Kathakali Dancer. Image from Google Images.

This weekend the Battery Dance Company is kicking off its annual Downtown Dance Festival, New York’s “longest-running free public dance festival.” From August 14-20, you’ll have the chance to see Battery Dance joined by companies from both India and Japan.

And did I mention that it’s free?

From the press release:

This year’s DDF will feature Kathakali dancers and musicians from India,
supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), with whom BDC
has long collaborated, both in India and as part of an early effort to
promote Indian dance in the U.S. The ICCR will be covering all costs to
bring over an esteemed Kathakli dance company, Guru Radha Mohanan & Troupe.
Guru Radha Mohanan will make his U.S. debut in the festival.

A disciple of the world renowned exponent Guru Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair,
Radha Mohanan is a master not only of Kathakali–the highly stylized
classical form of Indian dance theater known for its elaborate costumes and
make up–but also of the Mohiniattam and Bharatanatyam forms. His troupe has
performed in Greece, Germany, U.S.S.R, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and
other countries. He is the founder director of the Kalari Institute located
in New Delhi, India, which is dedicated to the promotion and dissemination
of Indian classical dance forms.

Here’s the schedule of events:

Saturday, August 14–Sunday, August 15, 1:00–4:00 P.M.
Location: The Lawn at Battery Park, adjacent to State Street at Pearl Street
By Subway: 1 to South Ferry; 4/5 to Bowling Green; R/W to Whitehall

Monday, August 17–Friday, August 21, 12:00 P.M.–2:00 P.M.
Location: One New York Plaza
Directions: Water and Whitehall Streets
By Subway: 1 to South Ferry, R to Whitehall, 4/5 to Bowling Green

Unfortunately, I’m out of town (and will be for a while) so I won’t be able to attend the festival myself. But feel free to send in pictures or clips! I’d love to put them up in a later post.

Today it’s time to put the spotlight on another classical Indian dance: Kuchipudi. Kuchipudi originated in Andrha Pradesh, India, and is stylistically similar to Bharatnatyam, although there are subtle differences between the art forms, such as in costume (Kuchipudi costumes have one large pleated fan, whereas Bharatatnayam costumes have a tier of three fans) and steps.

Of all the classical Indian dances that I’d like to view live, Kuchipudi ranks up in the top three, most notably because of one unique feature–the Tarangam where the dancer dances upon a brass plate.

Image from Google Images

The sheer concentration it takes to pull this off in a performance amazes me. The Kuchipudi dancer stands atop a brass plate, balancing a vessel of water on her head and two diyas, or small oil lamps, in each of her hands. During the performance, the dancer moves the brass plate with only her feet, while maintaining her balance with the lamps and vessel to a continuous rhythm. By the end of the dance, she usually extinguishes the lamps or washes her hands with water from the vessel balanced atop her head.

Recently, Kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa ended her week-long stint at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. Her performance garnered a rave review from the New York Times. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like she’ll be in the tri-state area anytime soon, but for those interested in catching her at some point can head over to her website and find tour dates here.

Image taken from Google Images

Talking to DJ Rekha

May 4, 2009

If you’re familiar with New York’s club scene, chances are you’ve heard of  DJ Rekha, who is credited with bringing contemporary bhangra music to the US since the 1990s. She spins at a monthly event known as Basement Bhangra at S.O.B.’s on Varick Street, which occurs on the first Thursday of every month. DJ Rekha was nice enough to take a few minutes to speak to me about the growing presence of South Asian music in the US:

Photo from flickr.com

Photo from flickr.com

Question: How did you start bringing bhangra beats into clubs?

DJ Rekha: Well, I started DJ-ing about 15 years ago, and I DJ-ed hip hop and bhangra and Bollywood and all that stuff. As opportunities came we started doing events in clubs, and that’s the music I was playing. In ’97 I got an opportunity to play at S.O.B.’s basement and that’s where it started.

Q: What were the initial reactions to the dance style and music?

DJR: Well I always had an audience that was sort of familiar with it, mixed with a wider audience. My first round of gigs were with artists and musicians.

Q: What is the difference between traditional bhangra music and its evolution into a more modern hip hop style?

DJR: I don’t necessarily make a distinction. I think there’s a false impression that the music was once traditional and now it’s not. I don’t think it’s ever-evolving, I think recording techniques and globalization have as much to do with the changing sound of bhangra, as well as different people who like different styles of Punjabi music within the larger context of Punjabi music, one of those breakdowns of Punjabi music being bhangra. Most of the music I play has mostly been produced in the UK so it only has that influence of dance hall hip hop and modern dance music. I just think as music evolves in any way, it sort of matures and imbibes different influences and that’s what’s happening.

