World Arts West is getting ready for the 29th Annual Ethnic Dance Festival to be held in San Francisco in June. “The first festival was held in 1978, and was performed in front of a handful of people at local community centers,” says Julie Mushet, Executive Director, World Arts West, looking at its humble beginnings as a presenter. This year, over 8000 audience members will come and watch 200 dancers drawn from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds at the Palace of Fine Arts. Mushet continues, “I am not aware of any festival in the United States which accomplishes what we do every year. We provide a multicultural platform for talented artists to dance in front of mainstream audiences. Instead of bharatanatyam being performed within the Indian community alone, you can see several dance forms being performed on stage, each adhering to their unique cultural integrity.”
The line-up for each festival is based on rigorous auditions that are conducted in January each year. This year, three Indian American dance groups have been selected through this process. Dancers from the Abhinaya Dance Company and Jyoti Kala Mandir will represent the beauty of bharatanatyam and odissi, while Parna Basu will present a kathak solo.
Basu says, “I will be presenting a taraana, a specific vocal rendition visualized through pure movement. The piece will be presented as it would have been in the erstwhile Mughal courts to present a unifying statement conveying kathak’s form and its history. The costuming with an angarkha (short tunic) and churidhar will reflect Muslim sensibilities, rather than the now-dominant Hindu costuming aesthetics.”
Mythili Kumar, Artistic Director, Abhinaya Dance Company says, “We will be presenting Varsha from Kalidasa’s Ritu Samhara, written in Sanskrit. Rain, thunder, and lightning catch travelers unawares and they dance together to convey the power of the rain gods. The coming of rain signifies the rejuvenation of the earth as well.”
Jyoti Rout, Artistic Director, Jyoti Kala Mandir sounds excited as she talks about the premiere of a new work at the festival. “Vedic chants have been set to music for our piece. Sculptors carve the deities for a temple, even as devotees throng to this new place of worship in the village. Along with drummers, they dance in ecstasy together, and soon the sun sets, while the cycle of the moon starts. The Vedic chants and the dancing convey through the imagery of the setting of the sun, the deeper truth related to the unalterable cycle of birth and death.”
The overall theme for this year’s festival is Evocations. Every culture and dance group is expected to paint their unique imagery conveying this theme. In addition to the Indian participants, one can watch Chinese dancing, Spanish flamenco, Scottish cloggers, Balinese dancers along with dancers from many other cultures on a single stage. “One of the greatest accomplishments of the festival,” says Mushet, “has been the development of audiences for all the artists who take part. Someone who is a friend of the Balinese dance group comes and discovers the beauty of bharatanatyam. Many parents bring their children to the festival to learn about other cultures. This year, we have also tried to alter the perception that these dance forms are static by premiering new works by some groups.”
Over three weekends in June, the festival will have dancers celebrating movement vocabularies from different parts of the globe. On my first visit to the Ethnic Dance Festival many years ago, I watched as every group was applauded for their efforts. The Scottish cloggers left audience members tapping their feet in unison, followed by a kathak group performance where the dancers’ successive twirls left the audience gasping with astonishment. And, then there followed a Filipino dance that reminded me of the Manipuri dance vocabulary in its slow and graceful glides. I felt the vibrancy of each culture, and a rare moment of understanding stole into my mind as different thoughts, ideas, and experiences coalesced to form a single conviction that has never left me. When a dancer stands on stage, she or he represents so many strands of a culture’s heritage. All at once, you see a country’s poetry, music, costumes, jewelry, and stories being presented through the dancer who acts as an ambassador of every aspect of its culture. As in years past, that’s what you can expect to see at the Festival this year-dancer ambassadors representing every part of the globe, dancing on a single stage. I wouldn’t want to miss this experience. Would you?
Saturday and Sunday, June 9-10, Parna Basu among other dance groups; June 16 and 17, Abhinaya Dance Company among other dance groups; June 23 and 24, Jyoti Kala mandir among other dance groups. Saturday performances: 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday performance: 2 p.m. Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon St., San Francisco. $22, $28, $36, Children 16 and under receive half price admission for matinee. (415) 392-4400. www.worldartswest.org