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South Indian's Best Bring An Amazing Dance Production To NYC

The all-star team behind Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, describe its mission as “the illumination the many dimensions of our interior lives.”

Renowned choreographer Mark Morris has created a ten-part series, focusing on the music and dance of the South India. Mark will present an opening talk on Thursday, October 27 at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay College. Joining him to kick off the series will be the legendary Lakshmi Vishwanathan, a pioneer choreographer and instructor who has been Mark’s friend and colleague for two decades.

“I saw Mark’s work when I visited New York in 1999, and became an ardent admirer,” says

Lakshmi. “What struck me the most immediately was his sense of music. My own dance is

visual music’...but the way he visualized classical music as modern dance had a special appeal for me. In my discipline, a grand master of dance is one who has both originality and imagination (manodharama in Sanskrit). Mark has both in good measure.”

Lakshmi has been performing for 50 years, chiefly in the classical Indian dance style of Bharatanatyam. (She holds the distinction of having danced in one of the very first color TV programs produced in the US.)

“Bharatanatyam is South Indian in origin and style,” explains Lakshmi. “It also uses South Indian classical music in all its variety for its vast repertoire of dances. It has a visual appeal because of the co-ordination of movement, hard-tapping footwork, gestures and facial expressions. There is an exciting array of rhythm, as well as grace in the movements of the dancer.”

Lakshmi notes that the influence of India on her friend Mark's creative spirit has been profound. “I think South Indian classical music has kindled Mark’s imagination in many ways, as has the geometry and intricacy of the gestures of Indian dance,” she says. “When I choreograph for a group, I often think of two things which I have observed in Mark's work.

The ‘surprise’ element...his dancers make the most unexpected moves, and that is exciting. Another aspect that I draw inspiration from is his sense of humor and wit. I think we share this personality trait.”

The Mark Morris Dance Group will perform two previous works, “O Rangasayee” and “Serenade,” as well as premiere a new piece based on the work of composer Terry Riley.

Lakshmi speaks highly of the dance groups that will be performing, starting with the all-male Kerala Kalamandalam Kathakali Troupe. “The high voltage drama of Kathakali will be a new experience for many,” says Lakshmi. “And then there is the popular Nrityagram dance group.” This all-female troupe will perform November 2 and 4, while the musicians that perform with Nrityagram will take center stage themselves to perform “A Little Night Music” at 10 pm on November 3rd.

There will also be performances by two very popular vocalists: Academy-Award nominee Bombay Jayashri; and writer and activist TM Krishna on the closing evening of Sunday Nov. 6. “Seldom do vocalists of South Indian classical music, known as Carnatic music, perform for Americans,” notes Lakshmi. “The two stalwarts Jayashri and Krishna will create a new following.”

Percussionist V. Selvaganesh takes the stage on Nov. 1. “The magic of rhythm produced by Selvaganesh on a small piece of stretched leather (Kanjira, one of the oldest primitive Indian drums) will make the young and old speechless.”

“This is a rich mix,” says Lakshmi of the overall series. “You are juxtaposing South Indian classical vocal music—which is seldom presented in this kind of setting—alongside modern dance by the Mark Morris dance group. Besides this there are classic Indian films by

Satyajit Ray, which will move you to tears, as well as the Jeanne Renoir film –The River, which many have never seen before. I don't think there has been such a variety of Indian music, dance and cinema events all in one season in one place...indeed very exciting!”

Lakshmi feels that Mark is the perfect orchestrator of this significant cultural event. “I think the fact that an iconic arts personality of New York like Mark Morris is the curator of Sounds Of India is by itself a huge attraction,” she says. “With Lincoln Center hosting the festival, it is a second plus point. Mark is a significant leader of modern aesthetics who can provoke audiences to not merely enjoy, but also to think. The mainstream audience of New York will show up to "see" and "hear" South India through an eclectic choice of dances and music.”

The Sounds of India Program runs from October 27 through November 6.

--story: Jim Catapano

--illustration: Eliana Pérez

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