Why I Prefer to Dance Like a Man

Posted in choreography, identity, performance with tags , , on December 30, 2015 by Amritha A. Joseph

As a kid, I used to hate having to play male parts in skits or dances. I grew up with Disney princesses and wanting to be one myself, so donning a white wig to play Albert Einstein in the third grade or a brown jumpsuit to play the big bad wolf in Le Petit Chaperon Rouge for French class weren’t my favorite roles.

But a lot has changed over the last 20 years, and now, I have the most fun playing male parts in dances because I have a chance to get into character.

One of the things I love about performing is that it allows you to be someone else for a little while, to play a role that you normally wouldn’t. Additionally, it’s your chance to exhibit your skill as a versatile dancer. After all, there’s no point in acting in a role that you already hold in your day-to-day life — there wouldn’t be much to “act.” Finally, playing the different gods lends itself to internalizing their attributes and depicting them accurately, which requires a level of devotion and connection to the divine.

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1) Playing a different role is just plain fun.

I’ve always felt the Bharatanatyam style is such that even when portraying kings, male attendants or even some of the princes and gods like Vishnu, Rama, and Krishna, the movements and expressions still look graceful and elegant, so there still isn’t too much of a difference unless you are interacting directly with the female roles.

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However, that’s not the case when portraying Shiva, the embodiment of virility, which makes dancing like Shiva the most challenging and most fun to depict.

The poses, the stance, the gait, the fiery eyes and wild hair all radiate a powerful ruggedness. Unlike the other male roles, Shiva exudes raw manliness that is apparent even without a female counterpart by his side, though the presence of one certainly doesn’t hurt to accentuate his brawniness. And since I don’t get to walk around like this in my normal life, I enjoy being able to do this at least through dance. After all, we all have both of these energies within us.  In fact, dance teacher and choreographer Malathi Iyengar sees dance as a symbol of integration: “Every human being has tandava and lasya in her or him. At various times, depending on what is needed, the masculine or feminine comes out—in the dance forms and in life.”

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2) It demonstrates your skill as a dancer

A few years ago, my sister, inspired by an Ardhaneeshwara performance we saw a long time ago, wanted to choreograph a dance that would bring the male and female forms together. She, my mom and I put together a dance to “Shambo Shiva Shambo,” starting with a prayer. My sister played Parvati, and I played Shiva, and as much as I know the costumes contributed a lot to how the piece was received, I must say that when we performed this piece again recently at the Gainesville Devi Temple fundraiser, it was the stark contrast in the male and female movements that really made the dance stand out– so much so that we were asked to come perform it again a few weeks later for Gainesville’s 2015 India Fest.

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I enjoyed executing the bolder, stern gazes, the brisker movements, the heavier and wider steps, which I had to consciously execute. I didn’t have to smile, for once, which was refreshing, because I was Shiva “in the zone,” but it was also something I had to be mindful of since I’ve been wired to smile in most dances when playing Krishna, Rama, etc. This, along with the music and costume combined, kindled in me a real connection to the cosmic dance god himself.

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3) It’s an opportunity to connect with the divine

Depicting a god or goddess in a dance isn’t just an aspect of Bharatantyam, it’s a privilege to do so. Just as movie actors and actresses have to research a role and do it justice, especially when they play real people in movies based on true events, I (and likely most other Bharatanatyam dancers) take the portrayal of the divine as an honor.

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For me, it’s as if deity is giving me a chance to play him, and if I give the role the respect and dedication it deserves, I will reap from it something much more powerful than just applause at the end of a performance; It’s an opportunity to truly connect with the divine, and based on each dancer’s perception, interpretation and illustration, that connection will be different and personal. Like so many other pursuits, you only get from it as long you give.

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I feel this way with any of the deities I portray, but for some reason, I feel it strongest when I play the male roles, particularly Lord Shiva. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact I’ve been learning dance for so long that I have always felt a deeper connection to the Lord of Dance for all that He has given me through the years. I am more inspired and driven to play Shiva, and it’s as if there an expectation to fulfill when portraying the Lord of Dance.

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If there’s any dance to execute with complete perfection and devotion, it’s a Shiva dance, and somehow, I feel He doesn’t let me down either.

Trivikrama: Conquering Three Worlds While Bringing Together Two

Posted in choreography, event/upcoming performance, identity with tags , on September 28, 2015 by Amritha A. Joseph

Seven years ago I met a pretty cool guy who was different than me in almost every single way. This year, I married him.

In many ways, these differences have balanced each other out over the years: he’s laid back, and I’m high-strung; he’s a planner, I’m spontaneous; he uses his left brain more and I use more of my right.

When it comes to personalities, we off-set each other and have figured out how to make a pretty good team. At the same there was one difference we had to address very early on in our initial stages of dating, one that I didn’t even notice when I first met him because it seemed we still had many of the same traditions: He is Malayalee Catholic and I am Tamil Hindu.

