Beautiful and compelling 

October 25, 2008 
Anita Ratnam conducted a 3 day residency at Wesleyan University where she taught 2 classes of dance students and conducted one workshop including one evening performance on the 25th anniversary of the Navaratri celebrations initiated by Balasaraswati and her brothers Viswanathan and Ranganathan.  

On October 3, 2008, Anita performed for the first time in the historic Crowell Concert Hall where the great Balasaraswati once danced and sang. She revived her acclaimed Ragamalika varnam Nitya Kalyani, choreographed by her guru Adyar K Lakshman. This varnam, created especially for the opening of the 1971 Music Academy Dance Festival, was performed in the presence of singing diva MS Subbalakshmi.    

The performance by Anita featured two sections. The first with live music, on special request by the University Dance Department. Singing for Anita was Shobana Raghavan, who has worked with Anita in Chennai for productions like Naachiyar, before moving to New York City. Ravi Srinivasan played the violin and Bala Skandan the mridangam. The first section featured three dances: "Ambika Pallavi" - hymns from the Lalitha Sahasranamam, tuned by OS Arun; "Sirulu Minchina" - A rare sabdam on Lord Vishnu from selected verses of the Janardhana Ashtakam, with music by Vidwan Madurai N Krishnan; "Nitya Kalyani" - the song made popular by Devadasi artiste Bangalore Nagaratnamma and visualised in dance.   

In the second section of the program, Anita danced to the recorded score of her acclaimed solo from NEELAM - Sikkil Gurucharn's rendering of Anil Srinivasan's concept of a ragam tanam pallavi of "Ranga Pura Vihara" by Mutthuswamy Dikshatar.   

Emma Mohney reports in The Wesleyan Argus:  
Halfway through her performance of Bharatanatyam dance, world-renowned Indian dancer Anita Ratnam paused to thank the Wesleyan community for inviting her to the University's annual Navaratri Festival. "[My former guru] said that Wesleyan was the musical university of the United States," she said. "It is an honor for me and for my co-performers to be here." 

If anything, it is an honor for Wesleyan to host Ms. Ratnam. As the program notes, she is not only an accomplished dancer - she is also a choreographer, a classically trained singer, and a scholar of theater and women's studies who has performed, studied and taught worldwide. "She has reconfigured the traditional format of Bharatanatyam," noted Artist in Residence Hari Krishnan of the Dance Department. He delivered the introduction. 

Some members of the audience on Friday might have known exactly what it meant to "reconfigure" this classical Indian dance style, but many were content to simply absorb the sights and sounds of Ratnam's dynamic program. Accompanied by three musicians--one playing the violin, one the mridangam (an Indian drum) and one singing-- Ratnam began the performance with a dance meant to honor and invoke the Goddess. The dance started slowly and accelerated. At first Ratnam merely moved along to the music; eventually, as she accented certain beats with heavy steps that shook the bells around her ankles, she became an integral part of the song. 

Ratnam continued to use her body as an instrument throughout the evening, although in her later dances she also used it as a storytelling device. Taking a break between the first and second dance, Ratnam introduced her audience to the ancient Indian tradition of "abhinaya," or representational dance, by first explaining the story she was about to tell, and then "dancing" the story. 

Even audience members who could not understand the singer's words were able to follow the storyline of each of the three abhinaya dances Ms. Ratnam performed; her ability to physically express emotion and develop a character created a kind of universal language. In her second dance, Ratnam switched between male and female characters with ease, changing both her facial expressions and her body language to communicate the transition to viewers. 

"Movement can be formed if you practice, but abhinaya comes only with experience," Krishnan said of the style. 

The value of her more than forty years of experience was plainly evident in the performance. She almost allowed audience members to forget that they were watching an intricately choreographed dance, as the overall joy and excitement in the air could easily make one forget her precise technique. 

Both Krishnan and CFA Director Pamela Tatge point to Anita Ratnam's performance as an exciting example of India's rich culture, one that both honors the past and looks to the future. "These are art forms but they're also rituals, an extension of the Hindu religion through the arts," said Tatge. "Watching Anita Ratnam is particularly exciting because she's such a master." 

Krishnan, while recognizing Ratnam's extraordinary skill as a performer of classical Bharatanatyam, emphasized that her particular style of dance represents an intersection between the traditional and the modern. "It's like repeating a jigsaw puzzle," he said, "She has found new pieces and she has reconstructed the Bharatanatyam puzzle." 

Tara Kelton, a student of Wesleyan University, found Anita Ratnam's performance as simultaneously beautiful and compelling. "Having an intimate discussion with her in the setting of the classroom prior to the performance really added another dimension to the performance. I liked seeing her newer pieces in the more intimate setting and then seeing the roots of her influence. After hearing her value for flexibility, stillness, her minimalist choice in costume, and her rejection of classical dance essentializing Indian culture, it was fascinating to see how she worked these values into her more traditional performance. Though she stated that her costume was much more ornate than anything she has worn in years, it was not still less flashy than any other classical performance I have seen. Though her level of control was remarkable throughout her dance, the mime was the most captivating aspect for me.  

Her initial translations with gestures were very helpful, but I found it remarkable that I could still follow the story. I felt her transform much more in her mime. Her movements were primarily in first and second speed, which I wondered if that was simply the choreography she learned or a choice to incorporate her interest and challenge in dancing slowly. However she quickly demonstrated in the Varnam that her lack of third speed was not due to ability, for her third speed movement were just as precise and energetic. I really appreciated her use of the space, acknowledging the unique physical aspects of it and using them to enhance her performance. For example, when she moved to the side of the stage to sit. Even though the far sides of the stage were not as well lit, she used them to strike a pose that would otherwise be impossible to portray.  

The use of the garland was something I have not seen before, and I was really intrigued in how she was able to transform a single prop to embody so many different meanings. Her transition between live and recorded music felt a little strange. I know that she prefers recorded music, so normally her performances would be entirely recorded and that transition would not be an issue. I thought it was an interesting choice to turn her back to the audience and stand on the steps, again it felt like a brief break from the strict classical style and yet still functioning within the piece without breaking it. Her focus on strong female characters was a wonderful change from the majority of subordinate female characters depicted. Again I saw this as an interesting inclusion of her contemporary ideals fitting into her traditional training. So much of what is considered "exotic" from A Western standpoint especially, is mapped on to the female body.  

Dance is a prime opportunity to exemplify exotisism, since so much of dance is about using the body to create space, time, shape and emotion. The background of Bharatanatyam exemplifies this as Anita discussed, dance became the focal point of this ideological battle. It felt like her choice to portray strong female characters was an attempt to reclaim the art form as a woman, for powerful forces, often women are the ones performing in the first place. This shifts the intention of the dance away from aesthetically pleasing the male gaze, or the foreigner gaze to see the dance as purely spectacle." 

Pamela Tatge, Director, Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University describes Anita Ratnam's recital as, "an extraordinary performance. A truly astonishing dancer with an elegance and depth that is very rare. Her ability to transport the audience through her concentration, facial expressions and fluid gestures was truly wonderful as were the kind of introductions to the pieces. Anita's movement is paralleled by her charismatic storytelling and gave an insightful point of entry into the work.".