The America Diaries
Chapter Three: SoCal - Dancing among SigAlerts and Forest Fires

December 21, 2007

Once you arrive in the Valley, it is a whole new world. Of golden bodies, bikini gals and forest fires! I was used to the first two images but not of the last, which is what confronted me when I landed in John Wayne Airport, Orange County. A huge bronze statue of the famous cowboy movie idol greets all who walk out of the sunny airport that is painted in warm colours like the weather outside. One of the wealthiest suburbs in the USA, this is the region that inspired the popular TV show 'THE OC.' Botoxed faces, lipo-suctioned bodies, nose jobs on everyone including the supermarket check out lady and blondes everywhere. "Welcome to SoCal," greeted my friend, Ketu Katrak - a professor at University of California, Irvine. UCI was the official host for my performance and panel discussion. They were the main reason I even embarked on the US tour. The occasion was an international conference titled GLOBAL CONVERSATIONS: a Festival of Marginalised Languages. My presence required two engagements a performance was built around my signature perspectives on Goddess, Woman and Water, titled, 'about HER in four chapters,' and a morning panel discussion on marginalized and lost languages in the South Asian context.

The town of Irvine is charming and quite completely dominated by the University students, faculty and visitors. One of the popular local attractions is Trader Joe's- perhaps the most remarkable organic supermarket I have ever seen. One longtime SoCal resident said clearly, "My husband suggested we move to the East Coast and I refused saying that unless there was a TJ nearby I could not survive!" Such is the loyalty for this chain of well priced food stores that crowds fill it almost round the clock. Ketu was juggling her daily schedule and acting as my chauffeur, companion, tour guide to all the SoCal highlights, among which Trader Joe's was certainly one of the important stops the other being the very swanky and upscale South Coast Plaza..

As the title of this article suggests, 'sigalerts' is the informal way of warning southern Californians about the numerous 'signal alerts' on their never ending highways! As for forest fires, I landed at the precise moment when the most serious of them were ravaging the countryside rendering thousands of Americans homeless and injured. Friends were alarmed that I was venturing to a part of the US that only carried dire warnings of pollution and toxic air quality. The swimming pool in my hotel was covered with a thick layer of dust and soot from the fires which were raging not too far away. The TV news channels were filled with State Governor actor Arnold Schwarzenegger taking the brunt of the criticism and trying to get all branches of the state machinery to douse the fierce flames.

Amidst the sunshine and the uncertainty came welcome news. My long time friend and theatre director Mithran Devanesen, who was conducting theatre workshops in nearby San Francisco, arrived... 'about HER' needed an "outside eye" in the booth and calling the light cues. Having Mithran on the team, someone I have worked with for 15 years, made me much more relaxed.

In between rehearsals, Ketu took me for a morning yoga class where I saw a stream of perfectly made up and 'done' (read cosmetic surgeon treated) women streaming in and out of the health studio. Tight derrieres and lifted faces made all the women's faces appear permanently surprised! "This is SoCal," winked Ketu to me, as we watched a middle aged blonde flirting with a young stud-trainer near the water cooler. Later the same day, I visited her acupuncturist Dr Chi. He examined me, gave me a 30 minute shoulder and hand massage before declaring, "Your mind too fast for your body?" He then made a gesture with his right hand like a plane diving down, indicating that unless I slow down my body may just quit in protest. I listened, nodded and agreed. What followed was a magical acupuncture session with a warm lamp focused on my midriff with four needles stuck in them, some on the crown of my head and others around my ankles. I did not feel even a pin prick when he inserted the needles, perhaps his 30 years as a military doctor in China giving him the expertise. "Wash your mind and let it take a walk on the beach," he suggested before leaving me to doze off. 30 minutes later the needles were removed and I slept the most peaceful night ever no dreams, just deep rest.

