The America Diaries
Chapter Two: New York, New York

December 14, 2007

It still IS one of the greatest cities in the world. Gotham, Manhattan, Sin City. Call it what you will but New York is the epicenter of so many things that are exciting, repelling and phantasmorphic. It is larger than life and still manages to infiltrate the most inert soul with its electric passion. It is also a cruel and uncaring city that watches daily failures, who jump off from the 35th floor of a Wall Street firm or walk uncaringly past a drunken bum or a homeless woman on the streets. This is one of the 'mostest' cities in the world, which also qualifies for writer Suketu Mehta's acronym given to Mumbai - "Maximum City."

This was my home throughout the eighties when I was a TV producer. I know each and every nook of this island called Manhattan - 2 miles across and 12 miles long, home to the wealthy, greedy, hungry, talented and ambitious. I have walked the streets holding mikes and TV cameras, put on my make up facing store windows, sat and dozed outside the UN building near the East River, tired and pregnant with my first child, while a kindly cop looked after me. I have been mugged, attacked by Khalistan supporters, stalked by a crazy fan, applauded and lauded in this city. I have been single, married and homeless. I have been scared, happy, sad, joyous. You name it - New York City has seen all my faces. Fact is that it is here that I learned about organization, deadlines, professionalism, interpersonal relationships; to earn respect from colleagues and most of all, how to maintain a sense of adventure while slogging and pushing myself to work harder than I ever thought I could!

So this was a homecoming of sorts for me. Although I had performed in the city on previous occasions, 7 GRACES being featured at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in 2005, not every dancing moment in New York was a memorable one. The Rubin gig was very successful but a subsequent appearance at the Indian Consulate was most forgettable. At the Joyce SoHo, the most important contemporary dance space in the city, 7 GRACES was scheduled for four nights in a row. A true test. Anyone who has seen the work knows how tough it is for a dancer to hold the stage for 51 minutes non stop. No exits, no costume changes, no pauses. Just all out dancing like a meditative trance - mandala. The performance, crafted in collaboration with my long time friend and choreographer Hari Krishnan, has amazed, moved and puzzled audiences wherever it has been performed - 30 shows in 7 countries - since its premiere in August 2005.

Before I continue with the experience of the performance itself, I would like to share the process of being selected to perform at Joyce SoHo. The key word is 'selected.' One cannot book the Joyce Soho like hiring a theatre in India. I had to apply, submit the necessary forms and sample DVDs, wait for the committee to review the work and then write to me about their approval. This may surprise many readers and diva dancers who do not believe in submitting to a transparent process and going through the democratic motions. No matter that you are a Padma awardee or someone adored and revered in your cultural constituency, you have to go through the process like everybody. If you are fortunate to be selected, then prepare yourself for a real treat. For so much less than it costs to rent halls like Kamani in New Delhi, Chowdiah in Bangalore or the Music Academy in Chennai for one full day, you are given the theatre for six days, lights, rehearsal space for a mere pittance of $10 an hour and the most incredible lighting director- a dynamo of a woman - Julie Ana Dobo. You also receive free publicity, e-mail marketing and program mailers that the Joyce staff produces for you and all the ticketing and box office support. All the staff at the theatre are dancers or artistes and the most supportive and friendly gang you can meet. It is up to you to fix ticket prices and you take home ALL the box office collections. So, most companies who are selected make a good profit from their Joyce engagement. But you have to be selected first.

In addition, it is up to you to print extra post cards or flyers and do your own marketing, which in a city like New York with over 200 shows a day, is very important. You can invite media and make sure the ticket sales are brisk with a focused effort. Just being booked at the Joyce SoHo does NOT guarantee a full house. Located in the very chic lower Manhattan area called Soho with expensive boutiques, art galleries and wonderful restaurants, this area of New York is not much favoured by the Indian community, being so much further than their normal geographical areas of mid town. However, with more and more Indian dancers moving to the New York area, the Joyce committee has found that the Indian dance engagements do very well with family, students, parents and friends usually filling the hall night after night.

The first two days of my technical rehearsals took four hours a day. In the large dancing space, it was rigorous, tiring but very useful. A long international flight from India had exhausted me and the cool autumn climate needed adjustment for my muscles. Adapting 7 GRACES to the Joyce SoHo stage with a wall behind me painted white for the DVD projection was a bit tricky at first. Julie was many people rolled into one. She climbed ladders, hung lights, worked the sound, brought me coffee and shared jokes almost round the clock as my locally hired assistant failed to turn up at crucial moments. Julie's commitment was amazing and inspiring.

The new set of program notes, designed by that 'magic man' Rex in Toronto just about reached me 5 minutes before the show began. To avoid any embarrassment, Cathy Eilers at the Joyce made up a set of notes for me for no extra charge - just in case! All the butterflies in my stomach had flown around enough to tire themselves out when the printed bundle arrived, beautifully designed with a pair of eyes located inside my palms!

