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Dancing with the Sitars

Fall Indian Dance Festival Kicks Off This Weekend

– Amy Cavanaugh (www.washingtonblade.com)

October 3, 2008 

Though gay choreographer Daniel Phoenix Singh was born in India, he didn’t start exploring his interest in Indian dance until he came to the United States. And as the artistic director and president of Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company, Singh decided to give something back to the community that taught him so much.

“I wanted to find a way to bring artists from India back here,” Singh says. “And I’ve been doing this festival to give people who left their home a chance to experience that again.”

With that in mind, Singh, 35, launched the first Fall Festival of Indian Arts five years ago, and each October brings dancers from his native country to Washington in a celebration of Indian culture.

Anniruddhan Vasudevan

Anniruddhan Vasudevan

Aniruddhan Vasudevan, 26, a choreographer from Chennai, India, is gay and will be performing in the festival. Singh and Vasudevan came together by “the power of technology,” Singh says.

“I heard about an online group for queer South Asian men, and I saw that someone had reviewed a performance by him,” Singh says. “So the next time I went to India I met him and said, ‘I read your review and want to collaborate.’”

Vasudevan, who is trained in bharata natyam, a style of dance that includes miming and acting, performed with the company as part of last year’s festival. His piece, which will be performed at the concerts on Oct. 25 and 26, is a “continuation of last year’s performance as far as Indian dance is concerned.”

“It looks at how people relate to each other and raises questions about world peace, brotherhood and how different faiths can have dialogue with each other or how people of different nations can talk to each other,” he says. The lyrics are from ancient and modern Tamil.

Singh and Vasudevan explore their sexualities in their work in different ways.

Singh said that he finds ways to “incorporate positive role models in couples onstage,” and he uses same-sex pairings along with male-female couples in his performances.

“I think in some sense, people assume that most men in dance are queer or gay, so I have to work with that stereotype,” Singh says. “The other end of that is that it gives me freedom in my work to explore my sexuality and be positive about it.”

Vasudevan’s art is a political statement for gay rights.

“There’s a lot of political art happening in India right now — dance art, street art and dance,” Vasudevan says. “It’s exciting to be a gay choreographer right now, since one gets to see these voices in different platforms. I work with Indian classical dance forms and it’s exciting to engage with old dance and create queer spaces within it.”

The festival, which has the theme “Trendsetting Traditions,” kicks off Sunday with “The Art of Peace — A Sitar Concert Commemorating Gandhi’s Birthday.” The performance by sitarist Alif Laila is at 3:30 p.m. at the Westminster Church, 400 I St., S.W. The concert is free but an RSVP to rsvp@dakshina.org is required.

The headline performances will take place Oct. 25-26 at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St., N.W. The Saturday show features performances by the Dhananjayans and Padmarani Rasiah Cantu.

“Saturday’s show is very classical and shows the richness of the tradition,” Singh says. “The choreographers are masters in their 60s, and unlike in Western art, Indians become masters later in life, so this is an interesting way to look at what older dancers have to offer.”

The Sunday show, “In Search of the Goddess,” is by Mallika Sarabhai, who will explore the role of women in Indian mythology and religion.

“It’s a feminist perspective on how women are made into either goddesses or minions,” Singh says. Sunday’s performance is at 4 p.m.

For tickets or more information, visit www.dakshina.org.

By Amy Cavanaugh in Washington Blade.