Indian dance

Jayanthi Raman’s Indian dance seeks the divine

Beautiful dancing and glimpses of the gods but also some mundane production problems

On Friday night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, Jayanthi Raman, the director of Jayanthi Raman Dance Company and school, along with her company of five Bharatnatyam dancers, some local and some visiting (Shradha Vinod, Soujanya Madhusudan, Sweta Ravishankar, Mugdha Vichare and Ramya Raman), performed Anubhava, a mixed program of seven dances to a variety of traditional Carnatic music.

The word Anubhava has many meanings but generally refers to the ecstatic experience of the divine. The first half of the concert was an homage to Lord Shiva, the Hindu god known as the destroyer; the second half was devoted to Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and known as the creator or preserver.

Jayanthi Raman Dance Company in Anubhava. Photo by G. Sriram.

Jayanthi Raman Dance Company in Anubhava. Photo by G. Sriram.

Within the costume choices, choreography and hand gestures I could clearly see references to the gods’ identities, physical attributes and their historic stories. Shiva’s four-armed form was represented by a straight line of dancers lined up behind each other undulating their arms, creating the illusion that the first dancer or Shiva, has multiple arms. This is always a popular choice in Bharatanatyam choreography and a fun effect.

In general, the choreography was symmetrical, simple and straightforward, with the rhythms of the dancers feet and bells matching the instrumental rhythms in the music. Many of the dances began and ended with beautiful tableaus of the dancers posing as different characters within the stories. Raman experimented with different groupings of dancers on the stage, coming and going throughout the dance creating different relationships at different times. The dance themes ranged from abstract rhythmic dances to ancient stories from the Vedas.

The dancers, who were of different ages and experiences, were beautiful and talented, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. One dancer in particular, Sweta Ravisankar,  embodied the aesthetic of Bharatanatyam completely, I thought. She was long and lean, her movements were sharp and quick, and she looked as though she enjoyed every minute of every moment on stage and shared this joy with us through her beautiful smile and boundless energy.

In the second half Raman performed a solo to a song called Thottu thottu pesum with lyrics by poet Periyasaamy Thooran. She spoke to us onstage before she performed, explaining that she had only heard the music once and was going to improvise the dance based on the three different types of love for Lord Krishna as described in ancient Indian dance literature: Vatsalyam or maternal love; Sringaram, romantic love; and Bhakti, devotion. As far as I know, improvising while performing in the Indian dance context is rare if nonexistent.

My issue with this particular improvisation was that it wasn’t an improvisation. The dance itself consisted mostly of pantomime that looked familiar to me as I have seen these stories performed many times before. The movement is pretty much set repertoire for any Bharatanatyam dancer. If you already know the dance, how does it all of a sudden become improvisation when all you’re doing is changing the music?

The beautiful dancing in the concert was undermined by many presentation and production problems, unfortunately. The concert opened with a recording of Raman reciting her biography and achievements while we viewed an accompanying slide show that went on far too long, it was later repeated in a shorter version during the last dance, an homage to Mahatma Gandhi on his birthday. Normally this information is printed in a program (there was no program) and felt inappropriately placed within the context of the performance.

The projections of photos of the different gods behind each dance included helpful translations of the songs, but perhaps those could have been printed in the program, and the constantly changing background was distracting. Many times the dancers forgot choreography or were out of sync with each other, and the curtains, lighting and projections did things they weren’t supposed to do.

This company has many of the ingredients of what a professional Bharatanatyam company should look like and that made these shortcomings stand out more than they might have otherwise.


Weekend DanceWatch: Classical Indian dance

Klinton Haliday and Dhruv Singh talk about dancing in the Bharatnatyam style

As TBA winds down, Portland’s local offerings are beginning to pick up. Appropriately bookending TBA’s conversation on Global dance, this weekend brings us two separate Bharatanatyam dance groups from India.

Bharatnatyam is one of the classical dance forms originating from southern India. If you love to travel and are a fan of Indian music and dance then you should go see the Chennai December Season in Chennai India—experts in Indian music and dance come together from all over the world and perform every December.

Here in Portland we have our own active and vibrant Indian dance and music scene. The most active presenting organizations are KalakendraRasika, and the Portland Balaji Temple in conjunction with various dance schools in the area depending on the production. Kalakendra, whose mission is to introduce, promote and enhance awareness of the different Indian performing arts, will be bringing in Shijith Nambiar & Parvathy Menon on Saturday to perform Under the Banyon and Portland Balaji Temple with Alapadma Dance School from Seattle, will present  Viraja Mandhre & Shyamjith Kiran, on Sunday.

