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Dakshina’s Post Feature

Daniel Phoenix Singh brings Anna Sokolow’s dances to life again

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010

It is a deceptively simple picture: Daniel Phoenix Singh sits in a wooden chair, hands on his lap, staring straight ahead. He’s one of nine dancers in this studio at Silver Spring’s Maryland Youth Ballet, all of them seated the same rigid way, as if they have been plotted on graph paper and are captive to an unyielding calculus.

Slowly, on the same silent count, Singh and the others lean forward, making a focused appeal to the wall they’re facing.

The dancers are members of Singh’s company, Dakshina. Karen Bernstein, one of two rehearsal directors watching their run-through of the opening moments of Anna Sokolow’s “Rooms,” stops them. In this 1955 work that distills the alienation of apartment-dwellers, that forward pitch in their posture is a pleading gesture to the audience, Bernstein tells them, “like, ‘Help me — I have something important to say.’ ” The dancers scooch back against their chairs and repeat their mute entreaty, making it a little gentler around the eyes, a little more poignant.

Simple enough. Though for Singh, 38, getting to this point has been anything but easy. To this soft-spoken man whose Indian birth certificate is stamped “backward class” as a signifier of his low caste, to this onetime misfit who would be trapped in techie geekdom if he hadn’t discovered dance at the University of Maryland — to Singh, this studio, these chairs, the specificity of Sokolow’s work: This is what freedom looks like.

After a few years of dancing works by Sokolow, a pioneer in American modern dance who died in 2000, Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh will perform two all-Sokolow programs — including “Rooms,” her most famous piece, with each chair representing an isolated flat; “Dreams,” a searing meditation on the Holocaust; and reconstructions of her little-known “Frida,” based on the life of painter Frida Kahlo, and the love duet “September Sonnet.” Performances are Thursday and Friday at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

These shows won’t be the end of Singh’s Sokolow obsession. With the help of Lorry May, one of Sokolow’s leading dancers, who now licenses her choreography (mostly to colleges and small regional groups), Singh hopes to acquire Sokolow’s existing catalogue, some 30 works.

As it is, Singh’s two rehearsal directors, Bernstein and Harriet Moncure Williams, are compiling written notations of the Sokolow works that May has taught the company — a remarkable act of preservation.

Why is Singh taking this on? How did this Indian immigrant become enmeshed in the biting social commentary of a leftist Jewish woman? As a founding member of the Actors Studio, Sokolow taught movement to such stage and screen stars as Julie Harris and Eli Wallach. But in the centennial of her birth, her dances can be seen only spottily. (As an example of how prominent Sokolow once was in the New York arts scene, she was the original choreographer for the 1967 off-Broadway run of “Hair” — the showcase that launched the anthemic musical into enduring popularity, as witnessed by its current sojourn at the Kennedy Center. But that kind of success was not to be Sokolow’s. She was fired just before the show opened.)

Singh first saw one of Sokolow’s pieces at Dance Place 12 years ago — it was her 1945 solo “Kaddish,” performed by Risa Steinberg, a veteran interpreter of Sokolow’s work. At just five minutes long, it is a sustained gasp of mourning, in which the dancer wraps herself in her arms, beats her chest and plunges to the floor, then drifts away into the shadows. Brief as it was, it spoke to Singh.

“It’s all about the hands,” he says, spooning stewed lentils over a mound of rice at Heritage India near Dupont Circle. He demonstrates a few gestures from the solo, reaching across the table with long fingers, then cradling his face in his palms. “It was kind of a cultural trigger for me. I don’t know what it was about it, but I felt this powerful longing and pain in her.”

And there was something else. “I have seen my mother beat her chest in mourning,” he says. “It’s an Indian thing, a really physical slap. It’s an image you don’t forget easily; it still makes me lose my breath when I think about it. To see it from a different cultural perspective — it triggered something.”

But there is more than sentimentality behind the story of Singh’s connection with the volatile expressionism of this pre- “Mad Men”-era artist. There is something pure about it. This is the story of art bridging cultural divides, time and mortality. And–at the risk of sounding like another type of chest-beater–it could only happen here.

* * *

Anna Sokolow grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, the daughter of Russian immigrants. She danced with Martha Graham in the 1930s before making her own works that expressed human pain and fortitude in powerful new ways — often with screams, explosive agitation and frozen moments of watchfulness. She drew inspiration from city life, its energy as well as its confinement; she channeled the agonies of the Holocaust and the arts of Mexico, where she frequently worked. Companies as diverse as the Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company have performed her work.

Yet even before her death at 90, Sokolow had been steadily fading from public view. An influential teacher who inspired such choreographers as Jerome Robbins and Martha Clarke, she had never founded a dance school or maintained a studio, and there was little funding to keep her on-again, off-again troupe, the Players’ Project, in business.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, dance held a secret fascination for Singh, but it had to remain just that — a secret. The youngest of three children, he was raised in Mumbai and Chennai in a financially strapped, strict Methodist family near the bottom of India’s rigid social structure. Daniel, his brother, David, and sister, Tara, attended religious schools and were kept away from things considered non-Christian. That included classical Indian dance forms such as bharatanatyam, the sensual, highly theatrical form grounded in Hindu mythology, which Singh knew about only from Bollywood films.

His life had one thrust, drilled into him by his parents, who saw a high-tech career as the only way to a better life: “I have to succeed, I have to succeed, I have to succeed.” Recalling the mantra now, Singh grips his head in his hands.