The combination of yoga, sunshine and the acupuncture session had rid my body of all the accumulated fatigue from the week in New York City and the long bi-coastal flight. I checked my weight 65 kgs. Good! No gain despite the eating at odd hours and the numerous cuppas in between. Attention was now fixed on meeting the tech team at UCI for the show. The lighting director assigned to me was a young woman called Cristin Downs who had been called in suddenly at the last minute. She had not received any of the many mailers and lighting plans that had been faxed and e-mailed to the university administration months earlier. So, dear readers, do not believe that things are run like clock work in the west and that chaos reigns only in India! Minutes before the doors were to open in THE LITTLE THEATRE where the performance was scheduled, the entire lighting board collapsed. All the cues were erased and we had to start from scratch. While Cristin and her crew also fell apart around us, Mithran calmly declared that he was going to work the board manually a word Americans had not heard in decades!

And so that is what happened. 30 minutes after the planned show time, the doors were opened. The entire performance went by without a single hitch, Mithran winging his way through the 55 minute evening, using his experience and his director's eye for catching me in the light. The student crew just stood back and gaped open-mouthed.

In the audience were many professors and writers from the international conference but also my colleagues, Ramaa Bharadvaj, Priya Srinivasan and Ramya Harishankar. For a dancer it is very meaningful to have her colleagues in the audience rather than a hall full of restless eyes. Being a translation conference, I had chosen the section on "live storytelling," thereby bringing the performance closer to the audience and collapsing the "fourth wall" distance. Tales of Sati, Uma and Meenakshi with a feminist slant, ending with the metaphors of immolation, starvation and body imaging. With Southern California being the epicenter of the BODY BEAUTIFUL, the ending brought many smiles and knowing laughter among the audience.

Readers know that I have been practicing and promoting a personal style of movement aesthetic called NEO BHARATAM. This is a style that was coined 6 years ago by 'yours truly,' in which the diverse elements of my training from Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kathakali, Folk, sacred chanting, voice and silence have merged into, hopefully, a cohesive whole. NEO BHARATAM is the aesthetic I believe in and practice. Throughout my artistic life, many brickbats have been received, mostly from dancers themselves, unable to understand the direction I was moving towards. Rarely did I receive rapturous reviews for any production but the crowds slowly grew from show to show. In spite of being blessed with supportive gurus like the late Madurai N Krishnan and Adyar K Lakshman, I could not see myself returning to the "item" phase of a varied Bharatanatyam repertoire. Neither could I watch classical form being mutilated in the name of 'creative' and 'contemporary/kandapadi.' Pasting new jathis into a traditional varnam in the name of "the new"; performing car accidents, computer training to "Vande Mataram" in the guise of the modern; heating microwave foods and cell phone conversations to jathi patterns I can go on and on but you get the picture! Over the past 15 years, the distinction between classical dance and traditional dance has widened and audiences have become more accepting of innovations and experiments with integrity. My path has become less thorny as I, in the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell, "follow my bliss"!

This US tour was the first concentrated effort of performing and sharing my style and approach to dance. Western audiences have always been very positive and diaspora audiences slower to accept the changing movement and visual aesthetic of NEO BHARATAM. After the UCI performance, during which the shortened version of 7 GRACES was the second half with the DVD projection, the post performance session was lively and vigorous. Was I inspired by Marcel Marceau (famous French mime artist) and Kazugo Uno (Japanese actor)? How did I manage to break away from the notion of beauty and harmony to include the dark and the ugly? My work seemed more theatrical than pure dance was that intentional? Conference chair, Ngugi, a former head of Performance Studies at NYU, and presently Chair of ICWT, the Department of Languages and Translation at UCI, was particularly pleased with the performance and conveyed his praise at the panel discussion the next morning.

Performing for scholars is quite different from dancing to a regular dance audience. The 'optic' and prism of viewing is quite different and can be disconcerting to the performer who is unused to having her work intellectualized and dissected this way. Of course, the runaway hits of the evening were the Andal piece "karpuram naarumo" where I was seated in a small pool of light on an ingenious portable stool Mithran designed and carried from India. As if on cue, tears flowed during the Pavarotti section of the TARA piece. Ramaa loved the first dance ANDARI and the final heaving during 7 GRACES, saying it was a slice of life itself, Priya was most excited about the dark and ugly faces created during one section of 7 GRACES. But everyone loved ANDAL. SHE has been my companion from age 9 when I included her in the arangetram repertoire! I must also share with readers that I came of age on the same day as Andal's birthday Tiru Aadi Pooram! "No coincidence," my grandmother declares. No wonder I am singing and dancing in my life in praise of Sri, Nambi, Devi and Narayana!