It didn’t seem like such a stark difference when we first met because we had many cultural traditions in common. In fact, the first time he wished me “Happy Onam,” in 2008, I was surprised to learn that his family and community celebrated this festival, which is based on the story of King Mahabali and the Vishnu avatar, but to this day, it’s also an example I reference to remind myself that our communities have more in common than some may think.

 

But it’s also why I was faced with a bit of a dilemma when, this year, my mother-in-law asked me to perform a dance piece at their community’s Onam festival; I wanted to perform a piece that told the story of Onam without offending people in the mostly Catholic community.

The Onam festival celebrates the homecoming of the generous but arrogant King Mahabali after he was banished to the netherworld by Vamana, an avatar of Vishnu. Vishnu, recognizing that King Mahabali was a good devotee and generous king,  allowed to return from the netherworld each year to celebrate the harvest with the people of his kingdom.

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At first, I was hesitant about doing this piece because of the inclusion of the Vamana (Vishnu) avatar and reference to King Mahabali as arrogant. I asked my husband and mother-in-law how it would be received. The more I spoke to them and thought about it, I realized the story of Onam is directly tied to the story of King Mahabali, and it was in our portrayal of the story that we could choose to either celebrate Mahabali’s generosity, or condemn his pride. For this particular festival, we decided to go with the former, especially since, as I’ve noted in a previous post, the “good over evil” themes I learned as a kid are too simplistic a view.

After all, the gods tricked the demons to obtain the ambrosia from the churning of the milky ocean, the decadent Balarama terrorized the river Yamuna, and King Mahabali was actually a good and generous king by whom the gods felt threatened.

We ended up portraying the king as generous, but boasting himself the conqueror of all three realms and as making the mistake of using the dwarf Vamana’s appearance to underestimate the three steps the dwarf requests from him.

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With just the first step the king recognizes his folly. In the first step, Vamana grows beyond his actual stature to conquer the heavens. In the second step, he conquers the earth. He then searches for the third place to keep the final step, and the King offers his own head, pushing him down into the netherworld.
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However, Vishnu, recognizing that the king was a true Vishnu devotee and kept his word, allows the king to return to be with his people each year during the harvest season. This reunion is marked by the festival of Onam.

We called the piece Trivikrama, in reference to Vishnu’s conquests in this story, but also referring to the King’s initial claim that he was conqueror of all realms. The conquering of three physical worlds is supposed to be an allegory for the conquering of mind, body and soul.

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In the end, the dance was received with great enthusiasm and appreciation. We got positive feedback that the dance depicted a meaningful story that related directly to Onam.

I was thrilled. For me, doing this dance represented combining my husband’s tradition with mine. It was the first big event since the wedding where I could fully mingle with my husband’s community and be welcomed by them. So while Trivikrama conquered the three worlds, for me “Trivikrama,” the dance, represented the blending of our two worlds together.

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What words can’t express

Posted in choreography on September 11, 2011 by Amritha A. Joseph

Time, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Bloomberg, The Economist — all filled with heart-wrenching photos and surreal accounts of the horrific events that took place 10 years ago,  and here I was, a writer, my pages blank.

Ten years after 9/11, I thought, how was it possible that I had no story to write, nothing to say, no feeling to articulate through words? Even now I’m slightly disappointed that there’s no post on my other blog serving as a tribute to the 9/11 victims, but since my mom helped me express through my other craft, dance, what I couldn’t express through words, I find myself finally updating this site after more than two years.

In remembrance of 9/11, my mom choreographed a dance for me to perform for an interfaith event honoring the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedies. It was a dance on world peace, choreographed to the Tamil song, “Shanthi Nilava Vendum,” or “Let There Be Peace Everywhere.” Having the lyrics in my mother tongue helped me bring out the emotions a lot more easily than I think I would have for a song in a different language. It was a plea for everlasting peace and spiritual power in a world filled with fear, terror and violence.


A sloka, or prayer, preceded the dance, asking for there to be peace everywhere: in the heavens, on earth, and in the great cosmos; peace on the waters, peace to bestow contentment; peace for all forms of life.

“Let peace come to us through actions done and yet to be done, let there be peace to the past as well as the future.”

The song was a call to action, for people to do their duty in being open hearted and teaching those things that build good character in a person. I want to expand on that to urge people to share with people of other cultures  information about your own— your customs, traditions, rituals and beliefs. What good is it to say you’re tolerant if you’re not active in sharing (I said sharing, not proselytizing) with others the richness of your own culture? That’s what breeds understanding among people and can lead to a society free of ignorance.

“With a pure heart let us give back to our society.”