Q: How great a presence do you think bhangra has established in the US?

DJR: The America and West has a long fascination with Indian music and culture. It’s been happening since the ’60s since the Beatles collaborated with Ravi Shankar, and that dialogue continues and it definitely transpires more in the last 10 years with hip hop music–with the widening of the palate where hip hop producers are drawing eastern influences and sound. It’d be more correct to say they draw from a South Asian musical palate. I think bhangra gets overused to signify all things that are South Asian. I think there’s as much an ode to classical music that has been incorporated into contemporary dance music.

Q: Is the bhangra dance scene in the US comparable to that in the UK?

DJR: You know, we get so many British Asians who are like, “we don’t have it like this.” Sometimes it happens here in the US where the parties end up being formulated more around the demographic of music. I go to the UK a lot and I’m dying to go to a good party and it’s a struggle, because I’ve only been to “Uni-nights” which are college parties. There’s no branded regular dance party like [Basement Bhangra] in the UK. In New York, there’s so many different styles of music and so many different styles of people. You don’t see Brazilians at a Brazilian party [in New York], you see everybody and Basement Bhangra is in that tradition where it’s good music and people like to dance.

I find that South Asian culture is most electric and most vibrant and most diverse in NYC over anywhere in the world, including India. On any night in New York you can find people of South Asian background engaged in music and culture in so many different ways. You don’t see that anywhere else, you don’t see that in the UK–I mean definitely, the [South Asian] population has been there longer so there are people who have made forays into the arts, but on any random night it’s always a struggle.

Q: What are the top 3 or 4 reasons you think bhangra appeals to people outside the Indian community?

DJR: There’s only 1 reason, it’s good music. I mean, you know, people like good music. It’s danceable and people like good music. (laughs)

You can find out more about DJ Rekha and Basement Bhangra at her website here.

Dancing Barefoot

May 3, 2009

If you’ve seen enough performances of Indian dance, you’ll notice that generally, the dancers dance with their bare feet. Though I’m not entirely sure of the reason(s) why Indian dances are just generally performed sans shoes, it’s probably due to the fact that Indian dance emphasizes rhythm and beat, particularly in classical Indian dance, where the dancers strike the floor with their feet.Photo from flickr.com

Photo from flickr.com

Photo from flickr.com

To emphasize the movement and sound of the feet as they strike the ground, a string or pad of bells known as ghunghroos are tied around the dancer’s ankles. You can imagine how this attests to a dancer’s skill–if the dancer makes a mistake, the bells will sound out of synch with the time of the music, amplifying the misstep even more.

There’s a spiritual aspect to the bells as well. The ghunghroos are never worn during practice, only during a performance. And my Bharatanatyam guruji, or dance teacher, would never let us wear our ghunghroos before a performance without having them first blessed by God.

In addition to the bells, dancers will often paint their feet. This is generally just for decoration though, as the hands are also painted with the same design. The intended effect is to make the gestures and movements stand out even more, such as when the dancer is performing onstage.

Photo from flickr.com

Photo from flickr.com

Personally, I’m so used to dancing barefoot that when I go out to dance I feel uncomfortable wearing shoes. (Then again, high heels aren’t the greatest for dancing, either.) I’m glad that when I learned dance, I didn’t have to deal with squeezing my feet into shoes like some of my friends who studied pointe ballet. Although I do have tougher feet from having to strike them against the floor when dancing Bharatanatyam. My guruji would tell us that whenever we struck our feet against the stage, the resounding noise should sound like a clap of thunder.

I still have my first pair of ghunghroos. The pad has worn thin and several of the bells have fallen off, but I keep them as a memento of my first days of dance.

Last week I went to the start of the Indian Summer bimonthly bhangra parties hosted by the NYC Bhangra Club. The launch party was held in 218 Bar on Lafayette Street. When I arrived, it was a typical bar scene where the patrons had no idea that a bhangra blowout of sorts was going to happen until a crowd of people that began filing in around 11 p.m. started pumping their arms to the bhangra beat that suddenly blasted through the bar’s speakers.

nyc-bhangra-launch-party-027 The crowd was a pretty diverse mix of people. The Bhangra Club’s members are a diverse crowd in itself, and there was only more fun to be had when drunk bar patrons joined in the mix. It was amusing for me to see them bemused at the unannounced party unfolding in front of them, only to jump right in. Those familiar with bhangra dance moves helped them to move to the energetic beat, teaching them one or two basic bhangra steps. One guy dancing in front of me was doing pretty well, even inventing some of his own moves, until I turned around and realized he was borrowing from the person directly behind me!

