More than 1.2 billion people, or roughly one of every six in the world, live in India. I mention this because, even though I consider myself relatively well-acquainted with the traditions of the dance world, I know next to nothing about bharatanatyam or any of the other classic dance forms of the world’s second-most-populous nation. My ignorance is far from unusual in the West, even among dance devotees: when we speak blithely about the dance “world,” there are worlds we know little or nothing about.
So it’s something of a blessing for Portland that Anita Menon’s Anjali School of Dance has been around since 1996, training students in the classical traditions, helping to keep Indian culture alive for the metropolitan area’s small but thriving ethnic Indian community (many concentrated in the high-tech corridor of the western suburbs; the Anjali school is in Hillsboro), and bringing at least a taste of Indian dance to mainstream audiences.
Menon has long been interested in bridging Eastern and Western traditions in her dances – after all, her Indian audience is also American, and her Western audience can use a familiar peg to hang its hat on as it enters unfamiliar territory – and so she’s grafted any number of Western tales and legends to her story-dances, from “Red Riding Hood” to “Pegasus.” Last weekend, in a pair of performances in downtown Portland’s Newmark Theatre, she presented what might have been her most ambitious such project, a fusion of bharatanatyam technique with the story of Shakespeare’s grand comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The dance world (there we go again) sometimes gets into arguments about “authenticity” in what it calls “ethnic” dance – an odd rubric, given that one way or another, everyone’s ethnic. But the truth is, especially in the cultural polyglot of the United States, authenticity is a great and vibrant scramble. Here, we mix things up.
Anjali’s “Midsummer Night” is gorgeous to look at, from its rich temple-inspired costumes to the architectural snap of its precise group formations, which suggest a singularity of movement and purpose that a Radio City Rockette would understand. This is spectacle, in a good sense, a work that saturates the eyes and pleases the senses. It’s in constant motion, shape-shifting to a mix tape that’s authentic to the spirit of the American stewpot: it tosses in a little bit of everything from classical Indian music to Beethoven’s Fifth, Bollywood songs, and hip-hop. In that sense it reflects the shifting multiplicities of everyday life in Indian American communities. And unlike compressed ballet versions set to Mendelssohn’s brilliant score, Anjali’s “Midsummer” is leisurely and expansive, playing out most of the comedy’s major themes and using a narrator (actor G. Scott Brown, as Shakespeare himself) to set up the action and summarize the scenes.
In Menon’s version Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, play the central roles, and they’re performed with fine mimetic skill by Poorna Sridhar (Oberon) and Shaila Ramachandran (Titania). Because I don’t know the vocabulary of what is obviously a highly codified and ritualized dance form, it’s difficult for me to describe their performances: there are, for instance (I learn with a little research), 108 karanas, or key transitional movements, that dancers must master, and dozens of hastas, those elegant hand movements that are such an expressive and sometimes even startling part of Indian dance; strictly codified movements of the head, neck and eyes also play significant roles. Do I know how well these skills have been mastered? I do not. But I do know the rough shape of skill when I see it: Sridhar and Ramachandran dance with a good deal of precision, using their hands and elbows to sharply chiseled effect. Their feet can move in bursts of astonishing speed, and, as all good performers do, they transcend technique to convey personality and joy. As in mime, acting is a good part of their performance, from body movement to facial expression (at times I felt almost as if I were watching a silent movie in live action), and both displayed deft comic skills: I could imagine them cast in a good French farce.
The dance we see has been inevitably altered from its original form. Bharatanatyam is a revived and recodified 19th and 20th century version of Cathir, the temple dances of Southern Indian tradition, which in turn were rooted in ancient dance forms. Its distinctive look is derived from sculptures at Thillai Natarajah Temple, a Hindu temple devoted to Shiva, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. (I learn all of this through the magic of the Internet, and specifically from that font of immediate information, Wikipedia.)
A combined word that includes expression, rhythm, beat or music, and dance, bharatanatyam is considered a fire dance, manifesting “the metaphysical element of fire in the human body.” Anjali’s performance also incorporates snippets of kathak (sky) and kuchipudi (earth), as well as some folk-dance forms. Taken out of its original contexts and away from its traditional audiences, the dance obviously shifts in both form and meaning. Menon suggests as much in her program notes: “Since this ancient dance originated in the temples of South India, almost all the dances are in praise of the Gods of the Hindu religion. While I have been diligent about passing on this dance in its original form to my students, I’ve also been very passionate about adapting it to tell stories, myths, and legends from around the world.”
That passion translates well to the performance. Among the other core performers are Alisha Menon as Puck, Tara Sengupta as Bottom, Kamya Chandra as Hermia, Meera Nair as Helena, Abinaya Srikanthan as Lysander, Varsha Kalavar as Demetrius, Srividhya Chandrasekaran and Lavanya Karunakaran as Duke Theseus and Hippolyta (whose impending nuptials kick the whole tale into action), and the charming young Sanya Surya as the Changeling Boy who prompts Titania and Oberon’s jealous spat.
Most of the dancers in this very large cast are young – the production is, after all, a showcase for the Anjali school – but I found that not at all troublesome or limiting. It was obvious that the students were well-prepared, and also that they were enjoying themselves: the show might have seemed overly long, but it was ebullient. It struck me that this form of dance is a little like flamenco: it’s a genuinely community form in which there’s room for people of all ages and skill levels. Those chorus lines of young fairy dancers had their place. So did Sridhar and Ramachandran, as Oberon and Titania, with their more complex skill sets.
And for audiences – and writers – used to seeing dance through Western eyes, a whole subcontinent waits to be discovered.