering reminder of how much control we have handed over to these social media handles.
For a few hours, we the privileged had been silenced. We could not hold forth about our feelings and actions. We could not dance, sing, act, speak and pontificate. And yes, it was uncomfortable.
# A BOOK AND AN AWARD
There is a lot of brouhaha around corporate super diva Indra Nooyi and her new book MY LIFE IN FULL: WORK, FAMILY, AND OUR FUTURE. This Chennai girl, who has become a symbol of American dreams and the possibility of immigrant success, deserves all the accolades and applause she is receiving. I had the opportunity to meet her mother Shanta Krishnamurthy, a remarkable woman in her own right, during my New York trip. When complimenting her on her daughter’s book, she calmly replied, “Indra has worked so hard. A book is the inevitable outcome.” Mrs. Krishnamurthy is herself a prolific writer and a lifelong student, currently immersed in one of the numerous ancient Sanskrit texts of Sanatana Dharma.
Why does economic success define the contours and experience of the American Dream? What about the enormous legacy of Hema Rajagopalan, who has just been conferred the LEGACY AWARD by See Chicago Dance? Hema arrived in the USA earlier than Indra and has created a breathtaking body of work and a firm imprint on the Chicago/Midwest landscape of American dance. Why is Hema’s name or others from the Arts field been excluded from the new book KAMALA HARRIS AND THE RISE OF THE INDIAN AMERICANS?
What is it about our own community that only looks at a Mindy Kaling or a Padma Lakshmi as cultural examples of success? Dance and music from India appeared on the American landscape almost a century ago. Why are these cultural workers excluded from the inner circle of celebration?
Hema Rajagopalan and her generation of cultural pioneers need more focus, praise and celebration. What that generation has accomplished in 20th century America is a remarkable example of dreaming and daring.
#ANDAL & ANNAMAYYA
I am so excited to share my approach to an unusual song written by the famous 15th century Telugu poet who was undoubtedly Tirupati Venkateswara’s chief PR agent. A song in which the saint poet Andal creates a mild flutter in the protocol of Annamacharya’s approach to his CEO - Balaji garu. It is a perfect canvas for this ANDAL groupie to re-imagine and allow my ideas to soar. After all, it was in the Telugu imagination that ANDAL’s dreams and longing was realised. It was in the poetry of ANNAMACHARYA and later in Emperor Krishna Deva Raya’s AMUKTAMALYADA that all her erotic and love soaked poetry saw a happy conclusion. And it makes my own spirit smile when I have the opportunity to flesh out a theatrical retelling of one of India’s most beloved saint poets.
For registration to the TAMRAPATRA series, go to this link: tamrapatra.mystrikingly.com
# 30 YEARS LATER
The phenomenal success of DEVI DIARIES Season Two is very heartwarming. Over 31 days, we showcased 43 performances, world premieres and a diversity of styles. And it has reinforced the NARTHAKI brand as a platform that has consistently delivered original dance content that truly echoes the words “diversity”, “inclusivity” and “gender equity”. We are still learning as we grow and are constantly searching for better ways of communicating with our growing number of viewers and subscribers.
In the 30 years since the publication of the first dance phone book in 1992, we are on the cusp of change. Watch out for an IMPACT SURVEY that will be coming to each of you who have been the wind beneath our wings. I urge you to take the time to read and complete the form. It will be an important touchstone for our future plans.
Look out for some exciting events that we are planning. Travel and immersive culture. Small, personalised interactions. Up close with back stage preparations. The life and voice of a performing artiste has several layers. And we are excited about every flicker and breath that makes for the creative spirit to surge.
As corporations struggle to find more seductive ways of luring their employees back to the office, we, the dance community, are eager to get #backtothestage.
NCPA leads from the front with its live arts festival which will be certainly very well attended.
Thousands of young students packed dance studios around the world on October 15 for Vidyarambham - the beginning of their new artistic lives. What will they learn and realise about the splendour and complexity of the dance traditions? How will they learn the history of the form that has awkwardly yoked to the “great Indian tradition” bandwagon?
As the wonderful Bharatanatyam dancer Mythili Prakash prepares for the world premiere of SHE AUSPICIOUS in Germany, her programme notes may well contain references to the complex legacy of her artistic inheritance. Does writing on social media or programme notes distract from the core issue? Who gets a seat at the WOKE/COOL table these days? How is the hereditary community impacted by the voices of privilege? And after all the talking, arguing, romanticising and fetish-ness about/for/by traditional dancers, can today’s performative body actually shift?
The Chennai season is again going digital for the second year in a row.
Last year the dance component was so badly filmed that many dancers called to say “Please DON’T watch!”
So what WILL we watch? Online or in person? What choices will we make? How will the dance arts reflect this long hiatus? What about our attention spans? Can we quiet our itchy fingers?
Until next time,
HAPPY DEEPAVALI TO ALL! May the bright lights illuminate friendships, strengthen families and incinerate sloth and stupidity.
- Anita R Ratnam
New York / San Francisco / Chennai / Bengaluru / Mumbai / New Delhi
Yes... it has started again... my wandering feet!
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
Post your comments