Keeping classical dance traditions alive – the Abhinaya Dance Company

In an article entitled “Random thoughts” on the website for the Abhinaya Dance Company, Mythili Kumar muses on the future of Bharatanatyam? Is it destined to become “Bhangranatyam”, she wonders. Do kids today have the time and patience to devote to this pure art form when they have so many demands on their time? Her doubts notwithstanding, she and the talented dancers of the Abhinaya Dance Company in San Jose soldier on, bringing their latest performance “Rivers, A Mystical Journey” in a fall concert at the Mexican Heritage Center this weekend.

Nearly 30 years ago, Mythili started teaching dance to kids of friends as a way of staying in touch with her dancing roots. In India she had the opportunity to perform about twice a month; here she was lucky if she could get to perform twice a year.

She supervised the arangetrams of several of her students over the next few years and eventually started the Abhinaya Dance Company, choreographing her first production “Shiva the Cosmic Dancer.” The dance was very well received. The company applied for grants from the Arts Council of Santa Clara County (now the Arts Council of the Silicon Valley ) and the California Arts Council and never looked back.

“As a dancer in India, I was used to just showing up to dance and the stage management was left to professionals, but here we had to reach out to friends and family to do the sound and lighting,” reminisces Mythili. Even today Abhinaya remains a small friendly group largely supported by the efforts of volunteers. Even the school restricts itself to around a 100 students per year. “If we expend all that effort in teaching, that takes away time from creating and performing,” says Mythili. “We would like to keep the emphasis on innovating and choreography.”

The company has one big concert every year in the fall and the theme and choreography are always new. “We don’t want to dilute the technique,” emphasizes Mythili. “The lines have to be perfect, the grace has to be there and the emotions have to be properly displayed. We don’t want to turn folksy or get influenced by Bollywood. But at the same time we want to innovate within the tradition.”

That innovation can be seen in this year’s theme, which features the five important rivers of India – the Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari and Cauvery. For Ganga, the choreography follows the mythological story of King Bhagiratha and his quest to bring the river down from the heavens. For Narmada however, the dancers decided to tackle the contemporary issue of the controversial dam and the displacement of villagers. It is a bold way of using an ancient art form to convey a modern message.

Some of the innovation this year is also the result of young blood. Mythili’s daughter Rasika has been deeply involved with the choreography and production this year. Her day job as a software engineer informs her art. “I am much more methodical in my approach,” laughs Rasika. “I try to find patterns in the choreography. Unlike my mother, whose creativity is inspired by her vast experience as a dancer, I have to work at it.”

Keeping the age-old tradition of Bharatanatyam alive is a challenge. “I think that is true of any classical art form,” says Rasika. “Even though the number of students interested in dance has increased and the number of dance companies in the Bay Area has grown significantly, I still find that the average Indian American is not well-informed about classical dance. Our goal of informing the public about this dance and making it accessible to the lay viewer has remained the same ever since the inception of the company.”

It doesn’t help that kids today have so many competing demands on their time – Once able to devote 3-4 hours a day to practise, now they join multiple clubs and sports activities and Mythili conducts most of her rehearsals over the weekend to accommodate busy lives and busier schedules. But the spirit of innovation remains strong and “Rivers – A Mystical Journey” promises to be a treat for lovers of dance.

“Rivers – A Mystical Journey” – Fall Concert
Saturday, November 15, 2008 – 7pm
Sunday, November 16, 2008 – 4pm
Mexican Heritage Theater,
1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose, CA 95116
Tickets for November 15th here.

Tickets or November 16th here.

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