Culture

An Exhilarating Celebration of Indian Dance in New York

A show in New York brought together Indian-style dancers from across the world, to share their stories and their talents.

New York City is used to seeing weird things on the street – but even by New York standards, this event on 14th Street a couple of weeks ago was truly astonishing. Over 30 dancers of various Indian dance styles poured onto the sidewalk in full makeup, costumes, ghungroos and flowers, while New York City firemen rushed through them, fire trucks and alarms ringing out. No, it wasn’t some conceptual art performance event, it was a real evacuation of the 14th Street Y Theatre. The alarms went off just when the remarkable From the Horses Mouth programme began. Luckily the firehouse was right next door and it was a false alarm, and the dancers and audience members trouped back in.

From The Horse’s Mouth, Magical Tales of Real Dancers is a highly unusual programme conceived by Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham, now in its 19th year. Started in New York, one of the world’s most dance-mad cities, it is structured around dancers and figures from the dance world – impressarios, critics – who sit on a chair on stage and tell a short tale of their life in dance, while other dancers perform around them in a structured format. This wonderful concept has combined very varied performers and styles, with almost everyone who is anyone in the American dance scene participating over the years.

A poster for the event

This year was unusual. As a first, Croll and Cunningham decided to celebrate Indian dance in the US, inviting contemporary performers but also looking back at the over century-old history of Indian dance in the US, going back to the early 20th century with Ruth Saint Denis, Ted Shawn and Ragini Devi (my grandmother). Curated by Rajika Puri, it was dedicated to Balasaraswati, who toured the US in the 1960s and taught for years at Wesleyan University.

The dancers ranged in age from their early 20s to the Latvian Vija Vetra, who proudly announced that she is going strong at 86 and is preparing an Indian dance performance in her native Latvia later this year. The democratic structure was liberating, with classical forms, Bollywood dance, contemporary and gender-bending performances weaving in and out of each other. The spoken narratives ranged from broken families and suicide, from tales of gurus to issues of obtaining visas’s for performers. They were funny, moving and illuminating – and not what one normally experiences in an evening of dance.

Some performers who could not attend participated by video texts, but the projected images of past performers were both a tribute and a creative way of presenting a history with dancers speaking and dancing on the stage in front. These messages powerfully conveyed the motivations and impulses of the dancers and their lives in dance. Particularly striking was the way in which so many dancers from all over the world had become fascinated by Indian dance forms and made it their life.

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Veteran dance critic Deborah Jowitt, who has participated in previous editions of the show, wrote on her blog:

“This process is possibly not something that expert dancers in the various traditional styles of India have engaged in before. Nor is the contrast between styles as intense as, say, one between a principal dancer in a ballet company and a person skilled in martial arts, but nevertheless, accommodation and investigation are part of the pleasure. Also, even today, many dancers schooled in classical Indian traditions (Kathak, Bharata Natyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Mohiniyattam, Sattriya, etc.) perform as soloists. So it’s especially moving (and entertaining) to see them enjoying interacting with one another.

The performances on East 14th Street are dedicated to the memory of the great Balasaraswati. Kamala Cesar, who studied with her in India for over a decade, recalls for us her initial shock when “Bala” commanded her to execute a sequence of stamping 150 times and left the room for a while; by the time she returned, her student’s anger, pain, and fatigue had vanished into transcendence. Balasaraswati’s image appears among the photos intermittently projected onto the backdrop. These hint at the legacy of Indian dance in the U.S.: Ted Shawn appearing as Shiva, Ruth St, Denis, Anna Pavlova in an “oriental” number with Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal. Ragini Devi and her daughter, Indrani, are also seen, and Indrani’s daughter, Sukanya, speaks of the family tradition in a projected video .

…On the night I attended, twenty-nine people performed, but there are thirty-five listed on the program, so each show may vary. Seldom has the 14th Street Y’s black-box theater heard so much rhythmic stamping or seen so many precise gestures, flashing fingers and eyes, and such a variety of shimmering silk costumes and jewelry. And here’s something not typical of From the Horse’s Mouth performances: all the performers speak with animated clarity, as if they’d been constructing and perfecting the delivery of their stories for weeks. Whether born in America, India, or elsewhere, these artists tell of inspiration, of lessons learned from gurus, of turning points in their lives. For Joe Daly, the influential words of wisdom were, “Never teach what you already know.” For Sonali Skandan, an early moment of happiness came at the age of 5, when, new to America, she made a friend in school. Madhusmita Bora recalled preparing to play the child Krishna when she was a little girl, but was ordered to leave the temple because her father had been ostracized; she decided she would never dance again. Donia Salem, a poet as well as an Odissi dancer, delivered with fierce intensity a poem that tells of a dark period in her life and how she danced that darkness out of herself, while Carol Mullins’ lighting throws her shadow on the floor. Anita Ratnam was told “girls don’t dance.” Want to bet? Politics and visa problems and gender issues (the boldly transgressive Hari Krishnan on video) crop up too. Seated on the chair that every speaker uses, Puri gives a bravura performance as she recounts the legend of Sati, in love with Shiva and snubbed by her father, Daksha. Seeing Puri as Sati turn into Kali, the goddess of destruction, is a terrifying experience. These are just a few of the twenty stories, told the night I attended by dancers, choreographers, teachers, and company directors, three of them on video (Surupa Sen of Nrityagram, wearing a beautiful river of red fabric, speaks of her guru, while seated on a rock in a forest and accompanied by birdsong.)”

As an appropriately exhilarating end, all the performers and singers danced around the stage to Nino Rota’s musical march from the end of Fellini’s 81/2.

The dancers. Credit: Ram Rahman

Dancers with Jamie Cunningham and Tina Croll at far right. Credit: Ram Rahman

Credit: Ram Rahman

Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham take a bow at the end. Credit: Ram Rahman

Dancer Anita Ratnam from Chennai has spoken to Croll and Cunningham about taking the format to India. Hopefully that will happen soon.

Ram Rahman is a photographer.

  • Rohini

    What a lovely experience it must have been!! Thank you for the photographs – even the stills are so colourful, I can only imagine how pulsating the performance must have been!
    Yes, Indian dance forms thrive around the world and strangely enough, they are alive in the US, especially in places in california which have a high density of Indian origin folk.
    But a consistent feedback from performers who stage shows is that there seems to be a lack of engagement with the classical Indian art forms from the audience. So, the performers have to innovate and create shows that are contemporary but in the classical dance forms. This is a double edged sword – but anything that takes the form forward and engages audiences is always welcome.
    One must look at it as a segmentation of the interest groups – one segment that understands the purist art form and wants that, another that is a layman and is bored the heavy varnams etc but wants a classical performance with a contemporary story or twist. An artiste must be able to adapt to both situations. Many artistes are adapting.