Portland is also home to to four very accomplished Bharatanatyam dance artists. Subashini Ganesan, Anita Menon, Jayanthi Raman and Sivagami Vanka. Ganesan in Southeast Portland is the Director of the Natya Leela Academy and is also the founder and Director of  N.E.W. (New Expressive Works), a residency and showcase for Portland choreographers at Studio 2 @ Zoomtopia. Bob Hicks wrote an article recently on Ganesan’s experience managing the space at Studio@Zoomtopia. Menon, is the Founder and Artistic Director of Anjali School of Dance in Hillsboro and Tigard and is the recent Recipient of the Regional Arts and Culture Council Performing Arts Fellowship and choreographed The Jungle Book for NW Children’s Theater in collaboration with Jane Hardy last season. Raman is the director of  Natya Dance Academy in Portland and Hillsboro and recent author of Bharatha Natyam, The Dance of India: Demystified for Global Audience. Vanka is the director of Kalabharathi School of Dance in Northwest Portland, presenter of Indian dance companies and is my own Bharatanatyam teacher. She will be celebrating her school’s 30th anniversary this coming year.

In June, I had the privilege of seeing Ganesan’s school recital, Conference of the Birds at PSU’s Lincoln Hall. Performing with the school was a beautifully charismatic, adult male dancer, Dhruv Singh. Male Bharatanatyam performers are rare to begin with and even more rare in Portland. Now we have two, that I know of. The second dancer is Klinton Haliday, who performed at Ten Tiny Dances in Beaverton, studies with Vanka, and is a close friend of mine.

Because their choices and experiences are so unusual, I thought it would be interesting to interview Singh and Haliday and for you to get to know them, after this week’s listing information.

TBA:15 FestivalAmy O’Neal, Opposing Forces
September 17, 18, 19

Dana Michel, Yellow Towel

September 18, 19

Radhouane El Meddeb / La compagnie de Soi, Au temps où les Arabes dansaient…

September 18, 19

Under the Banyan
Meghadootam, The Cloud Messenger
Choreography by Shijith Nambiar & Parvathy Menon
7:30pm, September 19
Performing Arts Center, PCC Sylvania 12000 SW 49th Ave.
Choreographed by Shijith Nambiar and Parvathy Menon with live music and vocals through the Bharatnatyam classical form of Indian dance, Under the Banyan tells the tale of an exiled man pining away for his wife who begs a passing cloud to carry his love to his wife.

Bharatanatyam Duo Viraja Mandhre & Shyamjith Kiran.

Bharatanatyam Duo Viraja Mandhre & Shyamjith Kiran.

Viraja Mandhre & Shyamjith Kiran,
A Bharatanatyam Recital
7pm, September 20
Portland Balaji Temple, 2092 NW Aloclek Drive, Suite 522, Hillsboro
A dynamic Bharatanatyam duo from the renowned Kalakshetra school of dance in Chennai India will perform several dances from their repertoire, at Portlands Balaji temple.

Dhruv Singh

Bharanatyam dancer Dhruv Singh performing in the Ramayana.

Bharanatyam dancer Dhruv Singh performing in The Ramayana.

How old are you?
Just turned 30!

Where are you from?
India at large—my extended family and relatives belong to Uttar Pradesh  (maternal folks near western UP and paternal folks around Varanasi). Personally I have grown up in Jabalpur, Trichy and Kolkata followed by college in Kanpur. I then moved to US for a Ph.D. in nanoscale engineering at Purdue University. My current job at Intel brought me to Portland, which would end up being the place where I really dedicated time in learning dance

How were you introduced to Bharatanatyam? When and where did you start dancing?
I was drawn to Bharatanatyam when my sister was learning it as a kid. In our community, that seemed to be the only dance class going on. and I was always interested in the dancing that went on in Bollywood movies—so would peek into the class and coax my (elder) sister to demo what she learnt. Its very hazy about when and where I actually started dancing Bharatanatyam, since there was not really a continuous process of learning or practicing. Perhaps in the living room while fooling around, perhaps through copying the vintage “unity in diversity” campaigns on TV or by assimilation in college cultural festivals. I have danced adulterated classical dances sporadically through college, which is where I was part of dancing club (Bollywood focused).

Was Bharatanatyam the first form of dance you learned?
Yes as a kid for a year. The first dances I formally learnt were Ballroom Standard and Latin dances and later Argentine Tango (to a greater depth).

What attracted you to Bharatanatyam?
I cannot put my finger on what attracted me to it as a child—it could be something as simple as the desire to dance. Today what attracts me to Bharatanatyam is the combination of rhythmic madness and complete freedom of expression portrayed through technique and body language—expressions ranging from simple happiness, bliss, sadness, anger, violence to complex ones such as turmoil, peace, surrender and confusion! The possibility that it can be playing tennis with music one moment and a meditative experience the other makes this a very attractive dance form to me!

What form of Bharatanatyam do you do? Who are your teachers?
I do not know about which form of Bharatanatyam I dance! My teacher was my sister (and her teacher, Somnath) and this year I learnt with Subashini Ganesan for her show. She once remarked I have “Kalakshetra” hands.