After Singh’s sister married an Indian American and moved to Maryland, she brought her parents over, and they, in turn, brought over Singh and his brother in 1990. A few years later, as Singh was nearing graduation from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as a computer science major, he realized he lacked a physical education credit. He signed up for a ballet class. And discovered and lost his heart in almost the same moment.

The physicality was a rush. In India, he says with a shy smile, “I was nerdy.” (Nerdier than the other techie kids? He considers. Well, he says, “I wasn’t out there playing cricket.”) With his lean athletic build, Singh looks far from nerdy now. He’s fashionably urbane, wearing a crisp deep purple shirt and dark trousers, his black hair neatly parted and slicked straight. A few curls have sprung free, charmingly, around his ears.

Through dance, Singh says, “I found comfort in my body. I didn’t have to articulate in words.”

And he couldn’t get enough of it. He studied the modern-dance techniques of Graham, Merce Cunningham and Jose Limon. He was working as a janitor at Rockville High School when one night there was a bharatanatyam concert in the auditorium, by a Gaithersburg-based troupe called Nrityanjali. For the first time, Singh saw a live performance of one of the oldest dances of his homeland. Soon after, he persuaded Nrityanjali director Meena Telikacherla to take him on as a student.

“I had to really start from scratch,” Telikacherla says. “But his wanting to learn — that impressed me. And he had the discipline to come on a regular basis.”

Singh wanted to crack the code of this complicated dance form, whose clarity “was breathtaking to watch,” he says. But he could hardly have chosen a more difficult art to begin at the late age of 23. In bharatanatyam, the dancer must be deeply expressive — communicating a story and emotions with the body as well as the face — while moving to highly complex rhythms: The hands, fingers and even the eyes respond to specific musical counts as the feet pound out a beat of their own.

Singh’s family wasn’t pleased by this cultural connection, he says. As Christians, they were appalled that he was throwing himself into a form of dance with origins in Hindu temple rituals. Then came another shock: Having found a supportive community of artists here, and having rejected his fundamentalist upbringing, Singh came out as a gay man.

Since then, neither his brother, a Methodist minister, nor his sister has had much contact with him. His mother, Singh says, tried “to pray me straight.” She fasted. She lamented that it was all her fault, that if only his father, who had recently died, were still alive “this wouldn’t have happened.”

* * *

It was around this time that Singh saw Sokolow’s “Kaddish.”

The title refers to the Hebrew prayer of mourning. Sokolow had created it in 1945, with the Holocaust and her father’s death on her mind. When Singh saw it, after losing his father, to whom he’d never been able to reveal what was truest about himself — his homosexuality, his love of dance — the performance unleashed the grief he’d been keeping inside. In Sokolow’s work, he realized, the dancer is not merely form or motion, as she is in so much of contemporary dance. She is a person, a real person with feelings like his.

Discovering the living humanity in Sokolow’s work, created half a century before and a world away from Singh, was like finding the last piece of a puzzle. Now he knew what he wanted to do with his life: run a dance company that brought together modern dance — particularly Sokolow’s brand — and bharatanatyam.

“Dance helped me put all these pieces of myself — being Indian and being gay and being an immigrant — together,” Singh says. “It’s a place where you can be all of yourself and not divide yourself.”

Luckily, his nerdy side meant that Singh was better equipped to float this improbable dream than most. For the past 13 years he has worked for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where he is director of information systems. He owns a house. He has job security.

“Yeah, if I don’t get outsourced — to India,” he cracks.

He founded Dakshina, which means “offering” in Sanskrit, in 2004, after getting a master’s in fine arts from the University of Maryland in College Park in dance, performance and choreography.

In some ways, he’s more stereotypically Indian now than he was when he was growing up in India. He has become a vegetarian, and he teaches yoga. His choreography for Dakshina fuses bharatanatyam with modern dance. And once a year he hosts an Indian dance festival at the Lincoln Theatre, bringing over prominent dancers from India. Among them is Mallika Sarabhai, a dancer so celebrated that when I had lunch with her and Singh at an Indian restaurant here some time ago, the wait staff asked to pose with her for photos.

“He’s genuinely trying to find a new language, and doing it with a mixed company and doing it in a way that I find really interesting and not just superficial,” says Sarabhai, who performed at this year’s festival on Oct. 8. “I think it comes out of very deep thought.” As for Singh’s interest in Sokolow, Sarabhai reasons that “the raw emotion is something that is very Indian. None of the Indian arts is stony-faced and abstract, in that sense.”

Working with a modest annual budget of less than $250,000, Singh has built Dakshina into a busy operation with a growing presence both here and internationally. He has taken Sokolow’s work to Bangladesh and India. He has performances booked around here through July, including at the Kennedy Center’s Maximum India festival in March. Next month, he takes his company to Argentina for the Queer Tango Festival in Buenos Aires.

He performs every year at Dance Place, where he had his Sokolow epiphany.

And he calls his mother every day, even though she doesn’t come to his performances.

His analytical background gives him a realistic view of his future; he is prepared to run Dakshina at a loss for several more years. “I have a lot of dance friends who quit their day jobs and moved to New York, and now they’re waiting tables,” he says. “So I’m holding on to my job.”

But Singh says he’ll never give up dancing. Like the characters in Sokolow’s “Rooms,” he has something important to say.

“It’s a big journey,” he says. “I feel like I’ve just started.”

Buy tickets at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center website.

An Evening of Anna Sokolow performed by Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company. Nov. 4 and 5 at 8 p.m. at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland. Tickets $30.