Hyderabad: Broaden Your Impact
Hyderabad is the capital of the State of Andhra Pradesh and one of India’s most important cities. However, in 1992, the city was just beginning to show signs of emergence as an important IT and international business center.
Beyond the companies very intense schedule of activities in Hyderabad, their first order of business was the urgent need to recover from the exhaustion and illness that had plagued the company during their journey throughout the state of AP. Programmatically, the company had a rich combination of lectures, master classes and performances to accomplish in 4 short days.
An especially noteworthy aspect of BDC's Hyderabad program was the creative marketing savvy of the local sponsors. They had a very large house to fill – the Ravindra Bharati -- and Battery Dance Company were an unknown name in Hyderabad. The repertoire was devoid of flash and dazzle, but the sponsors took the name of one of the pieces, ‘Tell Me the Truth About Love’ and emblazoned it on a giant banner that stretched from the corner of the theater across one of the largest avenues of the city. This was actually a very smart strategy because it meant that the religiously conservative community would give BDC a wide berth but a younger audience, interested in anything American, would throng the performance and get an introduction to modern dance.
BDC Director, Jonathan Hollander was on a Fulbright Lecturing assignment in India and this permitted him to establish a relationship with the American Studies Research Centre at Osmania University. The director at the time, Glenn Johnson, was a professor at Vassar College who had taken a 2-year Fulbright assignment with ASRC. He and his wife Sipra hosted a reception for BDC at their home, introducing the company to the academic elite of Hyderabad, a city of several universities. The ASRC has since been closed as part of the cut-backs in funding by the State Department of American libraries overseas, but at the time Jonathan was there in 1992, ASRC had a robust program attended by some of the most promising college students from all over India and neighboring countries. Hollander gave a lecture on American modern dance and many of the students expressed their enthusiasm for hearing directly from an artist working in the field rather than from a book – and the Q/A was very lively. Addressing the scholarly group at the university helped build interest in BDC's performance, that was set to take place a day later, and the company were welcomed by a full house at the performance. (and fortunately, they had a full complement of dancers since everyone had recovered from their illnesses and was ready to finish off the tour with a bang!)
Take-aways: Whenever possible, BDC looked for opportunities to broaden the impact of our international programs by adding academic lectures as well as workshops and master classes, engaging scholars and giving them incentive to attend performances. The experience in Hyderabad was one of the first international programs that exploited this program and outreach type of overlap.
Vijayawada: A Glorious Finale to a Hair-Raising Experience
The city of Vijayawada, in the State of Andhra Pradesh, is indelibly imprinted on BDC for several reasons.
The previous stop on the companies tour was Vizag where two of our dancers became ill. The dancers had gone swimming (in shark infested waters, we later discovered) and when they returned to the hotel, thet found one of the male dancers curled into a fetal position on his bed with hands clenched – a sure sign of dehydration (caused by dysentery). One of the female dancers was a bit green around the gills too. BDC had a very small crew, and it was now decimated. They called the manager of the hotel who immediately produced a doctor who told them the bad news: BDC dancers Paul and Elizabeth would have to rest in bed for at least 24 hours, drinking water and electrolytes and various other potions. This news struck fear in the companies hearts because they were supposed to leave the next morning for a 12-hour train ride to the next step – Vijayawada.
BDC had to do triage, and it looked like this: 4 members of the company left Vizag for Vijayawada the next morning, two dancers, BDC director Jonathan and their lighting/production designer. The company left Susan, a “healthy” dancer, behind to supervise the care of the two sick ones along with the manager of the hotel and his friend, a physician. He said he’d have everyone ship-shape in no time. It was really terrifying for the company to leave, but away they went.
When BDC arrived in Vijayawada, after 2 train rides and 12 hours of traveling (2nd class, non-A/C), the company were met by a riotous group of local organizers who were delighted to see them and ignored their bedraggled condition. Knowing nothing of American modern dance, the fact that the BDC troupe was reduced by half meant nothing to them. They piled the company into a couple of auto-rickshaws and proceeded to drive them around town, pointing to every conceivable surface on which were plastered posters for BDC's performance the next night. BDC director Jonathan Hollander had a sickly smile on his face --- after all, he was 41 years old and felt he was not in dance shape, and would have to fill in for his sick dancer wearing a white unitard. If the company weren't particularly religious, they became religious that night: praying for Paul and Elizabeth’s swift recovery, and for Susan’s arrival in time for the show the next night.
