India Week’s Dance Performances Explore Connection, the Self and the Sacred

One of Lincoln Center’s 2024 Summer for the City festival highlights is India Week, which brings two must-see dance performances to the Upper West Side.

Dancers in red costumes
On Wednesday, July 10, Ragamala Dance Company will perform Avimukta: Where the Seeker Meets the Sacred at Damrosch Park. Steven Pisano

Summer is here, and so is Lincoln Center’s Summer for the City festival, jam-packed with its hundreds of free and choose-what-you-pay events happening throughout its sixteen-acre Upper West Side campus. One of the 2024 festival highlights is sure to be India Week, which starts tomorrow (July 10) and will celebrate the country and its diaspora’s music, art, literature, film, cuisine and, of course, dance.

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Dance and movement are deeply embedded in Indian culture and traditions—from the sacred classical dance forms and yoga to the joyous Garba and Bollywood dance styles. It is no surprise, then, that the week features five nights of silent discos (on the city’s largest outdoor dance floor, under a shimmering 10-foot disco ball) curated by the iconic DJ Rekha, a social dance party (with lessons from folk dance expert Heena Patel and live music by Ujjval Vyas Musicals), mindful movement workshops led by dancer and yogi Minila Shah, and dance performances by the internationally-acclaimed troupes Ragamala Dance Company and Aakash Odedra Company.

India Week’s lineup of events is wonderfully and purposefully diverse. The multigenerational performers and presenters come from not only the U.S. and India, but also Canada, China, England and South Africa. Shanta Thake, the Ehrenkranz Chief Artistic Officer at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, told Observer she hopes the widespread Indian community will be able to see themselves reflected through the diverse programming. “But it’s equally important,” she added, “to bring folks from outside of the Indian community into this world and be able to celebrate this culture that actually does influence all of us. And it’s important for people to be celebrated in our communities, and not just tolerated.”

As for the two dance companies selected to perform, Thake was drawn to them because they are both informed by the history of their classical dance forms, but also very contemporary. “These are artists that are in conversation with the past and the present and the future, and I think that’s important for us to constantly be thinking about. Being rooted in traditional forms, but always looking forward, always figuring out how to make this a bigger tent.”

Avimukta: Where the Seeker Meets the Sacred

On Wednesday, July 10, Ragamala Dance Company will perform Avimukta: Where the Seeker Meets the Sacred at Damrosch Park. The hour-long work is a new adaptation of the large-scale stage work, Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim (2021), which was selected to open the Kennedy Center’s 50th Anniversary celebration and then The Joyce Theater’s Fall 2021 season. That piece had an extensive, white set. “There was water on the stage,” the Company’s Executive Artistic Director Aparna Ramaswamy told Observer. “There were large brass bells hanging. It was quite a spectacle.” The piece received great acclaim, but “we wanted to create something that felt more intimate and tourable, so the nucleus of our message could be sharable and more widely received.”

When Ramaswamy says “we” and “our,” she is referring to her mother Ranee Ramaswamy, the Company’s Founding Artistic Director. Ranee immigrated to the U.S. in 1978 but returned to India a few years later to study the South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam under master dancer/choreographer Padmabhushan Smt. Alarmél Valli. Even though Aparna was only a young child then, Ranee took her along and the two learned the form together. “And from that moment on,” Aparna said with great love, “we became artistic partners.” Together the mother and daughter returned to India again and again to study for four months a year, ten hours a day. When back in the U.S., they kept practicing together, soon including Aparna’s younger sister Ashwini in the lessons.

Mother and daughters are all featured soloists in Avimukta: Where the Seeker Meets the Sacred, which was inspired by the death of their father/grandfather who was a devout Hindu and wanted his ashes to be scattered in the Ganges River in Varanasi, as is the tradition.

The three soloists are joined by four Company members (Kassiyet Adilkhankyzy, Jessica Fiala, Sri Guntipally and Tamara Nadel), and two guest artists (Garrett Sour and Alan Tse) who function as the seekers. The piece follows the seekers on their pilgrimage to the holy city of Varanasi as they immerse themselves in rituals of sacred contemplation and ecstatic prayer.

“The ideas behind it really are the concepts of life and death in Hindu philosophy,” Aparna explained, “and the relationship between the seeker and the sacred, and the rituals that we all embody in order to activate that relationship.” The relationship, Aparna clarified, is not a distant one. “It’s not a formal one… It takes many shapes. You can see the sacred in so many different things.

The piece weaves together poems, mythology, music, solo dances (Bharatanatyam is traditionally a solo form) and ensemble pieces to create a multi-layered experience. In this style and lineage, poetry, music and dance are inseparable. “We don’t think of it as ‘this is kinetic movement,’ and then ‘this is storytelling’,” Aparna said. “The emotion has so many different textures and runs through.”

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The original musical score, created by acclaimed composer Prema Ramamurthy and recorded during India’s Covid lockdown, is also multi-layered and features Preethy Mahesh (vocals), Lalit Subramanian (vocals), C.K. Vasudevan (nattuvangam), S. Sakthivel Muruganantham (mridangam), Ramanathan Kalaiaransan (violin) and Sruthi Sagar (flute).

