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Dance As Ritual: AWAKENING & PASSING

Utpala ~ The Awakening

Utpala ~ The Awakening

Antares is uplifted and downright unmoved by two Sutrarasa dance events

Anita Ratnam’s Utpala: The Awakening, which world-premiered on 30 May 2003 at Sutra House as part of the 6th Sutra Festival of Contemporary Dance Theatre & Music, was a passionately performed dance concept worthy of an A+.

Fantastic fountains of perspiration moistened the Amphi-Sutra stage as the young and accomplished dancers of Arangham Dance Theatre gave their all in service to the sublime choreography – and the exquisitely assembled music (culled from various sources with live performances by Jaya Sekhar on veena and vocal; and L. Subhasri on nattuvangam). “This is like air-con to us,” Anita told the audience afterwards. “We practised in 45-degree heat!”

Anita Ratnam

Anita Ratnam

Talk about dedication, devotion and focus. Anita Ratnam did her Bharata Natyam arangetram (graduation performance) at the age of 10 under Guru Rajee, then augmented her dance studies with the Kerala traditions of Kathakali and Mohiniattam. She met Ramli Ibrahim when both were under the tutelage of celebrated choreographer Adyar K. Lakshman. After acquiring a Master’s degree in Theater and Television from the University of New Orleans, Anita Ratnam became a New York television producer, talk show host and cultural commentator, winning Emmy award nominations for popular series like Festival of India, Emerging Powers, and Indigo: The Colours of India. She returned to Chennai (Madras) and established the Arangham Trust in 1992 – a foundation to promote dance and its interaction with visual and performing arts. With over 1,000 performances in 15 countries in a dance career spanning more than 30 years, Anita Ratnam has earned recognition as “one of India’s most luminous and articulate personalities,” a veritable cultural icon.

In Utpala: The Awakening, Anita used the lotus as a symbol of transcendence and transformation. “Utpala” refers to the slender stem connecting the sacred flower to the muddy marsh from which it grows. Drawing on the rich imagery of Hindu cosmology and blending it with cosmopolitan perspectives, she intelligently integrated and reconciled classical and contemporary dance vocabularies, the sacred and the secular, making high art accessible to a broader spectrum of audiences. Anita took on the many aspects of Shakti – the Female Principle – manifesting as various goddesses. Her intensity of concentration, the economy and grace of each mudra, each movement, was an epiphany to behold. Her two fresh-faced female dancers, Aarti Bodani and R. Gayathri, were perfectly matched in beauty, discipline, and precision by two energetic male dancers, L. Narendran Kumar and M. Palani.

Taking us on a metamorphic journey from earthly incarnation and tribal consciousness to emergence into individuality – and its concomitant joys and sorrows, its confusion and pain – Utpala encompassed expressions of angelic beauty, reverence and tenderness as well as demonic brutality, cynicism and cruelty, indeed the entire gamut of human experience. Anita’s masterful use of symbols – through costumes, lighting, music and props – elevated her choreography to the level of sacred ritual. I felt greatly uplifted by this consummately conceived and performed masterpiece.

Wong Kit Yaw

Wong Kit Yaw

The following week I caught the final performance of Wong Kit Yaw’s ambitious dance epic, Passing. It began with two arduously introspective adagio movements, accompanied by the minimalist sounds of a guitar, piano, and an evocative female voice reciting a poem in Hokkien. Then a bedazzling bevy of adolescent beauties descended on us with elaborate head extensions and a butoh-like absence of facial expression, performing rituals reminiscent of Balinese temple dancers or something we might have witnessed a thousand years ago at Angkor Wat. It was like a Busby Berkeley musical set in the Forbidden City, and directed by the flamboyant Ken Russell. Or something one might encounter at an extravagant product launch in some posh hotel ballroom – minus the pervasive aroma of kemenyan (incense) which reinforced the concept of dance as sacred ritual, an approach shared by both Utpala: The Awakening and Passing.

Visually, Passing was nothing short of spectacular, though the choreography seemed to revolve around a series of photogenic and posy tableaux. The solemnity of Kit Yaw’s work was reinforced by the almost complete immobility of the dancers’ faces and their inner-directed focus – a practice central to the butoh school of dance. I found the overt asexuality of the movements an interesting contrast with the nymphal appeal of his nubile dancers (average age 16) and mostly students recruited from the Shin An and Fui Chiu Associations; Yu Hwa National-Type Secondary School, Kajang; and the Serdang Baru Association of Old Schoolmates.

