By Shankar Ramachandran
Dance Conversations 2016, said the brochure about the two-day, four event seminar being presented at Irvine, California, by Ramya Harishankar and Dr. Priya Srinivasan. The event was scheduled on the Labor Day holiday weekend and, when Sruti Editor V. Ramnarayan suggested I join him at Irvine and take some photographs, I readily agreed. I didn’t know what to expect of the sessions but the California weather was bound to be salubrious. So I packed my cameras and a few iddlies and headed west. I’m really glad I did.
On the first day I was treated to a visceral conversation about the diminishing role of the media in covering and creating visibility for the arts. The panellists were as diverse in their views as their backgrounds would suggest.
Paul Hodgins painted a bleak picture of the rapid demise of the professional journalist and arts critic in the world of print and newspaper.
Mallika Rao spoke about the energetic world of Internet reporting and blogging which places an enormous potential audience to be tapped by the right kind of writing and coverage.
Ramnarayan addressed the challenges of steering a monthly magazine devoted to the classical performing arts and the difficulties of recruiting and retaining good writers willing to produce reliable and regular content.
The panellists led a discussion which underlined the importance of media coverage as one of the sustaining pillars of the performing arts. Visibility, dialogue and discernment which come from media coverage, were alluded to.
Mallika’s presentation using U-tube video viewership statistics for dance videos shed light on both the potential audiences available on the Internet as well as the fickle nature of the type of content, which attracts and receives the most views.
The role of local media in promoting performances is still undergoing big changes and declining readership was one of the major causes. Ramnarayan pointed out that the situation is significantly different in India where the daily newspaper still commands a very large and influential readership.
The panel discussion opened into a dialogue with the diverse audience which included both Indian and western dancers, teachers and students.
On the second day, the events began with a presentation at the local park adjoining the Irvine City hall. Here, in an open space surrounding a pool, a diverse group of dancers walked and swayed gracefully to the sounds of Carnatic music.
Dance students form Irvine Valley College seemed to float and intertwine with Ramya Harishankar’s Bharatanatyam students to the plaintive alapanas of voice, violin and electric guitar. The musicians moved along with the dancers, sometimes, sitting, sometimes leading and following at other moments. They finished by blending into the audience gathered there to watch them. Thus ended “Walking in Orange.”
Choreography: Dr. Priya Srinivasan and Susan Rose (Professor Emerita of Choreography, UCR)
Dancers: Danish Bhandara, Josiah Cortez, Nitya Dholakia, Andrea Garcia, Viviana Zhu, Mangala & Saru Janahan
Musicians: Mayuri Vasan, Kiran Athreya and Arun Ramabathiran
Percussionists produce an insistent pulse at once reminiscent of a temple in South India calling out to devotees and the hills. Yet the instruments and the rhythms are different. Besides tabla played by the talented Rabindra Deo, we hear a variety of percussion, including instruments from Central America. They sing and throb to the pulse of a single person, Christopher Garcia. He produces an extraordinary array of sound and rhythms, effortlessly weaving in and out of familiar Indian patterns to those of traditional Central America. We know we are not in India. This is the music and dance that has come to reside in Orange County, California.
The crowds gather in to sit, squat and stand n the large courtyard under a receding pacific sun. The Stars and Stripes flutters above a clock tower to the gentle breezes. To those same breezes, the tall trees whisper and sway. The dancers begin their movements. Students of Ramya Harishankar put on an effective show beginning with a traditional alarippu and finishing with Shiva Panchakshara stotram.
Bharata Natyam Reimagined used light costumes, minimal jewellery and makeup as if to bring the dancers closer to the audience and impressive music by Ramya and her students. This was punctuated with a variety of familiar and new rhythms to make the old new and the new old as it were. The dance was joyful, effervescent and full of energy.
ALARIPPU – Original choreography by Anusha Kedhar
Dancers: Shilpa Rajagopal, Shefali Appali and Visalini Sundaram
Musicians: Rohan Ramanan, Ravi Deo and Ramya Harishankar – Choreography by Ramya Harishankar
Dancers: Bala Janahan, Nidhi Satyadev, Sumani Sadam, Raashi Subramanya, Pallavi Malladi, Nitya Parthasarathy, Gayatri & Anjali Subramaniam
Musician: Chris Garcia
DANCER SUPREME – Original choreography by Ahila Gulasekaram
Dancer: Shreya Patel
Musicians: Ravi Deo, Visalini, Varshini & Vinodini Sundaram
The final production was the very cerebral, yet humorous and provocative, Sweating Sarees. For this piece, the audience moves into Irvine City Hall Chambers. Here, with some of their students sitting in the seats where the Irvine’s elected councilors and Mayor preside over city council meetings, Ramya Harishankar and Dr, Priya Srinivasan use the space in front of them to create an informal presentation to explore Bharatanatyam as a process of learning and creating rather than as a mere performance. The multi media presentation evolves as a conversation with the audience.
Together they explore the historical significance of Bharatanatyam as it reemerges in the 20th century in India and later spread across the world with the dispersing population. Notable here was Priya’s dance evocative of her efforts as a student in California. And later, her earnest explorations seeking a deeper understanding in her interactions and study with Ramya.
Ramya’s own story as narrated, of her emergence as a dancer and teacher, are touchingly personal.
Her singing seated while doing abhinayam to the most exquisitely delicate padams reminds us of a world we have perhaps lost. Rich poetry sung to haunting melodies with nuanced emotions and detailed and etched movements; she brought us glimpses of that old world natyam that we don’t often see today.
This presentation may very well be a work in progress that will evolve and branch out as these artists reach out and work with others and seek to find greater relevance to dance in life and to life in dance.
At times, they were able to communicate their message without the words that seem to be ubiquitous in the world of Bharatanatyam today. It seemed that all three of the “performances” were fully expressive as dance per se and could be both presented and received without translation into words or commentary. Graceful, thought provoking, uplifting and inclusive, these conversations will surely continue.
Choreography by Ramya Harishankar and Dr. Priya Srinivasan with Susan Rose