What does it mean to be part of the 2012 Ethnic Dance Festival in San Francisco? “Being chosen for an encore is strong validation and very special” replies Shreelata Suresh, Artistic Director and choreographer for Vishwa Shanthi Dance Academy. Hundreds of companies auditioned for the opportunity to dance in the festival, and only thirty companies were chosen. For Charlotte Moraga, Chhandam Youth Dance Company Director, it’s an exciting challenge, “the most dancers, the youngest dancers, and the most challenging piece yet to be shown by us at the Ethnic Dance Festival.” This year’s festival highlights companies with the greatest critical acclaim from previous seasons.“We were lucky to be selected for the 2011 festival for this very item, and they are inviting us back,” says Rasika Kumar, Artistic Director for Abhinaya Dance Company.
This year Vishwa Shanthi Dance Academy is presenting a piece entitled Poorthi or Fulfillment. Suresh explains, “we promote the tradition that bharatanatyam is a form of worship of the divine as was the case thousands of years ago.” Poorthi is inspired by the story of 12th century ruler of Karnataka, and the dance tells the story of his wife, Shatala Devi. She offers her dance to Vishnu and Shiva in the king’s incomplete dance hall, awakening nine stone sculptures into dance. At the conclusion of the performance the queen becomes the tenth sculpture, completing the temple. Suresh has created flowing, dynamic formations that unfurl the story on stage before the audience. When “the queen finishes the performance by becoming the tenth sculpture [it] signifies complete surrender and reunification of her soul with the divine.”
The Chhandam Youth Dance Company is performing a world premier at the festival with twenty-eight dancers between the age of 8 and 17. The inspiration for this kathak piece was playing with rhythm and taal. Moraga reveals that the first half of the performance was inspired by a Sunday session between Pandit Chitresh Das and the youth company, “he asked them to play manjira and recite the teental theka while they did this incredibly fast and complicated footwork, he added some choreography that included movement across the stage and voila, we’ve got an incredibly dynamic piece, all a capella.” The second half of the piece features a short tarana in Raag Malkauns.
The Abhinaya Dance Company is presenting a joint piece with San Jose Taiko entitled Synergy. Kumar describes it as “a lively conversation between Abhinaya’s bharatanatyam dancers and San Jose Taiko’s performers. We play with several rhythms, exchanging moves and ideas all the while staying true to our respective genres.” The resulting choreography is not fusion, but a conversation between two art forms. Working closely with Franco Imperial, Artistic Director of San Jose Taiko, Kumar explores rhythmic patters common to both bharatanatyam and taiko. “The inspiration behind this item was a vision of taiko performers awakening dancing spirits with their drums. The drum sounds and the dancers are then linked from the very beginning and there is an element of playfulness and whimsy that pervades the piece.”
The preparation for all three dance companies is intense. As Pandit Chitresh Das says, “freedom comes from refined discipline with responsibility.” Kumar stresses, “it’s very important to me that all the dancers not only perform the movements in synchronization but also that they embody the spirit of the item in their dance… that playfulness and lightness.” Suresh explains, “the audience should look for clean lines formed by the limbs and bodies of the dancers, the symmetry of the dancers matching the mathematical patterns of the drum beats, and the joy with which we will be dancing.”
This disciple and devotion, Suresh believes, results in not only flawless performances but also personal development. “After years of intense practice, the student discovers the dancer within herself. The complete surrender of the artist to the art brings immense joy.” Moraga concurs, “it’s a vehicle for self-expression and experiencing ultimate joy. Pandit Chitresh Das has a saying, ‘Kathak is like an eight-course Bengali meal. Bollywood is potato chips.’ The world can appreciate and relate to Bollywood, but kathak can be just as exciting and entertaining, and people should understand what goes into a classical art.”
During this Ethnic Dance Festival it’s clearly time to leave the potato chips in the bag and experience the discipline and exhilaration of three Indian dance companies committed to artistic tradition.
Chhandam Youth Dance Company: June 16, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., June 17, 3 p.m
Vishwa Shanthi Dance Academy: June 23, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., June 24, 3 p.m
Abhinaya Dance Company: June 30, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., July 1, 3 p.m
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, San Francisco. $18. www.worldartswest.org.