Wong loves working with the young

Wong loves working with the young

Kit Yaw’s musings on the evolution of a migrant culture through time were the connecting thread holding the four episodes together, separated by a brief interval. The dancers were for the most part immensely earnest and disciplined, but the choreography made them look like androids, aloof and emotionally detached from their actions – so much so they sometimes looked unconvincing when wiggling their hips or executing a few feral movements. I found all four episodes somewhat soporific and repetitive: we kept waiting and waiting for something significant to happen, and it never did. The climactic depiction of being caught in a cultural identity bind – with the dancers getting entangled in a web of plastic construction-site tape, echoing a preceding tableau in which they are ensnared by the fronds of the floor-length tassels dangling from their courtly headpieces – impacted merely on a conceptual level, and did not actually touch us on a visceral level.

Dedicated dance teacher

Dedicated dance teacher

As an artist committed to working within his own community, Wong Kit Yaw has spent a good 12 years teaching dance to primary and secondary students from Chinese schools. His obvious sincerity and lofty ideals are indeed laudable and deserving of wholehearted applause, as are his impressive accomplishments as a cultural activist and dance motivator. However, as a dance theater experience, I found more style than substance in Passing and can only award it… well… a passing grade.

10 June 2003

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Anita Ratnam ~ Dance as Sacred Ritual

Anita Ratnam: embodiment of dance

Anita Ratnam: embodiment of dance (photo: Amrutha Ananth)

Antares is awed by the consummate beauty, skill and wisdom that crafted UTPALA: THE AWAKENING

I very nearly missed catching the fabulous Anita Ratnam (and her Arangham Dance Theatre) in the world premiere of Utpala: The Awakening. The hot clammy weather had depleted my joie de vivre and I did not relish the thought of driving 110 miles merely to assuage my curiosity about this legendary dancer-choreographer, former TV producer, cross-cultural ambassador, and professor of aesthetics in the Universality of Dance. In the end I decided to toss a coin three times – and thrice the answer was, “Go… Go… Go…”

The moment I set foot in Sutra House – the magic garden theater of dance that Ramli Ibrahim built – my spirits began to lift. What a splendid setting for the epiphanies that were soon to follow.

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Utpala: The Awakening premiered at Sutra House, Kuala Lumpur

A crucial element was the enticingly eclectic music: a rapturous mix of prerecorded tracks culled from various sources – and live performance with Jaya Sekhar on veena and vocal, and L Subhasri on nattuvangam. There was an evocative dash of Sheila Chandran, plus some truly exciting sections featuring freestyle jazz piano and tabla. The editing could have been a little more polished – the fadeouts sometimes terminated abruptly, a jarring auditory experience – but the selection itself revealed the choreographer’s conceptual clarity and focused intent.

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Beyond all choreographic boundaries…

Art’s success must be measured by its power to reconcile, heal and ennoble. Technical discipline, flair and skill may define professional standards but the core of the performance is where Mystery dwells: it reveals the soul essence of the artist for better or worse. The complementary aspects of lighting and costume design are important in dance and, in the case of Utpala, were more than satisfactorily fulfilled. What truly shone through was the sublime inspiration behind the narrative concept and choreography, which delineated and unified the divine, demonic, and human dimensions.

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Utpala is the stalk that connects the lotus to its source

In reconciling eastern and western dance vocabularies, the sacred and the secular, the classical and contemporary approach, the celestial and the terrestrial, Utpala: The Awakening seduced and gracefully guided us through the birth pangs of incarnate being, adolescence and maturity, sorrow and joy, tenderness and brutality, and led us unerringly to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel where our mortal existence is elucidated, validated and consecrated.

Utpala’s synergetic blend of classical Indian elements with a contemporary, cosmopolitan perspective was confident and uncontrived, reflecting the work of a mature artist comfortable with her Indian roots – yet adventurously seeking a universal aesthetic.

