India Does Amy

I do believe in reincarnation, and karma.  I believe that most of the good things that have happened to me (meeting Andrew and David, Headlong’s success beyond our wildest imaginings, having a wonderful community of artists and friends, meeting my husband when I did, having two healthy and brilliant kids) are all because I do my darndest to be kind to the Earth and its inhabitants.

When I was young, my dad was a devotee of  Guru Baba Muktananda and laterGurumayi Chidvilasananda. I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning, drink chai, chant the Guru Gita (ignore the weird image, just listen to the chant), and then go to school.

So of course, when I got to college at Wesleyan, I took Bharata Natyam.

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My teacher, Kay Poursine, had been a student of Balasaraswati, regarded by many dance historians as one of the finest dancers in the world in her lifetime.

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I loved Bharata Natyam, which is much more physically difficult than any Western form I have studied, including ballet.  I loved the acting implicit in the abhinaya, or story-telling pieces.  I loved the math element, learning to count in 7s and 13s, and executing physical math puzzles, like doing a 7 with your top half while doing a 3 with your feet.  And I loved the religious/spiritual aspect of the form.  The devotion to the guru/teacher, which for me felt familiar.

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Plus I looked pretty cute in a sari, don’t you think?

Over the years, Bill Bissell at Dance Advance (the dance funding arm of the Pew) has taken scores of artists on Professional Development trips, mostly to go see dance or visual art pieces in other places.  Bill invited me to go on an amazing trip in February, the most ambitious Dance Advance trip yet, with 6 Philadelphians (3 Indian, 3 non).  We spent 10 days in Delhi, not only seeing work and experiencing the culture, but doing a daily movement practice as well.   We did Experiential Anatomy with Mark Taylor and studied Mohiniyattam, a classical dance form, with Bharati Shivaji and her daughter Vijayalakshmi.  Mohiniyattam is related to Bharata Natyam, but much softer and more lyrical.

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Everyone told me to be ready for the abject poverty, including begging children, some of whom have been maimed by their pimps so they collect more money.  It’s hard to see that up close, even if you know it’s coming.  And the trash.  And the stench!  Delhi smells like burning tires.  Infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired (every Republican Senator who honks about “smaller government” in the U.S. should go to India to see what it would be like if we had less road improvement, less regulation of emissions, fewer building codes, less regulation of water pollution, fewer sanitation services, etc.).  But somehow most people make do, even thrive.  Spirits are high.  Spirituality is everywhere.  A cliché, but you see it with your own eyes, and it turns out to be true.

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Ganesh was everywhere, which was great for me because he is the Remover of Obstacles.

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Mark Taylor is a beautiful man and beautiful teacher.  So full of knowledge, but not full of himself.  I’ve had encounters before with Body Mind Centering, which Mark studied and then found his own path. But it’s amazing to me that after all these years of thinking anatomically and about alignment, there’s still so much I don’t know about the actual structure of the body.   I keep thinking about Mark’s image of the “two footed foot”.   The first three metatarsals and the final two serve two totally different purposes.  The body is a miracle.

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Bharati is a gorgeous lyrical dancer, a calm and generous teacher, and a Good guru in a culture where Bad gurus abound.  Or at least I think they are Bad, when I hear the stories about them [13 year old daughter tells her dance teacher father that she wants to study other classical dance forms, he stops speaking to her FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE].  Mucho reflection on my relationships with my dance teachers – have I given them the acknowledgement they deserve?  As a teacher myself, am I finding the balance between offering a strong point of view but encouraging them to find their own paths?After some very interesting sharing of our artistic histories and practices, Mark set us up in “arranged marriages” to explore possible future collaborations.  I got set up with Vijay Palaparty, a Bharata Natyam dancer and choreographer based in DC.  Though his work is quite traditional, we share a love of absurdity and a sense of humor and play about ourselves and our work.  We immediately started by working with each other on mini-pieces, then got into some shared interests.  It turns out that Bharata Natyam has named these two movement worlds:  “lokadharmi”, or familiar, every-day, natural movement, and “natyadharmi”, or stylized, high art movement.  Sounds like Headlong, huh?Vijay and I talk about an idea our forms have in common, and we come up with the idea of “sitting”.  We make a hilarious improvisation structure based on that idea, featuring Vijay doing Bharata Natyam movement to my a cappella rendition of “My Milkshake”.  High art, low art.  Loka, Natya.You can check it out here, along with other short videos shot by Merian Soto.In Bharata Natyam and Mohiniyattam, the face is used to tell us about the psyche of the dancer/character.  Why is there still so much of The Cunningham Stare in Western dance?  Why is using the face still so rare in American contemporary dance?  All of this makes me want to study more Indian Classical dance, both for body and face.

And I want to keep working with all of the people from the trip in one way or other.  It was overwhelmingly invigorating, personally and artistically. For those of you feeling particularly voyeuristic, here’s my journal.

I think I must be accumulating good karma.  Thank you, Ganesh.