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Washington Post 2007

East, West, Old, New: Dances Without Borders

By Lisa Traiger

Special to The Washington Post

Friday, March 30, 2007;
Washington Post, Page WE24

Expect the unexpected this weekend when dancing cowboys and Indians (from the subcontinent, not the American West) and a 20th-century classic modern work share the stage.

In one of the region’s more unusual dance programs, the DC Cowboys Dance Company joins the Washington-based troupe Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh & Company in its spring concert at American University’s Greenberg Theatre. Dakshina links bharata natyam, the classical South Indian dance form, and modern dance, reflecting Singh’s diverse dance background. And the DC Cowboys? Well, they’re broncos meet Broadway. 

”It’s going to be a true dance variety show,” says Kevin Platte, 42, founder and director of the DC Cowboys.

Sharing the stage with a professional dance company is a new experience for Platte and his 20 dancing men, who wowed crowds at the closing ceremonies of last year’s Gay Games at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

“I’ve been interested in popular dance forms all along,” says Singh, 34, tracing his interest to a youthful fascination with Bollywood movies, which captured his imagination with simple, accessible songs, dances and melodramatic stories. So why not the DC Cowboys? “It’s a way to get people to connect. It’s not snooty,” Singh says, explaining why he selected the let-me-entertain-you-style troupe. “It’s important that people have a way into our work by whatever means they can get it. Once they’re in, then we can take them on a journey.”

Born in Mumbai, Singh grew up in Chennai, known as the center of bharata natyam (once a solo form intended for Hindu temple worship), but he never danced a step on his native soil: “We were from a very poor family, and it was too expensive,” he says. “When I came to the U.S., I was 17 and had just finished high school. I finally was able to study dance.” His family settled in the Maryland suburbs, and he immediately began taking Indian dance classes with Meena Telikicherla.

For more than a dozen years, the Gaithersburg teacher has been his guru. Every Wednesday morning, before his day job as a computer network administrator, Singh continues to study the intricacies of bharata natyam, including refining facial expressions down to choreographed eye positions, storytelling gestures and rhythmic variations.
But Singh doesn’t confine himself to Indian dance. In college he took ballet to fulfill a physical education requirement and welcomed the similarities and technical challenges. Soon enchanted by modern dance, Singh founded Dakshina, which means “offering” in Sanskrit, in 2003. This weekend, Singh will premiere “Undercurrents,” a work that began with a haiku, the spare Japanese poetic form, which the choreographer renders in movement, stripping it to the barest of essentials. Among his other works on the program, the duet “Lullaby” parses a relationship through intertwining and outreaching arm gestures.

The program’s masterwork, “Kaddish,” a company premiere, was crafted in 1945 by Anna Sokolow, whose influences included Martha Graham and Graham’s formidable music composition teacher, Louis Horst. Sokolow created “Kaddish” upon her father’s death and in response to the growing realization that the Holocaust had decimated Europe’s Jewish community. Kaddish is a Jewish prayer said by mourners, and in the work, the female dancer wears a leather strap resembling the phylacteries Jewish men traditionally wear each morning for prayers.
And Singh, who treasures the multicultural environment in which he lives and works in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, sees nothing short of synthesis in gay dancing cowboys, classical Indian dance and traditional modern dance in a single evening. “Why shouldn’t we do pieces from other cultures?” he asks. “There’s so much for us to learn.”