Arpana Dance Company of Irvine is getting ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary through a performance on May 26. The dance company has self-produced productions, presented several visiting artistes from India, and has raised money for charity work.
This milestone is a testament to the artistic vision of its Founder and Artistic Director, Ramya Harishankar. Ramya enjoyed a successful performing career in India, before she immigrated in 1982 to Orange County. “When I came here, teaching was not high on my list of priorities. I wanted to keep up my performing schedule here too. Very soon, I realized that I had to teach and create opportunities to perform as well. The Indian community was much smaller then, and I started by teaching. Today, Arpana has grown in ways that I could not have imagined then,” she says.
Priya Srinivasan, Assistant Professor of Dance, UC Riverside says, “In Southern California, when Arpana performs, they make a unique statement on stage through their focus on abhinaya. Also, Ramya’s collaborative works with other artists and choreographers drawn from India, other parts of the US and Europe, have added to their repertoire.”
“I treasure these collaborative work experiences,” says Ramya, citing her work with C. V. Chandrashekhar, Dominique Delorme, and Radhika Shurajit. C. V. Chandrashekhar taught Arpana company dancers his choreographic work, Panchabhootam, while Radhika Shurajit worked on Celluloid Classics, bringing evergreen melodies from the Indian tinsel screen on stage through the vocabulary of classical dance. Dominique Delorme’s knowledge of the Natya Shastra and his unique movement vocabulary have helped inspire Arpana company dancers.
Ahila Gulasekaram, a senior Arpana Company dancer says, “To work with guest choreographers was a great learning experience. This openness to new ideas is characteristic of my guru, Ramya. She helps set an example for us in many ways. Her vision for dance is to be open to new ideas, while maintaining the style’s integrity. Our thematic productions move away from the retelling of epics. Most of all, her passion is contagious,” she says with a laugh.
Ramya has tried to present her students other valuable learning opportunities as well. Arpana Dance Company regularly presents the work of visiting artistes from India. “I want my students to be aware of the myriad possibilities in dance. In a sense, I want to recreate the Chennai experience of being minutes away from performances by India’s greatest artists right here in Southern California.”
Apart from being a presenter, Arpana’s own dance productions have raised funds for several charities primarily focused on childrens’ causes in India and the US. “I wanted my students to realize that they were fortunate to enjoy dance lessons and the joy of dancing, when so many children around the world did not have a single meal,” says Ramya. For each fundraiser, the dancers worked within their circle of family and friends to raise money for the cause. The organizations that benefited from these efforts are the Malibu temple, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Pediatric AIDS Foundation, Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Bala Mandir, Udhavum Karngal, Spastics Society of India, Child Reach, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, American Cancer Society, American Red Cross, and Pratham. Together, these fundraisers have raised $75, 000 for the charities.
Ramya sounds pensive as I ask her what it means to look back upon twenty-five years of artistic work. “My gurus Swamimalai S.K. Rajarathnam and Kalanidhi Narayanan influenced my thinking in very different ways. Through Guru Rajarathnam, I imbibed a visual aesthetic that was lyrical, gentle, and visually appealing. He eschewed the use of rhythmic patterns solely to showcase one’s virtuosity with rhythm. Guru Kalanidhi taught me how to personalize my dance through her emphasis on abhinaya, and her focus on building a coherent narrative structure. My hope is that my commitment will help create protégés who can carry on this work in later years. When I was nineteen, I was lucky to be able to say that I wanted to dance full-time. I did not pause to think about how the bills would be paid. A big dose of idealism helped me then. For young women today, the reality of building a professional life through dance is a tough one to face. But, I continue to hope for that to happen.”
Arpana’s celebration on May 26 will include repertory pieces from several previous production, traditional repertory pieces, and a collaborative piece with Kinnara Taiko.