Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dance and Animation!

So I may have been doing dance/video pieces, but this guy has done a dance/video/animation piece.


Friday, December 10, 2010

"The Dancer Within"

I am on the 8th floor of the Chicago Public Library and I never want to leave. I picked up this book by Rose Eichenbaum and it is a set of interviews of famous artists/dancers. It is fabulous. I don't know why hearing what Martha Graham teach someone or how Alvin Ailey was very respectful of the individuality of his dancers or how Balanchine didn't care who his successor was is such intriguing material to me, but it is. Hearing it firsthand can be quite profound.

Regardless, I wanted to quote some quotes from the book. Maybe I will quote more later...

“As a dancer your job is to interpret your character or, in an abstract ballet, a story or viewpoint. What’s it like for you when you feel your own identity surface?”

“I can’t really describe what that feelsl ike, but I do know that it’s what keeps me going, even through all these injuries. I can try to explain it with words like joy, fulfillment, euphoria, but these words are insufficient and inaccurate.”

“When you get into that emotionally charged place, do you try to linger there a while?”
“To try to linger there would suggest that you have some control over it. I don’t. I’m only in control of the steps that i’m doing and the training and the musicality I possess. I only have the tools to go for the ride. I’d be foolish to think I control what happens out there. I’d be foolish to want to”.


“Do you remember your first class with Martha?”

“I’ll never forget it. I came in and took a place in the back of the room. Louis Horst was playing the piano. Martha stood at the front of the room and demonstrated a contraction.” Yuriko now sat up, her eyes shining. “As Martha’s torso hollowed I thought to myself, that’s what I want in my body. Here was drama. Here was creativity. I had to find out where it comes from. In time, I understood that the contraction comes from the breath, and that its shape originates from a deep source within the body. This source extends to all the extremities in the physical body. Take for example, Martha’s famous cupped hand,” she said, demonstrating. “This is not a position or a shape. It comes from here,” she said, pointing to her solar plexus and then drawing her finger up the chest, through the armpit, down her arm to the center of her hand. “The body’s center islike the roots of a tree that sends nourishment out to all its branches. A contraction vibrates through the body and ends right here,” she said, pressing her index finger into the center of her cupped hand. “It’s alive. A shape is not alive. To achieve, this, you have to steal it,” she said, looking me in the eye.”

“Rose, it’s not really a mission. I simply realized what a transforming experience being an artist is. I wanted to share it. There is great joy in being consumed with an art form and making it your life. And it’s true of all the arts...if you are lucky enough to ‘play’ with tremendously talented people as your teachers, it is a soul-transforming epiphany...”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Palace of Illusions

I love this book -- a rewrite of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Here are some quotes I found to be particularly poignant:

"Krishna shrugged. '...Isn't that what truth is? The force of a person's believing seeps into those around him -- into the very earth and air and water -- until there's nothing else.'"
(page 49)

"Remember that, little sister. Wait for a man to avenge your honor, and you'll wait forever."
(page 49)

"Every time I spoke it, it embedded itself deeper...for a story gains power with retelling."
(page 20)

The Mahabharata in essence:
"And so I stood struggling with my ego until the brief moment of opportunity vanished."
(page 173

And in case I over glorify our tales:
" is not fitting that a celibate should think too much on the ways of women, who are the path to ruin."
(page 24)
Although, I suppose, it is arguable whether the poet means "all women are the path to ruin for every man" or "for celibates women are the path to ruin" (which would be breaking your celibate vow, in which case the implied meaning is harmless)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Ever Changing Tradition of Bharatanatyam, Part 5

More changes that have occurred...

It is of interest to note that since the repertoire of Indian classical dance was of solely bhakti pieces prior to this change, the pieces involving contemporary themes had to be created, another prized Western idea, “newness”. (Lopez y Royo) But rather than compose music themselves filled with new ideas and new lyrics, many of these pieces are derived from pieces of poetry that date back thousands of years. (Alarmel Valli’s prakrit and pieces “Lament for a Fallen Soldier” and “the Forgotten Seed” as well as Priyadarshani Govind’s varnam “Prahalada” are prime examples). It quickly points to a strong desire to show the relevance of ancient techniques and traditions. There is justification to be found about the universality of emotions through time when artists create contemporarily-themed pieces from poetry that was written thousands of years ago. In this way, bharatanatyam practitioners provide proof as to the relevance of traditional Indian dance today and how it will continue to be so in the future.

Another change slowly being realized in bharatanatyam is a disappearance of banis, or styles of bharatanatyam (usually based on which region they came from) and thus, a slow elimination of the regional differences within bharatanatyam. Simple globalization of the form is attributed to this, because streamlining again is easier for a viewer to digest. When an artist retains all of the subtle nuances of a form, expecting others to enjoy because they are knowledgeable in the style, the audience is immediately limited, and the artist also limits the other artists they can work with. Thus, most schools have slowly been adopting the Kalakshetra style of nrtta, with its rigidity of technique and style.

This is partially because Kalakshetra is the most well known and widely accepted style.
Kalakshetra exhibits its own hegemony on the other, lesser known banis. The other is that the Kalakshetra style is most easily appreciable by audiences because of its technicalities. This change towards a Kalakshetra style of dance is easily seen through Priyadarshani Govind (Vazhoor style) and Alarmel Valli (Pandanullur style). One look at youtube clips by the famous dancer Padma Subramanyam, who was trained in the Vazhoor style, compared to current clips of Priyadarshani Govind shows how the Vazhoor style has changed. There is now a considerable emphasis on the aramande, (the posture that most steps are executed in), with an importance placed on much sharper upper body movements and a perfect diamond shape of the legs.

