1992 Tirupati, India: Different Dance Traditions Lead to Unique Technical Challenges
Tirupati is a small city in Southern Andhra Pradesh which serves as the gateway to Tirumala, home of one of the most sacred (and wealthiest) temples in India. BDC arrived by train after a long and arduous journey from Hyderabad. Their performance was scheduled to take place at the Sri Padmavati Mahila Viswavidyalayam (SPMVV) one of two women's universities in India. The Company had very little information about the performance venue in advance of our arrival – always a scary situation. When they pulled up at the university, there were thousands of motor bikes and other conveyances of all sorts in the parking lot. An enormous shamiana (colored fabric tent) had been erected on a lawn under which sat what looked to be several thousand college students, most of them women, dressed in brilliantly colored saris. Folk dance and musical performances were in full swing. Apparently, BDC were to be a featured part of an all-day festival, something they knew nothing about in advance. Where to change, where to warm up, how to set lights and sound … all of these questions remained to be answered, and in fact, they weren't really answered in any satisfactory way.
The dancers were not at their most fresh (it was extremely hot and we had very little in the way of water and snacks) and Janet, BDC's stage manager, and Hollander were getting nowhere in their efforts to negotiate a sense of when the dancers would go on, and how BDC would manage a lighting focus much less sound check. Noticing that there were “patio lights” strung up over the stage and very little else other than a few scoops here and there, the company gave up on the idea of customized lighting. More worrisome was the stage itself. As near as the company could get to it while the folk dancers were performing, it seemed to be concrete... Ouch. This was not in BDC's contract.
The main problem here was, of course, that Indian dancers have completely different expectations in terms of production values than dancers from the West. The fact that Western dancers demand wooden floors with marley (linoleum) covering is taken for granted when traveling and performing in the West. But in India, dance has a historical connection with the temple and with religious worship, and temples are typically constructed of stone or marble. Things are changing with television, film and ease-of-travel, but these traditions die hard. As such, it is understandable that BDC dancer colleagues would have been thrilled to get the company an engagement in such a holy place as Tirupati and would have passed over the physical setting.
Well… the stage was cement, and what is worse, the cement had been mixed with a generous complement of sand. The dances in BDC's repertoire were highly technical and included three pieces, none of which had costumes that would conform with sneakers. The dancers decided to wear jazz shoes for one of the pieces and ballet slippers for the others. After one piece in the ballet shoes, the soles were literally gone, worn away by the coarse grit of the floor. So the performance was completed in jazz shoes, jettisoning any sense of stylistic consistency.
As hard as it is to imagine, the performance was stunningly beautiful and the audience mobbed the dancers as if they were rock stars, helping to counter-balance their frustration and sore bodies.
Afterwards, our hosts insisted that the company prepare to wake up before dawn so that they could be driven up Tirumala hill to witness the temple at sunrise. The dancers were practically comatose as they were dragged from their beds and loaded into black Ambassador sedans car to begin the ascent. And then began the most terrifying hour of the companies lives. The road was a serpentine affair, no more than 1 ½ lanes across which the driver needed to share with on-coming vehicles. The night was pitch black with no street lights to guide the way, and the headlights revealed religious pilgrims making their way on foot as we whizzed by at top speed. Janet (BDC's Stage Manager) and Hollander were in the same car and took turns screaming at the driver to slow down. They knew that he wouldn’t care if he ran over the foot of a pilgrim and seemed equally oblivious to the risk of rolling all of the company off the road and down the side of the mountain.
When BDC finally arrived at the top, they were rewarded with an experience which almost made the panicky drive seem worth it: men, including the companies “chaperone”, entered barber stalls lit with fluorescent bulbs, and came out bald-headed with eyes gleaming with religious fervor. Next, they immersed themselves, still wrapped in white dhotis, in the temple tank, a pool lined with carved stone walls. Purification was not recommended to us – thankfully, because the dancers didn’t want to appear in their next performance with shaved heads.
BDC were ushered past long lines of pilgrims, wound back and forth upon themselves, and into the office of the temple where they were asked to inscribe their names and religions into a huge guest book. After a short wait, the company made their way along passages lined by rooms that were filled with coins and rupee notes, donations made by the pilgrims, most of whom looked as if they had little in the way of possessions, much less disposable income. The company finally reached the sanctum sanctorum with its statue of a Black Krishna. Crowded into this small torch-lit space were brawny priests dressed in long white dhotis and black threads strung diagonally across their bare chests with sandle-wood paste markings on their foreheads.
Throughout, the company were haunted by the feeling that they were in the “wrong”, in the New York sense of cutting in line … but their guides told us that the pilgrims were honored that they, as foreigners, were interested and respectful of their religion.
Upon exiting the holy place, the sun had come up and was glistening off the thick solid gold plates that covered the roofs of the entire temple complex. Going down the hill in daylight was frightening, but nothing to compare with the way up.