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Sriram Gopal on dcist.com

Preview: The 5th Annual Fall Festival of Indian Arts

By Sriram Gopal (www.dcist.com)

October 21, 2008 

Daniel Phoenix Singh

Daniel Phoenix Singh

Every year the Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company mounts its Fall Festival of Indian Arts, a month long multi-disciplinary event which combines the ancient and contemporary by presenting traditional Indian art forms in a modern context. The highlight of the event is a weekend of dance held at the venerable Lincoln Theatre. This year, the performances will take place this coming Saturday and Sunday.

Indian-born festival director Daniel Phoenix Singh received formal training in various modern dance styles and in Bharatanatyam, a classical form originating in South India. He designed the weekend’s performances to follow a specific structure, with Dakshina performing the first half of the program and guest artists from India performing the the second half.

“Each of the guest artists we bring, we bring for a reason,” Singh told DCist. “They have the depth, voice, aesthetic, and culture that they’ve built.”

Singh was also quick to note that a goal of the festival is to broaden the perception of Indian dance through contemporary pieces. His ensemble will premiere a modern dance piece and will also perform a commissioned piece by choreographer Aniruddhan Vasudevan, a frequent collaborator based out of Chennai, India. The song and accompanying dance, done in traditional Bharatanatyam style, contemplate a world free of war and oppression. This open minded approach is a major reason why the company won Metro D.C. Dance Awards for Emerging Group and Excellence in Costume Design.

Shanta Dhananjayan and VP Dhananjayan

Shanta Dhananjayan and VP Dhananjayan

Saturday night’s guest artists will be V.P. and Shanta Dhananjayan, the first couple of Indian dance. Now considered the pinnacle of tradition, they were once considered troublemakers for bucking long held customs. Currently on their farewell tour, this swansong celebrates a career that reaches back over 50 years and will be a retrospective of their most well known pieces.

“They really are considered the gold standard of the art,” Singh said. “I come from the lineage of their teaching and so it’s great to be able to celebrate them.”

When asked what these older artists thought of his work, Singh said, “I think they would say that if you know the rules, you can break them.” “And these are people you can actually have a dialogue with,” Vasudevan added. “It’s really, really important to have people from that generation with whom you can interact and bring things full circle.”

Sunday’s recital will feature another troublemaker of sorts. Mallika Sarabhai, whose aunt was an organizer in Mahatma Gandhi’s famous salt march during the Indian independence movement, is equally known for her dance and her activism in support of women and the disenfranchised. She came under fire from the government of the Indian state of Gujarat for her public criticism of its role in the Hindu/Muslim riots of 2002.

Sarabhai’s piece, In Search of the Goddess, is based on classical Indian texts that either place women on a pedestal or co-opt them as fragile creatures that need protection, and then asks the question of why women cannot simply be treated as equals. Sarabhai’s performance will close with Chitra Natyam, a disappearing folk art form where the dancer paints a figure with her feet while executing a choreographed movement.

“Indian art and Indian dance often gets framed, rather nauseatingly, into the whole Indian spirituality tradition and context,” Vasudevan said. “But Mallika Sarabhai is in a sense a representative Indian political artist.”

“I’ve seen work that’s political to be political, but I don’t want people to come to my performance and feel like they’re getting lectured,” Singh elaborated. “Yes, I’ve seen so many dances on the gods, and the relationship, and the lover, but there are other things.”

By Sriram Gopal in Arts and Events.