Around 12:30 p.m., the bhangra club put on a performance of its own, as four people–two women, two men–dressed in traditional bhangra costumes cleared a space in the middle of the floor and began a three-minute choreographed routine. nyc-bhangra-launch-party-064

The dance was pretty impressive and showcased the NYC Bhangra Club’s strength as a performing team. One of my favorite parts of their choreography involved the women getting on the men’s shoulders and then raising their arms to the ceiling, all the while still in rhythm with the music:

nyc-bhangra-launch-party-084

The performance was followed by the dhol beats of Madan Madi, world famous dhol master. A dhol is a large two-sided drum, which when played, reverberated around the room. Immediately, people jumped in the space left by the previous performance and began dancing along as Mr. Madi played in time with the music, which had swept up again in a crescendo of sound.

nyc-bhangra-launch-party-092

Overall, it was an incredible evening. The next party is set for Friday, May 8th at the same 218 Bar and Restaurant. Cover is $15, though there is a coupon for $10 on the NYC Bhangra Club’s website. Ladies are free before 12 a.m., so if the pictures above are any indication, this isn’t something you’re going to want to miss!

When I think back to my movie-watching experience as a child, I realize that I unconsciously distinguished Bollywood movies from every other movie that I grew up seeing. I had frequent Bollywood movie nights with my family, but never with friends (specifically, non-Indian friends). For some reason, I always kept my Bollywood films separate from my other DVDs, reaching for a different pile depending on the friends who were visiting. I think it was because I believed that Bollywood was a completely different cinematic experience from the other movies.

Dance Sequence from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. Picture from Google Images.

Dance Sequence from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. Picture from Google Images.

And that’s true, to some extent. Most Bollywood movies have several things in common: a hero pursuing a love interest, random song-and-dance sequences in the middle of a scene, of which at least one is required to take place in a gorgeous landscape that is someplace in Switzerland (or some other green, mountainous country). And at the rate that the Hindi Film Industry churns out movies each year, many of them do share the same themes and basic plotlines.

However, that’s not to say that Bollywood is any less of a movie-watching experience, as filmmaker Suraj Das told me in a recent interview. “I always thought it was unfortunate that Indian films get a bad reputation–especially in academia, when you’re studying filmmaking and cinema studies,” he said.

“People tend to think of Indian movies as silly distractions. People don’t realy think there’s a lot of artistic merit to them at all.”

Mr. Das, who directed and produced the film “Arranged” for his senior film thesis, explained that the musical sequences in Indian films are actually very difficult to film, as actors and directors have to work to make sure the choreography aligns with the camera angles. For Mr. Das, the filming was particularly difficult as he and his choreographer had to try to create their own Bollywood sequences by picking up on elements from other Bollywood films. Mr. Das’ film in particular is an homage to both Hollywood and Bollywood, as the early musical sequences are reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever and Singing in the Rain, both iconic musical sequences in Western filmmaking.

Perhaps it’s time I joined my Bollywood-Hollywood DVD collections into one pile, after all.

It’s been some time since I last featured a classical Indian dance, so I thought I’d bring up another one of my favorite classical Indian dance styles: Kathak.

kathak-couplePhoto from flickr.com

Kathak is a northern Indian style of classical dance that traces its origins back to nomadic bards who were storytellers. In fact, the word “kathak” is derived from the Sanskrit word katha, meaning story. The dance form has several influences ranging from temple dance to the Persian influence of the Mughal courts from the 16th century.

I only recently discovered that kathak had a Persian influence, but then I realized that this was evident in the kathak costume itself. If you look at images of traditional Persian dress, you can probably see similarities in the dress style with that of a kathak costume:

Traditional Persian Costume

Picture from Google Images

Picture from Google Images

The most striking similarity I see is the cut of the skirt. The Mughal kathak style of costume has a tighter-fitting blouse and emphasizes the skirt with a cut that allows the bottom of the dress to flare out, which has a great effect when the dancer spins.

There are three main gharanas, or schools, of Kathak:

  • Lucknow Gharana: This gharana originated in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It emphasizes facial expressions (known as abhinaya) and naturalness in dance.
  • Jaipur Gharana: Developed in Jaipur, Rajasthan, this school emphasizes the more technical aspects of kathak, such as complex footwork and multiple spins. (A side note: a unique aspect of spinning in kathak dance is that the dancer learns how to turn and land in the same position. It’s very difficult to spin and land with your heel in the same spot twice, yet these dancers spin multiple times–up to twelve or fifteen sequential turns at a time!)
  • Banaras Gharana: This school developed in–you guessed it–Banaras, and is characterized by different aspects in kathak dance, such as the gait and greater use of the floor space.