The companies state of mind was not helped by the hospitality: they were billeted in what might have, at one time, been a decent hotel, located on the banks of the river that bisected the town. But upon laying their weary heads on the pillows that night, the true condition of the hotel became immediately apparent: the beds were infested with bugs. There wasn't much one could do in the dark of night with the city already asleep – so the company learned to co-exist with the bugs.
The next morning, BDC visited the theater. The stage was of a reasonable dimension and the 500 seats the organizers promised, would be filled that evening (for once, the company had hoped for a small audience…). This being 1992 and cell phones and e-mail being unknown to India, the company had no way of finding out if the two sick dancers had recovered sufficiently for Susan to hop the train to join them.
So they began the task of rehearsing dances that Jonathan had never performed before (no matter that he had choreographed them; devising steps and actually performing them are two very different things …)
Meanwhile, Jonathan's attention was divided because their technical director, Janet was in need of help.
As he remembers it, there were two pipes loaded with about 12 lights each. That was for the entire theater.
The real trick was that one pipe was hanging over the stage and one pipe was out over the audience, both of which were about 15 feet in the air and THERE WAS NO LADDER IN THE THEATER! The lights were pointed this way and that, and half of them had bulbs that had burnt out (probably in 1957.)
Clearly no one had touched these instruments since they were first installed.
Janet hastily pulled some of the sleepy “crew” into action and they rustled up some wooden platforms (like pallets). These they piled, in no particular semblance of sturdiness, one on top of another, in the center of the stage. When they finished this “construction”, they looked at Janet with the implication, “OK, lady, you asked for it; you climb it!” Janet gamely ascended the rickety structure and managed to focus 2 or 3 lights that were within reach, meanwhile, shifting her weight from side to side in order to counteract that shifting of her unstable platform. As she was doing this, I was having a minor heart attack (being prone to vertigo myself.)
When she came down, Jonathan put his foot down. This couldn't go on.
Meanwhile, an idea came to the company: As they had driven to the theater that morning, they had passed what looked to be a fire house. Light bulb: fire house = ladder! BDC pulled the organizers aside and instructed them to borrow the tallest ladder available at the fire house. They did, and Janet managed to repair and focus the balance of the lights for that evening’s performance. Just as she completed this exhausting task, the stage door opened and Susan walked in, dazed from the train travel – by herself – 12 hours on two trains. The company practically crushed her with our hugs. The show could go on! (albeit with middle-age spread still on call to fill Paul’s roles.)
Yes, the house was full, standing-room-only, with Chief Ministers and Mayors and all. Somehow BDC pulled it off and at the end of the show (fortunately the last piece had the dancers decked out in tuxedos and gowns, not the unitards) they were ushered back on stage during a standing ovation. Chairs that looked more like thrones were positioned on stage, each of the dancers was motioned to be seated, local dancers filed on stage with large bushels in their arms. First, flowered crowns were placed on their heads and then the bushels were turned upside down over them and we were treated to a flower-petal-shower! Souvenirs had been prepared for the company – photographs of each dancer in carved wooden frames. A glorious finale to a hair-raising experience. Paul and Elizabeth missed the entire experience, but turned up the next day in Hyderabad where the companies very generous and deeply caring Vizag sponsors had flown them as soon as they were well enough to travel.
Be authoritative without losing your cool.
Vishakhapatnam, or Vizag as everyone calls it, is a port city on the Bay of Bengal. Even though it is unknown to most Americans, the city has a population similar to the size of Chicago. BDC's arrival there was greeted with a brass band and floral garlands. The company found a lovely intimate theater ready for their performance; however, lighting equipment was sparse and poorly focused.
Take-away: Be authoritative without losing your cool.