Opening night - October 18, Saraswati Puja day! The foyer was lively with chatter of friends and dance lovers and very soon it was show time! In the audience were many of my long time friends who had never seen me dance. My previous avatar in the US was as a TV producer, mike in hand, interviewing politicians and celebrities. Now here I was, an older and more confident Anita, on stage - something my friends were still getting used to. The minutes flew by as I navigated the 7 sections with a combination of internal flutter and external confidence.

Pin drop silence and an audible sob when Pavrotti's voice began. His demise just a few weeks before made the moment more poignant. I completed the performance with my singing voice and the lights faded out slowly. There was a split second of total silence and the applause began, followed by shouts of "bravo" and a few whistles from my friends. Amidst a torrent of perspiration, I was relieved that opening night went well. The post show talk-back, led by my dear friend, actor Rajika Puri, veered towards the Indians needing more detailed explanations and the westerners needing different inputs like how my dance was received in India since it was so different from anything they had seen.

Friday October 19, was a particularly lonely night for me. It was just one of those days when the excitement of opening night was behind me and there was a mass cancellation of a large group of students from NYU due to some urgent commitment that had emerged in their university. I remember sitting in the green room, a can of Red Bull waiting on the counter, sipping a Starbucks latte in pin drop silence and wondering if I had done the right thing in agreeing to dance for four nights in a row. I thought back to the disastrous show that concluded recently in New Delhi to failed lighting and a terrible review. That was also a learning moment when my lighting director of ten years fell asleep at the controls due to medication and left me in the dark for many crucial moments in the show. Nobody takes the blame but the dancer and I had to swallow the bad review and many disappointed people in the audience. It is one of those moments that confront dancers and it was certainly a difficult moment for me. Like this one in New York. Outside the Joyce was the city with 2 million people walking around and trying to connect with life. Inside, it was deathly quiet. I felt unwanted and unloved. That night was also my weakest performance of the series, somehow unable to connect with either the dance or the audience. Still, it was an internal feeling and not something that was evident to the seeing eye, 35 years of professional performance carrying me through this very vulnerable moment.

During the morning hours, I visited friends at the Tibet House, whose director is Ganden Thurman, actor Uma Thurman's brother. Several monks came to the performance and remarked favorably on the soundscape of the authentic Tibetan chants extolling their favourite Goddess Arya Tara. Tea at the renovated Asia Society's sunlit atrium with director Rachel Cooper and post performance dinner with dancer-surgeon Sanjay Doddamudi who did the 'tei ha tei' adavu on the streets at midnight were some of the memorable moments of the week! I visited my favorite make up store Face Stockholm to buy a wonderful deep red matte lipstick, and the MAC store for their post performance make up removing wipes.

Everywhere I went, the discussion was the upcoming presidential elections with universal praise for Barrack Obama and all round suspicion of Hillary Clinton. Hatred and anger towards President George Dubya was thick in the air and most New Yorkers remarked about the corporatisation of the media and the return to conservatism. Many modern dancers had fled the US to live and dance in better working conditions in Europe since the Bush government had ruined all chances for American artistes by slashing all state funding for independents.
Being the weekend of Navaratri, the Indian dancers of New York were all busy with gigs of their own. Parijat Desai, the lovely contemporary dancer from LA, had her own first NYC season at the St Marks Danspace and came to my show on the last day, looking exhausted and completely worn out. Most other dancers were busy dancing or attending parties. Most A-list Indians were too busy with their social circles to travel downtown and watch my performance. They were also gearing up for the annual Indian Bollywood film festival that opened the following week. Who DID turn up faithfully were modern dancers, theatre students, mythologists, meditators, writers, film makers, fashion designers and people who just saw my poster on the street and walked in to check out the performance.

The weekend went by in a blur. The daily routine was coming into the theatre at 6 pm, warming up with my yoga and stretches, preparing from 7 and getting on stage at 8. With the tremendous interest in post performance questioning, I decided to continue the format for the following three nights and found that 30 to 40 people stayed daily just to listen to the process and the journey that created the work.

Good audiences sending positive energy and my body having warmed up to the work and the space, I just floated through the performances, stamina and limbs attacking the tough choreography with a new gusto. Weekend audiences were excellent and before I realized it, it was over! The final day happened to also be Dussera. It was as if TARA was blessing me to continue doing my dance!

Enduring and surviving that week in New York, which was also the first week of my month long dance tour was very challenging. I was so relieved to have it behind me and although I did not get the support I expected from some friends who had promised to promote my show, it turned out better than I had hoped. The Joyce SoHo committee was very pleased and urged me to apply again for another season. I thanked the entire crew and staff and promised to be back! I also thought about who among the dancers in India would be mentally prepared to appear at this space. For all dancers I would say, bring an assistant or a family member, hire someone locally to do your PR and find some caring soul to be with you throughout the entire week and most certainly stock up all the TLC you can! Dancing in New York is tough and demanding and chances are that you will be drained by the time you are through.

By 9pm on Sunday October 21, I was done and the very next day, early in the morning was a long flight to the west coast - away from the autumn chill of New York to sunny LA. So Cal, tanned bodies and new age warmth, here I come!

Anita Ratnam