When my mom and I were working on the dance, we first started off by including a depiction of the father of the nonviolence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, since his name is specifically mentioned in the Tamil song. Later, however, we decided to also illustrate scenes from the World Trade Center disasters, as it was more appropriate for the interfaith event, and would likely evoke more personal reactions from the audience.

It worked. And I felt truly honored to be able to perform for such an occasion.

May all those who have lost their lives in fighting violence around the world rest in peace always.

Correction: today’s girls DON’T shy away from sringara

Posted in gender issues, identity, teaching on March 20, 2009 by Amritha A. Joseph

In an earlier post, “Has Shyness Died in a Generation of Emboldened Women,” I discussed whether it was possible for today’s generation of girls, who see changed gender roles and are more independent, can capture the element of shyness that’s part of expressing sringara.

Flickr photo by Creative Eye

Flickr photo by Creative Eye

Well after talking with some experts and student dancers here in Chennai, I have to change my comments. Earlier I had written:

“As journalist Nita Kulkarni writes, Indians today, girls and boys, whether living in India or not, no longer maintain the pristine reputations that perhaps their parents or grandparents once did: “Boys and girls from even traditional families are dating, but secrecy is the name of the game… If there are any guilt pangs for this elaborate deceit, they are suppressed by the overwhelming needs of these youngsters, needs which are no longer considered immoral.”

However, it’s that secrecy which gives way to shyness, according to principal instructor at Chennai’s Shree Bharatalaya dance school, Sudharani Raghupathy. “In that first look, there is coyness, secrecy,” she says, “That amount of shyness is present because that is Indian culture.” But the level of shyness depends on the extent to which a person has been exposed to society, she says. Even so, it’s there in Indian blood. As Prof. Raghupathy explains, there is a certain extent of coyness involved even to flirt. Then it’s because “it is in our genes,” that even the daughters of NRIs learning Bharatnatyam abroad are able to portray the subtleties of sringara.

But for the younger students or for those who cannot relate, dance exponent Padma Subramaniam, director, Nrityodaya, says that’s where acting comes into play. “You don’t need the experience of killing to act as if you’re killing someone on stage,” she says. “Acting is acting whether it is shyness or villainy.” As these are natural, human emotions, they are within the expressive reach of all students. Dr. Subramaniam’s students, Swati V.P. (22) and G. Aparna (23), endorse the view. Emotions remain the same, regardless of the changing times and interaction with other cultures. Perhaps that is why even Dr. Subramaniam’s foreign students are able to capture the shyness just as effortlessly.

So if the background of the student does not matter, it must mean some of the responsibility to elicit the proper expression is shouldered by the teacher, as dancer Chitra Visweswaran notes: “It is essential to go into a detailed background of each piece, and that does not necessarily relate to the immediate text alone,” she says. Visweswaran says that it is the duty of the teacher to bring out that which already lies dormant within the student, and it seems dedicated students will overcome generational and cultural barriers by watching several professional performances.

“Whatever has to be done, we do it, and it is pakka done,” Aparna says.

I suppose that is why I finally got over my diffidence and continued to learn the dance piece. I realized the shy expression was within my reach, thanks to my genetic make-up, my teacher’s competence, and at the most basic level, my membership to the human race. Plus, as someone who has grown up in an artistic milieu, I’ve noticed that it’s Bharatanatyam’s ability to express, not traditional or even Indian but, human emotions that has allowed it to withstand foreign penetration and the test of time.

Priyadarshini Govind: expression of epic proportion

Posted in performance, review/critique with tags on January 8, 2009 by Amritha A. Joseph

Priyadarshini Govind needs no song, instrument, demonstration or special lighting effects to tell her story — her face is enough. In a performance filled with abhinaya-heavy pieces, Govind played up her forte: her expression. It was a traditional performance, complete with prayer, alarippu, varnam, padam…… in fact, I was pleasantly surprised. It has been so long since I have seen a dancer of similar caliber actually go through the traditional sequential order of dance pieces during a show. Usually, they opt for themes. But in sticking to a very traditional selection of pieces, Govind actually set herself apart from other dancers, who now choose to mesh dance styles or manifest modern themes to revamp Bharatanatyam.

I try to take something away from each dance performance I watch, one major thing that stands out, and in the case of Govind it was without a doubt her uncanny ability to narrate using just her eyes. In the varnam, the nayaki asks her friend to bring Lord Nataraja to her quickly, for Cupid’s arrows have penetrated her heart and left her longing. The pain of separation displayed in Govind’s eyes were unbelievably compelling, so much so that I’ll bet any audience member was thinking, “Perhaps she really IS apart from someone.”  ( call me gullible, I know I did.) Her looks of longing were more convincing than any other dancer I’ve seen.