These are just three of the main schools, though every classical Indian dance form has at least several different schools within each form. The schools bear the hallmark of a particular guru or group of teachers that has been passed down from guru to student over time.

nyc-bhangra-club-136

This weekend I visited the NYC Bhangra Club as they were busily preparing for an upcoming performance. I had some time before the class began to speak to a few of the club members and find out what they were looking forward to when performing bhangra in front of an audience, many of them for the first time.

“I want to perform, but the choreography is kind of crazy right now so I’m up in the air about it,” Deborah Lugo admitted. Ms. Lugo joined the class as a way to stay fit after recently becoming a new mother. When asked about how she found out about bhangra, Ms. Lugo explained that she’d watched a lot of Bollywood on the Indian channels she receives on the television.

The class itself was interesting to watch. Typical classes begin with 15 minutes of stretching, followed by another 15 minutes of basic bhangra steps all done to fast bhangra music. The last half hour of the class is an intense workout of non-stop bhangra dance.

Sunday’s class, however, was all business. “Please don’t talk, we have very little time,” said instructor Megha Kalia. “That’s why we didn’t do warmup exercises today!”

The class was preparing for auditions for an upcoming June performance. In addition to telling the class to bend and smile, Ms. Kalia was also trying to get the class in the mindset of a performing group.

“You guys are all learning dance. You have to learn to adapt to new formations,” she said after a brief moment of confusion when the class, divided into two parts of the studio, began to tangle. “Presence of mind and body is what dance is all about!” said Ms. Kalia.

Fortunately, there’s still some time until the class auditions. Until then, the members can practice showing off their moves at NYC Bhangra Club’s new “Indian Summer” parties. The launch party is April 24th and will occur every 2nd and 4th Friday of every month. The first party looks to be a great one: only $10 cover charge the entire night, and ladies are free until midnight! Check out the flyer below. I know I’ll be there!

nycb_parties_flyer

In my previous post, I talked about the Bollywood-style laundromat dance scene filmed for “Arranged”, a graduate thesis film by NYU Tisch grad Suraj Das. Well, I had the opportunity to speak to Melissa Briggs, the choreographer of the dance scene!

When I asked Melissa (who is mostly experienced in Broadway choreography) about how much experience she had with choreographing Bollywood-style dances, her answer surprised me: “Not much at all,” she said. “It was a totally new thing for me.”

Melissa did do a lot of research to prepare for the scene. “I’d seen a lot of Bollywood movies,” she said, adding that she revisited footage from the film Bombay Dreams. She also said she borrowed elements from a Masala Bhangra cardio dance class.

“It was definitely a learning experience for me,” she said. “Usually I’m an actor/dancer so I was on the other side of the table this time. Bollywood is a very unique genre.”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the laundromat dance sequence on YouTube. But our conversation reminded me that I have yet to upload the Bollywood compilation dance that my friends and I performed for the NYU Monsoon show! So here it is, see if you can spot yours truly.

For those interested, the song selection is as follows:

  • “Aye Hip Hopper” by IshQ Bector
  • “Pappu Can’t Dance” Film: Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na
  • “Muqabala Muqabla” by A.R. Rehman
  • “Dance Pe Chance” Film: Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi
  • “Baawre” Film: Luck By Chance
  • “Jhoom Barabar Jhoom” Film: Jhoom Barabar Jhoom
  • “Aai Paapi” Film: Kismat Konnection

Bollywood, not Ballet?

April 19, 2009

Today I had the chance to speak to Anni Weisband, a sophomore at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Anni participated in a Bollywood music video of sorts last year when she was hired as a backup dancer for a particular dance sequence that took place in a laundromat in Alphabet City. The film was “Arranged”, the thesis film of Suraj Das, a graduate of NYU Tisch.

I was interested in how Anni picked up Bollywood dance, having had no prior experience in the dance form. “I guess my training in jazz and ballet and modern dance made it easy to pick up on,” she said. “I just went in and learned the choreography and did it.”

Anni did pick up on various differences in Bollywood dance as compared to the dance styles she was used to. “It has a lot of arm movement isolation and it’s a lot about the hands, too,” she said. “There are specific ways to hold your hands. That’s something I found different as compared to ballet, where the fingers and hands stay still. So that was something different I had to get used to.”

Still, Anni said that the Bollywood music was so infectious that she couldn’t help but want to dance. “I wouldn’t say Bollywood dance is easy, but it helps when you become really excited about something and then it starts to come naturally.”

The conversation we had started me thinking on whether there were any other Bollywood dance studios in the New York area that could possibly make learning Bollywood dance easier for newcomers. I came across the Dhoonya Dance School, which has introduction to Bollywood dance workshops. The studio is located at 219 W 19th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.

And for those interested, I did manage to find the teaser trailer to the student film Anni danced in. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the laundromat scene, but the trailer does seem to promise a lot of Bollywood talent!