The Company learned this lesson the hard way. The local crew in the theater constituted a few well-meaning but unskilled helpers. BDC had a very tight schedule because Indian theaters tend to book in 3 hours shifts - with dance school recitals, political rallies, religious ceremonies and musical concerts changing over in rapid succession. BDC's technical director Janet Clancy was rushing against the clock to get the few lights focused as well as to illuminate the stage. Hollander instructed the theater manager to keep the doors locked until the company gave the signal that the audience could enter. This instruction fell on deaf ears. Janet, in her work garb of cut-off jeans and cowboy boots, was on top of a ladder, finishing up the focus (if you could call it that) when the bejeweled, sari- and dhoti-clad audience members began filing into the theater.
Hollander dragged the theater manager out behind the building and gave him a tongue lashing, but the harm was already done. Janet and the company were humiliated but the audience seemed to take it all in stride.
The next day, Hollander had voice and lots of pain in my throat. He asked to go to the doctor who dutifully examined his throat and in a kindly voice, said, “You must stop screaming!” Jonathan: “How do you know that I’ve been screaming?” Doctor: “Your throat is completely lacerated.
Big Cities can mean Big Bureaucracy
1992 Mumbai, India
Mumbai is one of India’s largest cities and is often compared to New York because of its cosmopolitan nature. On the one hand, it was a great honor for the company to be presented at the NCPA – the closest thing that India has to a Lincoln Center or Kennedy Center. On the other hand, BDC Director (Jonathan Hollander) found humiliating that he was unable to get validation in the form of artistic recognition from the U.S. Government even though he was in India as a Fulbright Lecturer.
The story was this: India’s international cultural body, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations or ICCR, agreed to present Battery Dance Company at the NCPA and to make the Centre one of my host institutions (extending rehearsal rooms for our master classes and a small hall for a BDC lecture-demonstration before their big show.) The local ICCR representative generously offered to split the cost of hotel accommodations for the Company for the duration of their stay in Mumbai if the U.S. Consulate would ante up the other half. Apparently this was their usual procedure when working with foreign groups. Hollander hadn’t yet established his artistic bonafides with the USG, and when he met with the Cultural Affairs officer in Mumbai to ask her to match the Indian Government’s offer (which would have amounted to less than $1,000) she turned him down flat. Thus BDC had a biblical half-a-hotel-room and had to rely on the good will of local friends and colleagues to cover the expense of a YMCA.
The companies review in one of the most important newspapers in town was a rave, and gave the company a little gratification in the nature of “I told you so”…
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.
1992 Ahmedabad, India : Attention to Diet is Critical
Darpana & Kadamb Academies; NID (National Institute of Design)
Modern dance master classes taught by Jonathan Hollander at Darpana, Kadamb and other dance schools.
Performance by Battery Dance Company at Darpana.
Choreography project by Jonathan Hollander utilizing one of India’s most acclaimed dancers Mallika Sarabhai and her partner Sasidharan Nair, and a group of 20 dancers from Darpana, the professional dance school and company launched by Mrinalini Sarabhai and led by her daughter Mallika.
Traveling as a dance company in India requires special attention. There are plenty of “do’s and don’t’s” and whereas tourists and other visitors for whom health is not absolutely paramount can get away with being experimental, it is best for dancers to be ultra conservative. Dancing with Delhi Belly is not fun!
Here are the rules Battery Dance Company followed:
Only bottled water (check the cap to make sure it hasn’t been opened and re-filled)
No to “filtered water”
No fruit that you can’t peel (say “no” to strawberries!)
Yes to drinking green coconut
Yes to drinking lime juice and soda water if your stomach is acting up
No street food
The difficult thing is to deal with all of these rules when invited to someone’s home for a meal. It is so awkward to refuse someone’s hospitality. Explain dietary issues beforehand and apologize profusely for being so picky.
India is a conundrum because the luxury at the high end (5-star hotels and some private homes) is beyond anything imaginable; but the poverty and health risks are intense elsewhere.
Travel in 2nd class trains may sound romantic but after a few hours of shaking, sweating, breathing dusty air and being awakened by screaming hawkers at every station (no matter what the hour) the romance wears off. If you are performing the next day, this kind of physical abuse and exhaustion can be dangerous. (And if you are being met at your final destination by dignitaries and a brass band, as BDC were, you don’t want to appear disheveled and unwashed. (How do Indians manage to arrive fully starched and decorous no matter that they were traveling in the same grueling conditions that you were?)