Washington Blade 2000
A Challenging Utopia
Dancer Daniel Singh is happiest when he’s working hardest
By Greg Varner
Daniel Singh has come a long way without a lot of encouragement. He has become expert in classical Indian dance form, simultaneously asserting his individuality and reclaiming a part of his cultural heritage.
As a child, Singh was drawn to the classical form known as Bharata Natyam (pronounced bu-RAH-ta-NOT-ee-um), which is more than 2,000 years old. In the stylized movement and rich costumes of the dancers, Singh glimpsed a vanished world of wealth and relative ease.
“In India, as I was growing up, I would watch performances. It was like going to a magical land for me, where time had stopped,” Singh says. “In modern times, India has become so poor, but seeing this, I could pretend I was back in the palace, or the temple, where this form started. Kings were the patrons.”
Lessons in Bharata Natyam are expensive- “Ironically” Singh says, “I couldn’t afford it in India”- so it wasn’t until his family had emigrated to the United States that he was able to begin studying with a Washington-based teacher, Meena Telikicheria.
Even here in Washington, Singh says, he spend a significant portion of the income he earns as a computer system administrator on dance lessons.
“And that’s a bargain,” he says, “because the knowledge my teacher has is not written down anywhere. It’s an oral tradition. She’s like a museum walking around. I want to make my teacher proud of me.”
Singh is paying all the expense for an upcoming Bharata Natyam program- around $8,000- entirely out of his pocket. Especially for this July 22nd performance, a group of musicians is being brought from India. Singh says he would be grateful if sponsors materialized to her him cover costs.
Financial concerns aren’t the only barriers Singh has had to face. His family didn’t encourage his interest in dance, he says, for a variety of reasons. First off, the world of Bharata Natyam seemed like an impractical, Ivory Tower sort of realm, suitable, perhaps, for people of independent means, but not for young men who needed to learn the skills that would help them earn a living.
His parents also had reservations on religious grounds: Bharata Natyam comes from a Hindu tradition, and Singh’s family was Christian.
Third there was the concern that dance is not a suitably masculine pursuit. When he eventually came out as Gay, Singh adds, it did not occasion any major drama. Still, his parents looked askance at his interest in Bharata Natyam , as other parents might do if a son announced that he planned to study ballet.
“Even though in Indian there are men who dance, it’s a female-dominated world,” Singh explains. In Washington, he is his teacher’s single male student, out of a hundred, who range in age from 5 to 40. At 27, Singh is one of the only 10 students over the age of 20.
“The form captures all the senses,” He says. The music is captivating to your ears, and the costumes and gestures keep your eye involved.”
The Bharata Natyam form combines three elements: purely abstract movement, expressive gestures, and dramatic storytelling. These three aspects receive varying degrees of emphasis from piece to piece.
“It’s kind of like ballet,” Singh explains. “The vocabulary is set and the choreographer builds a dance out of that pre-existing vocabulary. But most classical dance form don’t have the abstract elements- they’re all thematic. Even in ballet, it wasn’t until Balanchine came along that there was abstract ballet. Till then it was story ballet.”
In general, though he prefers art that is rooted in human experience, Singh finds the purely formal, aesthetic aspect of Bharata Natyam extraordinarily compelling in its own right.
“It’s pure form,” he says, “without emotions weighing it down. It’s just there- it’s movement, and that’s all there is to it.”
Themes explored in Bharata Natyam include, among others, devotion to god and love.
“You have to let go of all your inhibitions and fears,” Singh says, “and completely take on the character of each dance. The abstract part is technically demanding; emotionally, the storytelling part is also demanding, and requires a lot of emotional stamina.”
If anyone has the fortitude necessary to learn Bharata Natyam, his nine years of intensive study suggest that Singh does. The form is so complex, he points out, that his teacher still takes classes.
For the past five years, Singh has been a member of the Nrityanjali dance troupe, which translates into English as “offering of dance.” He also dances with Washington choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess, or whom he recently danced the role of Darius in “Gandhara.”
“it’s the kind of working in a utopian world with Dana,” Singh says. “It’s a hard place to work, full of challenges. For me, utopia is a place where you keep growing past your limitations.”
His philosophy seems only logical, given the lack of encouragement he has faced while pursuing his interest in Bharata Natyam. For Singh, who can speak several languages including Hindi, Tamil, French and English, dancing is the means to express something essential, which cannot be expressed in any other way.
“Learning dance was my first language,” he says. “Till I learned dance, I couldn’t speak. Even if I never had the chance to perform it, I would still learn it. It’s okay for me to just dance in the studio. Dancing is holding on to my first language.”