Monday, May 13, 2013

Natyananda celebrates 35 years of Bharatanatyam in Birmingham ,

By  Michael Huebner  

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- For the last 35 years, Sheila Rubin has been bridging two very different cultures a half a world away through the universal language of dance.
To mark the milestone of the founding of her Birmingham Indian troupe, Natyanananda, Rubin will bring to the city one of India's finest practitioners of Bharatanatyam, an Indian dance form that has survived for 2,000 years.
Venkatakrishnan Mahalingam, or V.K. as he is called, will be the featured artist at Natyananda's 35th Birthday Anniversary concert on Saturday, June 8, at UAB's Bell Theatre, 700 13th Street South. He will be joined by Rubin, two of her company's prized dancers, and the remainder of the 40-member company.

The connections are palpable. V.K. is a solo dancer who trained at Bharata Kalanjali, the school founded in the late 1960s by V.P. and Shanta Dhananjayan. The Dhananjayans, in turn, were associated with Kalakshetra, another revered, and even older, institution that traces its origins to Rukmini Devi, the most important revivalist of Indian dance.
Rubin's dance roots follow the same path. She became interested in Indian dance in the 1960s and 1970s while traveling with her mother, a linguistic anthropologist. After eight years of dancing with the Dhananjayans' troupe, she landed in Birmingham, where she started Natyananda.
The first years were pretty lean."We had four, maybe five dancers," she recalled. "It was hard to get people interested in Indian dance. Indians who had recently arrived wanted their children to do it, but all their children wanted to do was to be American, and blend." Although some of the young dancers would heed their parents' call to duty and learn Bharatanatyam, they would quit when they became teenagers. Since the 1990s, those attitudes have completely changed. The availability and popularity of Indian culture, especially Bollywood, has helped to established a new awareness and appreciation.
"Now I get young adults who have wanted to do Indian dance all their lives and haven't had an opportunity," Rubin said. "Teenagers are coming of their own initiative. I have dancers who have danced with me for 15 or 20 years." To have an western woman as a Bharatanatyam coach has been advantageous for everyone involved, she said."It's very helpful, especially for teenagers, because they have to rebel against their parents. It's their job," Rubin said. "They all call me their second mom."
The discipline of Bharatanatyam keeps them focused. It combines the mystical with the metaphysical, spiritual narratives with emotionless technique. Costumes are extremely elaborate, with colorful silk embroidery, headdresses and abundance of percussive leggings and jewelry.

Often based on ancient epic poetry, the narratives can be complex, but the equally complex system of hand and limb movements, statuesque poses, and back-and-forth eye and head movements helps narrow the far-away story lines to a dramatic level that anyone can understand.
The concert on Saturday will be noticeably traditional. While the Bollywood dance craze has taken a firm hold, and many Indian dance troupes have embraced modern and popular dance, Rubin prefers to stick to convention. In addition to two solo dances by V.K., the company will perform a dance drama on the 10 incarnations of the Hindu god, Vishnu, with a cast of 14 dancers.
Exclusively sacred dances are at the heart of Bharatanatyam, and Rubin's own dance training.
"There will be nothing cross-cultural," she said. "Just the purity and beauty of traditional dance. For me, nothing compares with it."
All 40 troupe members will participate, with two of Rubin's best students in the spotlight. Smriti Krishnan, who performed her arangetram, or "rite of passage," in 2009, will be dancing, and so will Neha Udayakumar, who performed her arangetram in 2011. Rubin believes they will make a nice complement. "Smriti is very dramatic and intense," she said. "Neha is a different personality than Smriti. She is pure sweetness, just exquisite."Unlike traditional concerts in India, the event shouldn't last longer than 90 minutes.
"My teachers' motto was, 'leave the audience wanting more.' Don't satiate them."



1 comment:

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