Using the lotus as the central motif of the work (“Utpala literally means the slender stem that connects the sacred flower to the muddy marsh from which it grows”), Anita masterfully synthesized Hindu cosmology with Jungian and gestalt psychology and grounded her thesis in the rich, dark soil of being human. Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva were invoked – then Shakti (the feminine principle) took over, in her Parvati, Mahalakshmi, Saraswati, and Kali aspects. And what a Goddess figure Anita cut with her charismatic stage presence – with a single mudra she was able to express a gamut of experience, her stillness was potent, her movements charged with ethereal grace.

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Dissolving the distinction between goddess & human

It was clear that Anita Ratnam was an object of devotion and an inspiration to her talented young dancers – to whom she gave generous space to display their admirable terpsichorean gifts. The two exquisite female dancers, Aarti Bodani and R Gayathri, were perfectly matched with their dynamic male counterparts, L Narendra Kumar and M. Palani. As representatives of humanity, the four enacted the phases of evolution, the dramatic (and traumatic) transition from tribal to individual consciousness, the inner and outer polarization resulting in the battle of the sexes, and realignment with and ultimate return to Source through spiritual awakening.

In ritual dance, symbolic objects carry immense significance. The large basin of water at a corner of the open-air stage suggested cleansing, renewal and rebirth; the glittering discs of mirrored glass harvested from the dancers’ feet by the Goddess at the finale (and lovingly returned to the water) might have represented the divine spark contained within each soul, the holographic fragment bearing the blueprint of the Cosmic Whole, the luminous, self-reflecting consciousness of a sovereign entity.

Even as I surrendered to the sensory and mental stimulation of Utpala: The Awakening, a part of me was acutely aware that Anita Ratnam had taken dance beyond mere art or entertainment, to the rarefied precincts of sacred ritual, whereby the boundary between performer and audience is temporarily transcended, and mutual blessing experienced.

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Embracing her destiny as a crosscultural ambassador (photo: Deepak Mudgal)

But just who is this Anita Ratnam? We learn from the program notes that her classical training was in Bharata Natyam, supplemented by the Kerala traditions of Kathakali and Mohiniattam. (Indeed, she met Ramli Ibrahim while both were students of dance guru Adyar K Lakshman, and was thus happy to premiere Utpala at Ramli’s 6th Sutra Festival of Contemporary Dance Theater and Music in Kuala Lumpur.) Anita subsequently obtained a Master’s degree in Theater and Television from the University of New Orleans, and embarked on a 10-year career as a New York TV producer and weekly talk show host. She produced the highly acclaimed Festival of India television series among others, earning two Emmy nominations, and then returned to Chennai (Madras) where she established the Arangham Trust – a foundation promoting dance and its interaction with visual and performing arts.

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Anita portrays the female trinity of Saraswati, Lakshmi & Meenakshi

In 2002 she collaborated choreographically on two international productions: DUST (which premiered in the U.S.) inspired by the life of Tibetan explorer Alexandra David-Neel; and Hyphenated (which premiered in Canada), a work addressing issues of race, identity, and the trans-cultural experience. Apart from dance, Anita Ratnam’s work “intersects at the crossroads of art, ethics, philosophy and culture” and she engages with young audiences through “physical theater” workshops. She also co-founded and co-directs The Other Festival – India’s “only contemporary arts festival” held annually in Chennai since 1998. And to top it all, Anita recently initiated http://www.narthaki.com – an award-winning web portal on Indian classical dance bringing together practitioners of Bharata Natyam, Odissi, and other Indian dance traditions – wherever they may be on the planet.

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Anita Ratnam by Ashish Chawla

This creative dynamo is also mother to two teenaged children who are proud of her celebrity status, but occasionally lament her absence from home when she’s touring or busy organizing arts events and workshops.

At the close of Utpala: The Awakening, Ramli Ibrahim invited questions from the audience. The calm, clear manner in which Anita responded was equally impressive. The Indian High Commissioner, H.E. Veena Sikri, happened to be in the audience, and was asked to say a few words. Her gracious praise for the performance was unstinting and augured extremely well for more vibrant intercultural exchanges between India and Malaysia. As Ramli rightly reminded us, the cultural, spiritual and commercial links between Mother India and her former vassal states in the Malay Archipelago go back thousands of years. We have every reason to cherish this precious heritage and continue working on behalf of its future evolution.

10 June 2003

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