Thursday, September 8, 2011 / 8:03 AM
Courtesy of Dances of India
The heroine (Selena Swaminathan) is frightened by a magic snake (Rasika Sant) and sits under her magic grove (Mira Patel and Aparna Kalyanaraman)
Teen girls are lined up along one wall of a Dimensions Dance Center studio gossiping, whispering, and giggling. It feels just like the backstage at a high school musical. But this is the Dances of India dance troupe. One of the choreographers, Theckla Mehta, who everyone calls by her Indian name Ila, acts as den mother, making sure everyone has their props and updating them about costume statuses (she hand-sews most of the costumes).
They are staging The Magic Grove, a north Indian Jain folktale about Vidya, a cow herder on the dry hot plains of north India, who protects a snake from snake charmers. A goddess is so impressed with her selflessness that she grants Vidya a wish. She wishes for a grove for her cows and the Goddess gives her a magic grove that follows her wherever she goes. Prosperity follows, but Vidya has to contend with her jealous, evil stepmother.
“Every culture has their Cinderella story,” says Mehta. (And apparently, scorns stepmothers). “Instead of the Disney pumpkin we’ve got a magic grove.” In this show, everything dances. One girl is a goddess, another is the heroine, but a few of the girls are cows, and four of the girls portray the magic grove.
“Indian dance and Indian myths are really very dreamlike, incredibly lush, and poetic,” explains Nartana Premachandra, who along with and Mehta, and her mother, Asha Premachandra, put together the show. “There’s a lot of subtle beauty to Indian tales.” That includes intricate footwork and hand movements, along with an expressive quality. “That’s the reason people who do this kind of dance become good movie stars sometimes,” explains Asha, who also teaches dance at Washington University. “Because their acting ability is so good.”
Asha started Dances of India in the early '70s. Back then, “if we said we did Indian dance people thought it was like Native American dancing,” says Nartana, who has danced with the company since she was girl. “So that’s why [Asha] called the company dances of India because there were very few Indians here back in the '70s or '80s.”
Asha, who grew up in India and has studied Indian dance since a young age, soon met Theckla Mehta, an American who had married an Indian. “Shortly after we were married, I saw an Indian dance,” says Mehta, who had trained in ballet. “I was pretty much a ballet snob [at the time] because ballet dancers think the only true form of dance is ballet. But when I saw [this] beautiful Indian dancer… She was athletic. She was strong. She was graceful. I thought that’s cool how you can have that majestic femininity and that incredible strength.”
Mehta also wanted her children to learn Indian dance. “I didn’t want them to lose the idea that they’re Indian,” she explains. “There are so many beautiful things about the Indian culture that can be easily shared or cherished—the food, language, but your soul responds to music.”
With their daughters in the troupe, Asha and Mehta could tour across the country with the company, even performing in front of the U.N. But Asha’s dance school started growing, making it impossible to travel after a while. They had to content themselves with their yearly show (this will be their 34th). They also are behind the St. Louis Dance Festival Showcase in May. Both shows are typically in Edison Theatre at Washington University.
This year’s show reflects a change the troupe made in 2006 when Nartana, an aspiring author, began writing scripts for the dances. “I always loved George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and An American in Paris,” explains Nartana. “So [Mehta] and I thought we’d do a dance to ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ but it would be Rhapsody for the Blue Gods.” (Some Hindu deities are depicted as having blue skin.) In order to make the East meets West dance interpretation clear, Nartana recorded a script into the music. “People really really loved it,” she says.
Though the music was contemporary, they still did classical Indian dance moves, called Bharata Natyam, which is rooted in a text that’s more than 2,000 years old. But “we wanted to pull away from the tradition,” explains Mehta. “In order to educate the western audience to Indian tradition because it’s so rich, it’s so lyrical and so beautiful but if you don’t understand it, you miss the depth of what Indian dance can give you.” Funnily enough, the only way to make Indian tradition accessible was to break it.
“I think there are so many misconceptions about India, even though Indian culture is a lot more mainstream now than it ever was,” explains Nartana. “A couple of years ago, I met someone who thought Indian dance was belly dancing. It’s not.” Bharata Natyam “is a classical art, like ballet is.” So when the audience comes to see The Magic Grove, “They’ll basically be transported to a foreign land which has created all kinds of tales for thousands of years. We'd like people to get a real taste of what Indian culture is.”
The Magic Grove rehearsals
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