The morning after performing about HER was the panel discussion on VOICES: Revival, Restoration and Visibility. The session featured writers and academics from India, chaired by Ketu Katrak. The 3 speakers shared thoughts about Sindhi becoming a lost language among the community, the dilemma of being and speaking Bengali in Bangladesh and West Bengal. My presentation was about the many Tamils that dominated my home state, some versions becoming more popular through politics and others, like my version of Brahmin Tamil, or the melodious Tamizh spoken by priests in Vishnu temples, falling out of favour with the media. The main body of my presentation contained information and video excerpts of Arayer Sevai chants and hand gestures, a dying theatre ritual that was the subject of my research in 1996 following a Govt of India grant. I also shared the long process of reviving and restaging the 13th century ritual theatre KAISIKA NATAKAM in my ancestral village of Thirukurungudi. The 12 year experience of discovering the lost form, finding the palm leaf manuscript, plodding through numerous interviews with older residents of the village for their memories, discovering the former dancers and actors of the play in remote towns made up the body of my presentation.

A two hour meditative movement workshop for Ramaa Bharadvaj at Orange County Community College titled 'Dance and the Mind Screen' and a lec-dem at UC Riverside called 'Ritual Gestures and the Female Dancing Body' where Priya Srinivasan teaches completed my west coast engagements.

Facing students and professors is always new and puts you on alert. A dancer has little idea of how she will be viewed and received. Women's studies, Theatre, Religion, Dance- South Asian dance intersects all these areas. Having already visited Middlebury College in Vermont last year, I was becoming familiar with the line of questioning but was very intrigued with the 'lens' that was used to watch and later discuss my work. One African American professor commented on how delighted she was that I did not fall into the 'trap' that most coloured women often do playing the pretty, decorative, exotic card in the name of the 'ancient' and 'pure.' The section of 7 GRACES in which my face changes into more and more bizarre expressions was specifically requested by Priya and it was that same moment that startled, surprised and delighted the students as well. I noticed that there were an equal number of men and women in the audience, a mix I have not seen in most colleges.

During the two hour movement workshop at OCC, I had to navigate between diverse age groups and physical ability. There was great interest in KALARI, the Kerala martial art, but few were able to execute the movements. The session was mixed with gentle improvisation and some basic Bharatanatyam stances flowing into a free style of mindful body consciousness. Being obsessed with physical fitness, Californians embrace anything new and the participants welcomed my suggestions of the spirit participating equally in the actual 'doing' of the body.

One of the joys of traveling is to reconnect with dance colleagues. A very nice lunch with well known dancer and guru Ramya Harishankar and her husband Harish was one such occasion. This elegant couple has made Irvine their home for many years, Ramya creating her niche with teaching and founding the EKTA CENTRE to present and promote art and artistes from India. We had grown up together in Madras and it was fun to recall those early days over pizza and diet cola!

In case readers feel that I too was becoming influenced by the warmth and pace of Southern California, you are all right! Who could not be touched by the open air, seaside, morning walks, feet in sandals in late October, healthy food everywhere even with the news filled with dire information about the fierce fires. My good friend Jayshree Varadaraj from Coimbatore who now lives in San Diego, was sheltering many friends who had rushed out of their homes. In spite of the uncertainty around me, it was with a twinge of regret that I returned to the sight of the cowboy statue at the airport. I hugged Ketu and her daughter Roshni, promising to return soon to their lovely home with my daughter Arya who enjoys any place as long as it is not frigid!

Next stop! Washington DC! George Dubya's backyard and an Indian dance festival.

Anita Ratnam