Is this the only dance style that you study or have studied?
No—actually this is the dance form I have not very formally/actively “studied.” I dance Bollywood, Indian folk dances, dance a bit of ballroom and I have been actively studying and dance Argentine Tango for the past five years.

Are your families supportive of you dancing?
Yes very much—and they are often very curious about my dancing adventures. They actively share videos of my performances with relatives and friends, and often ask me for living room demos

Do you think your dance experience has differed because you are male?
Tough question to answer—depends very much on which situation and at what time. With respect to Bharatanatyam, it has gone both ways. Sometimes I have a lot of attention and easy access to individual roles because of extreme scarcity of males (and people in general) who know Bharatanatyam. Often, we receive generous comments and lauding from spectators on the ability to perform the dance as well as women. At other times, I have found even choreographers smirk at the fact that a male is attempting to dance Bharatanatyam. And then there is everything in between.

What is it like training in Bharatanatyam in India compared to the US?
Most of my experience in the US is based on training with Subashini Ganesan in Portland earlier this year. I really admire her patience and ability to not only preserve but propagate the rigor that is associated with Indian classical dance (Bharatanatyam in particular)—while maintaining the nurturing classroom atmosphere expected by students today in the US (and all over the world). Back home in India, the atmosphere is much more hierarchical, strict and expects the student to be hungry—making dance students either competitive skilled dancers or losing interest. This is however, also culturally inspired—majority of Bharatanatyam students in India are children and young teens often put into classes by parents or professional dancers. In U.S., in addition there is a bigger fraction (not the absolute number) of adult dancers who get introduced to it for various reasons including cross cultural interactions.

Klinton Haliday

Klinton Haliday performing with Kalabharathi School of Dance at Walters Cultural Arts Center.

Klinton Haliday performing with Kalabharathi School of Dance at Walters Cultural Arts Center.

How old are you?
I turned 35 this last May

Where are you from?
I was born and raised in California

What is your ethnic background?
My family has a multicultural background, because of mixed parentage, I identify as Black American but before that I’m an American.

What is your connection to Japan?
My family, but it’s also the place where I became an adult, and the only other language aside from English that I speak, though recently I’ve begun French.

How were you introduced to Bharatnatyam? When and where did you start dancing?
I’ve danced since I was a child, but I was introduced to Bharatanatyam about 10 years ago, back in 2005, when my family moved back to U.S. (from Fukuoka Japan). It was our first day back in the States, and out of boredom we went to the Rose Garden to see the flowers and came upon a performance at Washington Park of the Kalabharathi School of Dance. I was so impressed with the performance I wanted to meet the performers. They were very kind and answered all of my questions and introduce me to my Guru Shivagami Vanka, who since has been my guide on this beautiful path.

When you first saw Indian dance at the International Rose Test Garden, what about the dance was impressive?
it was the music, the precision of movements, and the depth of story. Aesthetically it was absolutely beautiful, but most of all the rich and colorful history it had.

Was Bharatnatyam the first form of dance you learned?
No, I had seen it before but never imagined I would be attached to this art form as I am, but the first dance form I was exposed to is actually square dance when I was in second grade. Since then I’ve explored many genres of dance.

What attracted you to Bharatnatyam?
I would definitely have to say the athleticism and artistry for starters, but what made me fall in love with this Bharatanatyam is the theory, history, and Carnatic (A south Indian system of music) music.

What form of Bharatnatyam do you do? Who are your teachers?
My Guru is smt. Shivagami Vanka of the Kalabharathi School of Dance, but by means of my Guru I’ve have also trained  with Jayanthi Subramaniam, Madurai Muralidharan, and A. Lakshman Swami.  Kalakshetra is the style of Bharatanatyam my guru teaches, however for a complete experience of this art form, my Guru insist on exposure to other styles as well, so one can better appreciate the identity and the intricacy of Bharatanatyam.

Is this the only dance style that you study or have studied?
No, it isn’t. I’ve also studies Ballet, Jazz, Hip-hop, Salsa, Merengue, Tap, Nihon buyo, and some other social dances. But my favorite would have to be the folkloric styles such as classical East Indian dance “Bharatanatyam” or traditional Japanese dance “Nihon buyo”.

Is your family supportive of your dancing?
At times more than others, I think the process is more they know it makes me happy so they support that and itself, but even to this day I get the occasional “why, or what sparked your interest in that?” But yes my entire family’s been very supportive especially my wife, children, and my mom.

Do you think your dance experience has differed because you are male?
I suppose so, I find that people often expect female performers because there are more of them, but there are other aspects of dance that men can bring to the stage and any dance form, but especially in Bharatanatyam. As for myself personally, I find an immense amount of support from the Indian community here in the Northwest. I find at times it is like having a really big extended family.

Have you trained in Bharatnatyam outside of the US?
I’ve yet to have the pleasure to study in India, but I am very blessed to have a dance teacher who steeps my training in tradition and brings many teachers here from India means of camps hosted by the Kalabharathi School of Dance.

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