This ease of appreciation of technique is also why dancers Mallavika Sarukkai and Rama Vaidhyanathan (Venkatraman**) place such a great emphasis on it. Both are well known (especially Mallavika) for their extremely fast paced jathis and obsession with nrtta technicalities. Not only is nrtta easy for an unknowledgable audience member to understand, the fast paced jathis elicit more “oohs” and “aahs” then slow paced ones. More audiences can appreciate a ridiculously fast jathi than one concentrating on the control of movement.

A great example of how this tradition has actually been changed and implemented is to look at the new generation of artists such as Mythili Prakash, or Anita Sivaraman*, whose excellent technique and fast paced jathis are what has brought them great recognition.

Now as we look to the future, one must wonder how tradition will change from this generation to the next? It certainly looks as though we are making a slow move to a contemporary or modern aesthetic. Only time will tell.

*Anitha Sivaraman, exceptional NRI Bharatanatyam dancers, and more about lokadharmi, natyadharmi and the American lasya. Anita. Rev. of Anita Sivaraman. Web log post. Bharatanatyam in Chennai. 10 Jan. 2008. Web. .

**Venkatraman, Leela. The Hindu [Chennai] Aug. 1998. Print.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Ever Changing Tradition of Bharatanatyam, Part 4

How do audience influence and innovation come together to change the structure?

One of the major changes to date is the alteration of the margam structure. The margam structure consists of an ordered set of pieces, wherein which each piece has a particular set of rules that a musical composer must follow in order for it to be considered as such. The order, as set up by the Thanjavur quartet, is: alarippu, jathiswaram, sabdam, varnam, a series of padams, and finally, a thillana. There is an inherent symmetry to the structure, where the dancer warms up her limbs on stage with an alarippu, then takes the viewer through the more rigorous – but still only nrtta (pure dance) aspects of the jathiswaram, introduces abhinaya (facial expressions) in the sabdam, all leading to the piece de resistance, the varnam. The varnam is explored fully over a half hour, following a jathi (chunk of nrtta) – swaram (chunk of lyrical song involving abhinaya) – jathi – swaram structure. Then the padams are performed – short lyrical pieces based on mostly facial expressions and storytelling, and finally the thillana – pure nrtta again, but still complex, like the jathiswaram. The pieces involving abhinaya are usually based around stories from Hindu mythology and involve the bhakti emotion: devotion, usually to a Hindu deity.

This margam structure has changed drastically. Even simple ideas such as the length of a margam have succumbed to the will of the people. Margams, previously having been three to four hours, have shortened to fit within the span of two, a direct result of catering to global audiences. Alarmel Valli’s most recent tour in the US, The Forgotten Seed, fit precisely within a two hour block with a nice 10 minute intermission. A quick look at the past, however, shows that this was not always the case: an interview with Valli shows her previous stand where her margams used to be “uncompromisingly long”, ranging between three and four hours. (Bharatanatyam and the World Wide Web*) Yet compromise she has: audience members, adamant about the length of a performance, have created this change. For instance, the main – and usually only – complaint about Her Story, a recent choreography of mine, was that there was no intermission in the course of the two-hour show.

These are just minor changes compared to what else has happened to the margam: both the piece-wise structure and the emotional themes have been altered. Margams no longer need to follow the pushpanjali-jathiswaram-sabdam-varnam-padams-thillana structure but rather can follow the emotional structure as outlined above, that of a bell curve with a slow and subtle rise to the main piece and a drop off to an ending that completes itself on a higher note than the beginning. Alarmel Valli, again, recently displayed this change by keeping only the varnam of the margam and replacing the other pieces with new compositions. (Sambamoorthi) In fact, these changes to margam structure have been happening enough that even the recent choreography Her Story was deemed completely traditional, though it only began with a pushpanjali and ended with a thillana. (Gautam**) The varnam was completely replaced by a new composition filled with speech, jathis, and a thematic storyline that was woven throughout.

These changes happen because competing artists are constantly finding ways to create “new” within the “traditional” (O’Shea). New compositions allow for artists to explore novel ways of keeping audiences interested in their performances utilizing fresh themes and innovative pieces. Interestingly enough, this exploration has also resulted in another change: that of the removal of the bhakti emotion as the prevailing emotion in a margam. In fact, all four top artists have major noteworthy pieces that have nothing to do with bhakti or even a Hindu deity, and these days rarely perform a full margam fully devoted to one deity as was done thirty to fifty years ago. The emotions throughout a margam have also taken on a much more secular tone, a direct result of artists trying to connect with audiences who are not able to empathize with bhakti, a very Indian specific and religious notion which thus limits the audience members who can feel and appreciate the dance the way it is meant to be understood.

The artists now often explore very contemporary ideas and themes in order to gain and keep a larger audience, for an audience that can empathize and appreciate is much more likely to expand and return than one that believes they are simply watching a cultural phenomena. So, themes such as war and sadness for a fallen child (for example, both Priyadarshani Govind and Alarmel Valli have noted pieces that relate to this theme), the power of women (exemplified time and again by Rama Vaidhyanathan) and abstract notions such as light and color (Mallavika Sarukkai’s expertise) are explored. Rama and Alarmel even make direct associations with the contemporary, Alarmel stating that she likes to “convey the contemporary through the traditional” (; Rama claiming that “she…intends to address several contemporary issues that all mankind can relate to” (***).

*Valli, Alarmel. "Ageless Magic of the Margam." Interview. Web log post.Bharatanatyam and the World Wide Web. 27 June 2008. Web. .

**Gautam, Savitha. "Pivotal moments in their lives." The Hindu [Chennai] 24 July 2009. Print.

***Rama Vaidyanathan - Bharata Natyam exponent and choreographer. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. .