When I asked Aparna what it was like to have created this company and work with her mother, her exquisite composure softened, and she became—just for a moment—less divine creature and more human daughter. She said, “There’s one piece on this program where I sit on the stage, just me and my mom. She’s doing a solo, and I just sit and watch her, and I don’t have anything to do except to watch my mother perform. And every day in rehearsal, every performance, I feel so fortunate. I don’t take for granted what we have together, the fact that we have this love that we’re ensconced in together.”

Samsara

On Thursday, July 11, and Friday, July 12, Aakash Odedra Company will perform the U.S. premiere of Samsara (2020) at the Rose Theater. The duet promises to be both similar to Avimukta: Where the Seeker Meets the Sacred, and oh so different.

Dancers leap on a sandy stage
On Thursday, July 11, and Friday, July 12, Aakash Odedra Company will perform the U.S. premiere of Samsara (2020) at the Rose Theater. Nirvair Singh Rai

Like Avimukta: Where the Seeker Meets the Sacred, Samsara centers on themes of pilgrimage, the seeker and the sacred, and life and death. The inspiration for the piece was the classic 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West, which follows the journey of a Chinese Buddhist monk to the west (meaning Central Asia and India) to obtain the Buddhist sutras (sacred texts). The dance draws on this narrative as well as Buddhist philosophy, exploring some of the eighty-one obstacles and six states of mind that can hold unenlightened ones back.

Like Ranee and Aparna, the U.K.-born choreographer Aakash Odedra made his own journey back to India to formally train in classical Indian dance forms—both the South Indian Bharatanatyam and the North Indian Kathak. Later, he joined a Bollywood dance company in Mumbai and then “got thrown into” contemporary dance when the English dancer/choreographer of Bangladeshi descent Akram Khan became his mentor.

For Odedra, though, dance is not a family affair. His young love of movement was a solitary thing, true for as long as he can remember but unnatural in his environment. “I was so obsessed with dance for some reason,” he told Observer, “that when opening a door, I had to understand how the wrist moved. Or picking up a glass of water, I had to actually choreograph how I was going to lift the glass.” He used to try to advise his family to do the same, but they didn’t appreciate the advice. “I’ve always been dancing… I used to get lost in my world. Half the people used to laugh at me, and half the people used to marvel.” Dance offered an oasis for Odedra, a way to disconnect from the life around him and connect to something higher than himself.

And like Avimukta: Where the Seeker Meets the Sacred, Samsara was created in large part during Covid lockdown (Is that why both pieces are so much about a yearning for connection, both physical and spiritual?) The process of choreographing the duet was highly collaborative. The Chinese dancer Hu Shenyuan speaks little English, and Odedra speaks little Mandarin, so the two had to communicate through movement. “I feel like he’s my twin soul,” Odedra said of Shenyuan. “We never had to explain to each other what needs to be done. If I put my hand here, he’s already there. If he goes there, I’m already here. So, it was kind of like this intertwining and interplaying of two different energies.”

While both dancers carry their classical training in their bodies, the movement vocabulary in Samsara doesn’t look like traditional Indian or Chinese dancing. The movement creation was like snowballing, Odedra said, “throwing this kind of snowball to each other, and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger until it becomes its own thing.”

Much of Odedra’s work has grown and veered from his classical training: “It took a while for me to understand that I don’t have to disown my roots to do something else. In fact, I just have to kind of dip them in acid, give them a good shake, and plant them in new soil so that a new plant can grow. A new hybrid of dance that expresses the experiences of two different worlds coexisting side by side—the world of the East and the world of the West.”

On the stage, Odedra and Shenyuan will be joined by the composer/singer Nicki Wells and musicians Beibei Wang and Michael Ormiston. They will also be joined by statues and sand. Lots of sand. “I still have sand from 2020 in my ears,” Odedra joked. The sand represents the Gobi desert, which Odedra imagined the monk walking through, “looking at the footprints that were before him, feeling like this is the first time he’s seeing them, but also feeling like he’s been here before in another life.” The sand also indicates the passing and shifting of time. “I wanted to create a world where time has its own value. Sometimes it feels like it’s frozen. Sometimes it feels like it’s passing very quickly. Sometimes it feels like there are two people doing the journey, and sometimes it feels like there is only one.”

The response to Samsara has been overwhelming. When performing in China, for instance, audience members flew from city to city to see the show again and again. “I’m normally very critical of my own work,” Odedra admitted. “Very critical. But there is something special about this piece. I don’t know what happens, or why, but it does feel—as a performer, and from what I’ve heard from people—that it connects to a world that is between two universes.” And then he smiled shyly, shrugged. “I don’t know. Come and let the piece speak for itself.”

See Avimukta: Where the Seeker Meets the Sacred for free (General Admission, first-come first-served) on Wednesday, July 10, at 8:00 p.m. outdoors at Damrosch Park and Samsara on a Choose-What-You-Pay basis on Thursday, July 11, at 7:30 p.m. and Friday, July 12, at 7:30 p.m. indoors at Frederick P. Rose Hall’s Rose Theater. 

India Week’s Dance Performances Explore Connection, the Self and the Sacred