Ramya Harishankar, the award-winning Artistic Director, and choreographer for the Irvine based Arpana Dance Company is known nationally and internationally for her choreography that has brought the ancient and traditional Bharata Natyam from India into the modern era without compromising its essence. At the Irvine Barclay Theatre on May 21, 2023, Harishankar presented an incredible evening of dance, music, and song with DARPANA…reflecting on 40 years! to a nearly sold out house. An abundance of Indian women and young girls dressed in a large variety of decorative saris made it feel like one was seated in the middle of a jeweled tapestry. And that was before the curtain went up to reveal the musicians and performers.
The program began with a blessing of the theater, the audience and the performance by Jacque Tahuka Nunez of the Acjachemen Nation and Harishankar. Nunez provided a history of how her ancestors first roamed the lands that the theater and UC Irvine campus occupied and gave a blessing by waving a single eagle feature over the audience. Harishankar also blessed the evening with a revered symbol in India, a single peacock feather.
The program featured traditional Bharata Natyam dances, a film of Harishankar describing her journey as a dance student of dance in India, her performing as a young dancer, her relocation to the U.S. and the journey of her company over the past 40 years. The films were interspersed between dances as a wonderfully informative transition.
Having its world premiere at The Barclay, Kalpataru was listed as “a thematic four-part exploration of sylvan growth and cyclicality created in the spirit of Arpana in celebration of 40 years.”
Vaatsalya, choreographed by Nandini Kannan, spoke to the beauty of nature. The work opened with everyone on stage in silhouette to sunrise colors lighting the back wall. As the lights came up, several dancers were discovered lying on the floor with others standing. The costumes were bright red traditional saris with beautiful patterns and bells on their wrists rather than on their anklets as usually seen. Kannan’s choreography incorporated the formal Bharata Natyam vocabulary of foot rhythms, sudden stops, and the articulation of the hands, head and eyes, but it was her use of the space with interweaving patterns that brought it into the present.
The Musical Composition for Vaatsalya was by Aashray Harishankar and Ravi Deo in collaboration with Donna Ebata, Kate Meigneux, Kiran Athreya, Mariko Rooks, Shubha Chandramouli, and Vini Sundaram. The spoken poem was by A. Srinivasaragavan and Aashray Harishankar, with choreography by Nandini Kannan in collaboration with Ahila Gulasekaram, Neha Muvvala, Nikki Shah, Nitya Dholakia, Shefali Appali, Shradha Mididaddi, Vini Sundaram, and Yashna Nandan.
Swaranjali was a brief section choreographed by Harishankar with music and vocals by Srikanth Gopalakrishnan. Taken from her 2019 production, SHE, Harishankar’s work was said to be an exploration of the Bharata Natyam vocabulary to the singing of musical notes/swaras. According to my research, the word swara (meaning notes) is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Svar,’ which means sound. There are short and long versions of these, the shorter, Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni, are said to be more pleasing to one’s ears. The choreography again showcased the traditional dance vocabulary transformed by Harishankar’s modern choreographic style. Both the music and the dancers were a pleasant experience.
Dasavatharam spoke to the mythology of the 10 incarnations of Vishnu and the evolution of humankind. The compositions were Annamacharya (16th century, Telugu) with music, vocal and original choreography by Swamimalai K Rajaratnam. This short work, performed by member of Arpana Dance Company, was rich with solos and duets and again a western choreographic structure.
Performed by Ramya Harishankar with original choreography by Kalanidhi Narayanan and composition by Bilvamangala (9th century, Sanskrit) , Ramo Nama, revealed an Avatar taking on a human form. This was the perfect work to end the first half of the program.
The composition was Bilvamangala (9th century, Sanskrit) with vocals by Lakshmi Krishnamoorthy
Following the intermission, one of the great highlights was to see Harishankar perform Bhumika, a mother’s lament to the composition and music arrangement by Aashray Harishankar. When I first saw this work on film in 2021 as part of Donna Sternberg’s “Awe & Wonder” series during the pandemic, I was both amazed and entranced by both Harishankar’s performance and acting abilities, but wondered why this was my first time experiencing this woman’s work? Why had I not been more aware of her and her company? It was a lack that I set about rectifying.
