Telling stories through dance
Performance brings Balinese and Indian traditions to Palo Alto
Circling slowly onstage, two dancers from different dancing traditions perform their intricate bodily geometries to a tense beat from a Balinese drum and Indian cymbals. The soft melodies of a gamelan orchestra provide an unexpected accompaniment for an Indian classical singer, who intones ancient lyrics expressing a key moment in Hindu mythology.
The dancing styles are intriguingly different: Ketut Wirtawan from Bali steps with exquisitely precise fluidity, every muscle taut, each finger's controlled tremolo expressive of deep emotion. Indian dancer Anjana Dasu's face conveys delight, hesitation, surprise, anticipation, joy and hope by turns as her body bends and stretches in graceful stylized movements. When the two dancers finally lock eyes, you feel you could truly be witnessing the climactic meeting of Rama and Sita, one of the peak moments in a religious and mythological tradition shared by the majority of both Indians and Balinese.
The collaboration between the Abhinaya Dance Group of San Jose, founded by Mythili Kumar in 1980, and the Gamelan Sekar Jaya (which marked its 30th anniversary last year), is a tribute to the power of dancing traditions that have not only survived the transfer to America but are thriving, changing and gaining strength from one another. Abhinaya is roughly translated as "the art of expression."
In the South Indian classical style known as bharatanatyam, dancers are trained to reflect a sometimes mesmerizing gamut of emotions as the hands perform complex mudras or gestures, each with a specific meaning. The Balinese style, by contrast, is more abstract and more subtle, says Kumar, without the strongly stylized mime element for which bharatanatyam is famous.
Mythili Kumar was among the first of the intrepid Indian classical dancers to establish their art in the Bay Area. She began performing and teaching 30 years ago, after studying from the age of 8 in Bombay (Mumbai) and then Hyderabad. After gaining a master's degree in nutrition there, she came to the U.S. on a Rotary scholarship, later studying biochemistry at U.C. Davis where she met her husband. A computer scientist, who also sang in the Indian classical tradition, B. Kumar helped provide the musical underpinnings for Mythili's solo dance recitals and later for their two daughters' solo debuts.
Earlier this year, Abhinaya staged a collaboration with a taiko drumming group, showing how far this art form has come in its willingness to experiment. "Bharatanatyam is not stagnant at all; it's completely evolving, in Europe, India and here," said Kumar, who regularly brings master dancers and musicians from India to teach her students and perform as guest stars.
An Oct. 24 Palo Alto performance with Gamelan Sekar Jaya will celebrate the strong bond between two cultures that take the epic poems "Ramayana" and "Mahabharata" as their central myths. Many members of the audience will know that the meeting of Sita and Rama is not just love at first sight, but a reflection of the eternal bonding of their earlier incarnation, the god Vishnu and goddess Lakshmi.
Though the story was first written about 2,400 years ago, Sita is a distinctly modern princess. "Swayambara," one of the dances to be performed by the ensemble, means "choosing a relationship by oneself," Kumar said. The moment when Sita chooses Rama is still powerful, especially in a culture where most Hindu marriages are arranged by the families to this day.
Many of the characters in the story are male — Sita's father and her suitors, for example — but they are danced with power and assurance by young Indian-American women, most of whom have demanding careers to manage as well as their dancing commitments.
Rasika Kumar, for example, is both choreographer and principal dancer at age 27. The older daughter of Mythili Kumar, she has a master's degree from M.I.T., and works as a computer scientist at Google. Taught classical dance from the earliest age by her mother, Rasika has an impressive command of the language of bharatanatyam. "Expression is a huge part of what it means to be a bharatanatyam dancer. It's not just facial expressions, but posture, demeanor, gestures, how all contribute. The audiences should feel all the shades of emotion without it being obvious or melodramatic. "
As the Demon King Ravana, Rasika Kumar conveys both the emotion and the comedy of a powerful, disdainful character who considers defeat beneath him. In order to portray such legendary characters, Kumar said, "You have to soul search. You have to delve into the character and discover how you would portray that, then control every muscle in your body and all your facial muscles to sustain it." It is a climactic moment when Ravana fails in his attempt to lift a massive bow that once belonged to the Lord Siva, and crumbles — while struggling not to show his disappointment in failing to win the Princess Sita.
Part of Abhinaya's goal is to keep such stories alive for the Indian community in the West. In India, the dances are performed for audiences who know the stories intimately, but with modern Bay Area audiences, this familiarity with culture and traditions cannot be assumed. The conventions of a stylized art form are not always understood either, so people who expect instant entertainment may find they need to work harder to understand the complexities.
One way to understand them is to learn to perform the dance. It takes enormous discipline and hard work to master bharatanatyam, which in India involves countless hours of immersion in every aspect of the art. In Mythili Kumar's studio, most students take classes only once or twice a week. But the benefits go way beyond the dance itself, Rasika said.
"It's not just the dance, it's a culture you're learning when you come to a dance class. That's awesome, because when you're exposed like this it'll become a part of your identity."
What: The Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose marks its 30th anniversary with a performance with the Balinese music and dance ensemble Gamelan Sekar Jaya.
When: 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24
Where: Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto
Cost: Tickets are $20 general and $15 for students and seniors.
Info: Go to abhinaya.org or call 408-871-5959.