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Robert Abrams
Works in Progress
The Center for Ballet and the Arts (New York University)
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

Études – a collaboration of Preeti Vasudevan and Amar Ramasar combining classical Indian dance with classical ballet

by Robert Abrams
May 16, 2016
The Center for Ballet and the Arts (New York University)
16 Cooper Square, 1st floor (theater)
20 Cooper Square, 2nd Floor (office)
New York, NY 10003
139 character Micro-summary:
Études: Vasudevan + Ramasar, Bharatanatyam + Ballet -> New style + Choreography toolkit, Beauty + Potential -> Joy. ExploreDance.com/4376
At Études, an afternoon presentation that was half performance of a work in progress and half lecture-demonstration, the audience knew it was seeing the beginning of something significant. The central question was "What was significant about this attempt by Preeti Vasudevan (Thresh) and Amar Ramasar (New York City Ballet) to combine classical Indian dance with classical ballet?"

Ms. Vasudevan and Mr. Ramasar envision that the choreographic studies or fragments that they have developed will become a full evening work or evening of works. Based on what was presented, which was the first time this collaboration was danced before an audience, a full evening work would be both justified and welcome, but the promise of a longer work by itself does not capture the significance.

Perhaps their dance partnership was what was significant? Despite having trained primarily in very different dance styles, Ms. Vasudevan and Mr. Ramasar moved together well. During the Q and A at the end of the show, they described feeling seamless from the start of the rehearsals, so the fit that was apparent from the outside was also apparent to them from the inside. Speaking from experience as a social dancer, finding a dance partner who is a good fit is difficult, and isn't simply a matter of pairing two similarly accomplished dancers. Sometimes it feels as if finding a dance partner is more difficult than finding a marriage partner. So too, this new dance partnership is no small thing, but it is still an incomplete explanation.

They showed that it is possible to combine two differing dance vocabularies with much history each, and produce something coherent that is both new and rooted in the past. While one might describe this new something as a dance style, I think it is equally important as a toolkit that dancers and choreographers can use. As they said in the Q and A, this project gave them the emotional excitement of something new. The same dances, however beautiful, done over many years can become too practiced. As a structured improvisation that allows a dancer, of which ever style, to move out of his or her comfort zone and find new excitement, this Bharatanatyam-Ballet (Ballatanatyam? Bharallet? Where is a clever marketing person to come up with a name when you need one?) is a valuable addition to the existing collection of hybrids and collaborations (see, for example, Swango: West Coast Swing and Argentine Tango).

One aspect of the specific outcome of Ms. Vasudevan and Mr. Ramasar's collaboration shown today was the way they managed to combine two highly structured dance styles that when forged became something akin to improvisational Jazz. In a segment early in the afternoon, Mr. Ramasar danced primarily ballet on a fixed point while Ms. Vasudevan rotated around him primarily in an Indian mode. Then they reversed the pattern, with Ms. Vasudevan on a fixed point and Mr. Ramasar rotating around her. They felt loose and in tune, like anything could happen, within the bounds they had set for themselves.

This presentation was the culmination of Ms. Vasudevan's fellowship at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University. Joining Ms. Vasudevan and Mr. Ramasar in the collaboration were several fine musicians: Balaskandan (Indian percussions), Dave Eggar (Cello), Rachel Golub (Violin) and Jerry Korman (Piano). It is always a pleasure to see dance paired with live music, and especially where the dance and the music interact and breathe together, as was the case this afternoon. The language of Laban notation was also used to facilitate communication between the two dance styles.

The portions of the show that were more lecture-demonstration were useful, allowing the audience to see some elements of the styles clearly delineated, while also being a window into their artistic process. They contrasted 10 arm positions in each style. They contrasted silent versus voiced steps.

Classical Indian dance has a tradition of the dancers speaking or chanting while dancing, while classical ballet does not (other than the occasional experiment, such as at Fall for Dance). This clearly put Mr. Ramasar out of his comfort zone. The experiment worked.

Other contrasts shown or discussed included how there are no falls or lifts in classical Indian dance, compared to ballet which does include falls and lifts. They commented on past crossover between these two styles, such as the ballet influences on Bharatanatyam in the 20th Century.

The dancers communicated a joy of dance. They were clearly having fun. This is, or can be, both an accomplishment and a style choice. I happen to prefer dance that acknowledges the emotion of the act of dance, so this is probably one reason I liked the show.

Both dancers had superior technique and strength. I have argued before that strong dancers are more likely to carry the choreography, independent of the quality of the choreography itself. Thus, it is not possible to measure the choreography independent of the dancers. Since this collaboration is a development of a toolkit or style as much as it is the development of a specific work, I would advise also trying the process with less accomplished dancers. One might even devise a two by two research design where accomplished dancers would be paired with established quality choreography (in one or both classical styles) in one cell, accomplished dancers with new choreography in the second cell (today's presentation), and less accomplished dancers with established quality choreography and new choreography respectively in the cells in the second column. The output of all four cells, taken together, might inform the development of the toolkit and style more than any one cell alone. (Today's presentation happened to include a ballet dancer with almost no prior classical Indian dance training who happens to be of Indian origin. It would be interesting to see if adding a ballet dancer with no classical Indian dance training who does not happen to be of Indian origin changes, or does not change, the output.)

One of the best parts of the afternoon was the section that focused on partnering. As discussed in the lecture-demonstration and Q and A portions, classical Indian dance has relatively little partnering while classical ballet has a lot of partnering. I thought Ms. Vasudevan and Mr. Ramasar were convincingly moving as one. In the best partnering, it seems to me, the man is not simply holding the woman up. Rather, both dancers are dependent on each other; the movement of the one cannot exist, cannot stay in balance, without the movement of the other.

As Rajika Puri, an accomplished classical Indian dancer, experimenter and critic herself, pointed out in the Q and A, to paraphrase her comment, you could see the spaces between the dancers, not just the dancers themselves. You don't get those spaces if both dancers are partnering in the sense of moving in sync while both facing the audience. This partnering in Études was rounded and in the round, for the dancers first and the audience second.

When done well, partnering is not a static balance; it is a dynamic balance. A problem with discussing partnering as an outside observer is that this kind of partnering when done well is a ready-to-hand/immersive, inner ear kind of experience. The outward evidence suggests that they did achieve this level of inner partnering experience.

Ms. Vasudevan and Mr. Ramasar were at ease while dancing, on the ground and in the air. They created an invitation, for the audience and for the dance community. Ms. Vasudevan called the partnering section of the show a "private world". Mr. Ramasar felt they had created something with honesty and intimacy. While this dance world Ms. Vasudevan and Mr. Ramasar have created is a private world, it is a world that deserves to be shared, both as an eventual finished show and as a continuing collaboration.
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