But more than her expression of pain, it was her expression of cavalier indifference that I found amusing as the nayaki says, “Why should I be afraid to express my love? Everyone knows already. I am not afraid. Let them talk.” I thought her portrayal of fear, confidence, carelessness and playfulness in such quick succession was skillful and mature. Similarly, in her padam, she was tactful in showing the reluctance by a Shiivite  devotee being seduced by a Vishnavite; while the  body language pushes her pursuer away, her eyes cannot gaze away from him. “Go away, and do not stand at the temple threshold, pull my sari, or press your lips against mine,” she says, although, she continues to look on after she has locked him out.  Again, it’s not that these are sentiments I have never before seen in dance — rather, it’s that I’ve never seen anyone illustrate them so candidly.

I actually didn’t like the adavu sequences in this performance. There was too much scampering around, too much movement and dashing across the stage to take in what was going on. I’ll give Govind the benefit of the doubt — perhaps this is not Govind’s fault but just reflective of her school’s style. But I have never cared for repeated prancing. No, scratch that…any prancing. However, I didn’t mind sitting through the adavus because Govind’s expression had me locked.

Adavus aside, for those who can read faces well, in Govind’s performance, they would find an epic.

Malavika Sarukkai’s “Dharsan” a true show of her abilities

Posted in choreography, event/upcoming performance, performance, review/critique on January 5, 2009 by Amritha A. Joseph

In comparison to Alarmel Valli’s performance the previous night, I thought Malavika Sarukkai’s “Dharsan” was a much livelier and energetic show. Not only was her choreography and execution of adavus vibrant and unique, but her conceptualization and depiction of the various forms of dharsan were captivating.

The first piece was a tribute to Lord Ranganatha. Reclining on a bed of serpents in the middle of the cosmic ocean, Lord Ranganatha’s left hand is described metaphorically by his consort Lakshmi, the demonic asuras, and the  surrendering devotee. To Lakshmi, Rangantha’s left arm is like a fragrant garland of flowers, whose embrace she yearns for; to the demons, his arm is as frightening as a thunderbolt; to the devotee, his arm provides protection, like the branch of tree. I was impressed by the remarkable grace exhibited by Sarukkai when portraying goddess Lakshmi, in contrast to the bhaya (fear) portrayed by the asuras immediately after. I was mesmerized by her poses, which resembled those carved into ancient temple walls. Again, as with Valli, it was a real treat to witness such poise.

However, in the case of Sarukkai, the content of her dances held my attention, and I was not glancing at my watch every few minutes. I thought her second item was her strongest, a piece describing Lord Rama’s arrival in Mythilai. The women of Mythilai watch intently as Rama walks by, some excited and obvious like a deer…others glance gracefully his way like a peacock. Still others peer out their windows furtively like stars in the night sky. I thought this piece truly was a “dharsan” of Sarukkai’s superior Bharatanatyam aplomb as she represented the deer-like scampering of some women as well as the cool gait of others (like peacocks). The subsequent adavus were also appropriate to the segments they followed–fast for the deer, smooth for the peacock, and staccato for the stars.

The next two Krishna pieces, one of which was a North Indian Meera bhajan, were somewhat weak I felt, at least in comparison to the first two. But she finished with a very energetic and distinct thillana which I thought ended the performance on a sweet note.

Overall, Sarukkai’s performance displayed her talent as a Bharatanatyam dancer and her originality as a choreographer: “Dharsan” was truly a show of spirit.

Alarmel Valli: spot-on delivery, but performance lacking zest

Posted in performance, review/critique with tags on January 4, 2009 by Amritha A. Joseph

I want to preface this post by saying….I had never seen Alarmel Valli dance before. In fact, I havent seen a lot of the well-known dancers, because I’ve never been in Chennai long enough to have that opportunity.

On a superficial level, the first thing I noticed about her when she stepped foot on the stage was that she was surprisingly fit for her age. I’ve seen a lot of…seasoned…dancers who are not quite so privileged. It is obvious she maintains her figure through rigorous practice, and it pays off. Additionally, I’ve noticed with the some senior artists, makeup proves to be detrimental, enhancing features in an unflattering way. But Valli’s case I would say her features were accentuated strikingly  and suited for dance. Had I not been alerted to her age, I would never have guessed it.

Flickr photo by Nafees Ahmed

With regard to her actual performance– she was flawless. I have never in my life seen someone execute adavus so perfectly. As someone who has only seen occasional Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi performances in the U.S. (that, too, very rarely professional dancers) it was a quite a treat to watch her sculpturesque poses and clear movements.

However, I didn’t care much for the performance itself. Something about the content didn’t hold my attention. It was lacking in life.  While I thought some of the adavus were fresh, none of the sequences stuck with me as worth remembering.

Overall, it was obvious Valli is an exquisite dancer, but had perhaps made poor musical and choreographical decisions this time.

(Flickr photo  by Nafees Ahmed)