The mother in this work is, in my view, Mother Earth, and she is both questioning and berating we humans as to why we have not treated her with love and respect. In Bhumika, a mother’s lament, she is warning us that our neglect continues on this part we will destroy her and therefore ourselves. Harishankar’s stage presence reached the audience as clearly as it did on the computer screen. She is indeed a treasure. It is no wonder that Harishankar’s company, Arpana was named Milestone Dance Company (2007) by the Dance Resource Center, Los Angeles.
Fire/Agni is part of a longer work and ode to the five elements: earth, sky, water, wind, and fire. It was described as an offering to California that has been ravaged by fire in recent years. Beginning with a musical drone that developed into a stunning score by Professor C. V. Chandrasekhar with vocals by Professor Chandrasekhar and K. Hariprasad, Fire/Agni felt like a ritual dance that got out of control. With flames projected onto the back wall, hot red colored, and strips of red cloth that the dancers used to depict flames, there was a time when the flames seemed to subside only to rage on again. Fire/Agni ended, however, with hope of relief and regrowth.
Eravaaka, choreographed by Radhika Shurajit, was inspired by the “1955 film Rojulu Marayi, the environmental and political issues faced by the society during land reforms that changed India are brought to light in this harvest dance” It was taken from Arpana’ Dance Company’s 2017 production, Celluloid Classics…before and beyond bollywood. It was a fun and joyous dance that included the only male dancer on the program, guest artist Jose J. Rios Pineda who flirted and performed with great gusto to the music of Master Venu. The singer was Krishnaveni Jikki.
The evening took another turn with Ahila Gulasekaram’s “girls night out” dance titled Yolo. Performed to Jesse Cook’s “Bogota by bus” this was a wonderful shift in not only the choreographic style but musically. Cook is a Canadian guitarist and this piece of music had the flavor of a rumba. The four women go out, meet a guy they all like and only one is chosen to go with him. It is fun, humorous and flirtatious.
Closing the evening was Thillana, a generic name for a closing number inspired by a musical structure called Tarana in Hindustani music. The work was choreographed by Harishankar with the assistance of Shefali Appali and members of the Arpana Dance Company. The music was by Madurai Muralidharan with vocals by Kuldeep Pai.
The work was a soft landing to the evening and one that highlighted every member of the group including the musicians. It was an etude of styles seen throughout the night. Though the program was long, I was sad to see it end.
Special Guests: Jacque Tahuka Nunez, Kinnara Taiko (Japanese American drumming ensemble), Donna Ebata (Taiko), Kate Meigneux (Taiko), Marko Fujimoto Rooks (Taiko) and Jose J. Rios Pineda.
Dancers who participated in DARPANA…reflecting on 40 years!: Ramya Harishanka, Ahila Gulasekaram, Nandini Kannan, Visalini Sundaram, Shefali Appali, Sai Gayatri Bhaskar, Sanchitha Chari, Sumunaa Gnanashanmugam, Amritabala Janahan, Anjai Jain, Swara Kulkarni, Shradha Mididaddi, Naha Muvvala, Medha Nair, Yashna Nandan, Nitya Pujara, Nikki Shah, Vivahni Shastry, Shreya Srinivasan, Shrinidhi Sriram, and Raashi Subramanya.
Musical Ensemble: Kiran Athreya (violin, vocals), Shubha Chandramouli (Mridangam, vocals), Ravindra Deo (composer, Tabla), Aashray Harishankar (composer, keyboard), and Sheila Sudhakar (various instruments).
For more information about Arpana Dance Company, please visit their website.
For more information about the Irvine Barclay Theatre, please visit their website.
This article was edited to correct errors on 5/29/23
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: – Arpana Dance Company – Swara Kulkarni, Amritabala Janahan, Nitya Pujara, Shreya Srinivasan, & Neha Muvvala in Fire/Agni – Photo by Gunindu Abeysekara