There’s not much support for projects that incorporate ‘traditional’ dance as well as other forms and mediums to tell a story. I think a lot of artists are doing this kind of work, but it’s not widely recognized,” says Joti Singh, Artistic Director of Duniya Dance and Drum Company. Performing Diaspora, a Bay Area dance festival, allows artists to work with tradition and storytelling. “[It] gives traditional artists a space to innovate and push boundaries… what we need to realize, and what I have realized through this program, is that my art is something that can speak to people regardless of background,” says Nadhi Thekkek, Co-Artistic Director of Nava Dance Theatre.
CounterPULaSE hosts a two-weekend dance extravaganza exploring the idea of diaspora. From August 15 to 18, the first weekend, Joti Singh’s Red, Saffron, and Green relates the story of her great-grandfather and the Gadar Party. The second weekend runs from August 22 to 25 and features Nadhi Thekkek and Nava Dance Theatre performing The Cloud Messenger, a bharatanatyam adaptation of Kalidasa’s 5th century poem Meghadhuta.
“I’ve had it in my mind for a while to do a piece about my great grandfather… it’s the centennial of the Gadar Party, and there is a lot of energy around celebrating the members of the party,” says Singh. In 1909 Bhagwan Singh Gyanee was forced to leave India due to his work for Indian independence, and he traveled throughout Hong Kong, Canada, and the United States before serving as president of the Gadar Party from 1914 to 1920. “I always thought of my great grandfather as a hero, and I still do. I also have more understanding now of how much his family had to sacrifice in order for him to become this hero. When he left India, he left a wife and kids behind, including my grandmother,” explains Singh.
“I’ve incorporated a lot of text into the piece, a poem from Gadar di Goonj, the Gadar publication, another poem written by my great-grandfather, and also text that I wrote myself,” says Singh. She has stretched traditional dance to tell her grandfather’s story. “I am re-contextualizing some bhangra movements, so that rather than conveying happiness and celebration, when they are coupled with the text and percussion, they show strength, resolve, dedication, and power,” adds Singh.
A recent trip to Punjab has informed Singh’s work. “The trip changed a lot in the show. I learned a bit of gatka, the Sikh martial art, and am incorporating some of that into the performance,” says Singh. But one of her most important influences has been working with local dancers.“One of the biggest factors in developing this piece has been working with two of the dancers, Priya Nykan and Alysha Higgins. They have had a very hands-on role in developing the work with me,” says Singh. The opportunity to be an artist-in-residence at CounterPULSE has given Singh the time and the community to create herpiece. “We’ve had a couple of work-in-progress showings where all the artists present their pieces in development and we all give feedback. It’s been a wonderfully informative and inspiring process,” concludes Singh.
Thekkek has had a similarly intense process developing The Cloud Messenger. Kalidasa’s 5th century work is a beautifully hypnotic poem that traverses the topography of India as it evokes separation and longing. The poem revolves around a yaksha, separated from his beloved, who entreats a rain cloud to deliver his message of love. Working from different translations and commentaries, Thekkek found that “certain verses leapt out from the pages… when I came across these lines, I saw more than the words on the page. I saw myself, characters, dancers, all of us embodying Kalidasa’s imagery and sentiment. What came next was an irrevocable urge to use my medium, dance, to communicate my vision,” explains Thekkek.
Thekkek’s mode of communication, along with her company, is bharatanatyam. Nava Dance Theatre was founded by Thekkek and Sophia Valath, who grew up dancing together with Sundara Swaminathan, Artistic Director of Kala Vandana Dance Company. They were joined by Arun Mathai, and all three bring a wealth of experience with different styles of bharatanatyam to their initial training with Swaminathan. “My inspiration for forming the company is my love for the art… it allows me to express myself fully and honestly. Moreover, the practice and performance of bharatanatyam is a sort of meditation for me. Immersing myself in the movement and emotion offers moments of clarity. It connects me to people, and to God,” says Thekkek.
The three worked closely with the renowned composer GS Rajan to develop music that flowed seamlessly into the choreography. “My goal for the piece was to be able to translate my emotional response to the narrative into bharatanatyam. This vision dictated the music composition, the choreography, and lastly, determined what parts of the narrative were to be included in the final presentation,” explains Thekkek. The result of close collaboration with Rajan is a largely lyric-less work. “We wanted the musical phrases and choreography to tell the story. GS Rajan’s patience, motivation, and artistry has produced some really incredible music that exactly expresses what we intended, often without lyrics,” says Thekkek.
Thekkek agrees with Singh that CounterPULSE is an incredible opportunity for her to conceptualize and create. Thekkek concludes, “That my voice is a part of a greater artistic voice or ‘performing diaspora’ that can tell important stories that audiences want to understand, and more importantly, that audiences will understand” is the gift that CounterPULSE has given Thekkek and Singh. It is their hard work, and the support of their ensembles, that will bring their stories to light on stage this August.
August 15-18, 8 p.m. Joti Singh. August 22-25, 8p.m. Nadhi Thekkek. CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission Street, San Francisco. Tickets begin at $22. http://counterpulse.org/. www.duniyadance.com. www.navadance.org.