Looking Ahead to the Indian Choreography Festival

By Heather Desaulniers

February 20, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Each of the five senses conjures a particular part of the body. For hearing, the ears; for touch, the skin; and so on. But the senses also draw from complementary sources, like the nose in the perception of taste, or visual cues in hearing. And these parts communicate with a richness beyond their basic function. Think for a moment about the eyes. What other powers and faculties, beyond sight, do they possess?

several women in traditional indian dance movement
Preethi Ramaprasad, Shruti Abishek, and Sri Thina Subramaniam / photo by nitish adla

This March, head to the second annual When Eyes Speak: Indian Choreography Festival and experience the eyes as storytellers. See how in classical and contemporary Indian dance, the eyes relay narrative themes, reveal emotional nuance and draw viewers in with a subtle glance or a piercing gaze. “For me, the eyes are what set Indian dance apart from other genres,” explains festival founder and curator Preethi Ramaprasad, “there’s a very famous mantra that I think really reflects their incredible importance – ‘where the hands are, goes the gaze; where the eyes are, goes the mind; where the mind goes, there is an expression of inner feeling (bhava); and where there is bhava, a mood or sentiment is evoked.’” With the upcoming edition of the festival, Ramaprasad and her co-organizers/collaborators Shruti Abhishek and Sri Thina Subramaniam hope to embody this mantra, to share the depth and breadth of Indian dance with San Francisco audiences and to call attention to its finer attributes and intricacies.

A recent transplant from Boston, Ramaprasad is fairly new to the San Francisco Bay Area, but when it comes to Indian classical dance, she is a seasoned veteran. For close to twenty-five years, she has been pursuing Bharatanatyam, one of the genre’s main traditions. “Bharatanatyam originated in Tamil Nadu, the South Eastern state of India, and is known for its balance of virtuosic movement and expressiveness,” she describes, “with pre-colonial roots in temple ritual and a storied past, Bharatanatyam was brought to the proscenium stage in the 20th century.” Ramaprasad grew up in New Jersey, and throughout childhood and youth made regular summer pilgrimages to the Southern Coast of India for Bharatanatyam intensives with her guru, Professor Sudharani Raghupathy. Her quest for mastery of the form continued into adulthood and recent years have been spent traveling the US, Europe and India as a Bharatanatyam practitioner, teacher and performer. Ramaprasad has even taken her beloved dance into the academic arena. It was the focus of her undergraduate thesis at Rutgers University and just this year, she began yet another leg of inquiry and exploration as a first-year PhD candidate in Critical Dance Studies at UC Riverside.

In addition to starting her graduate studies, Ramaprasad was also keen, upon arriving in San Francisco, to immerse herself in the local dance ecosystem and see what was happening in the area’s Bharatanatyam scene. And she was somewhat surprised by what she discovered. “The South Bay and East Bay seemed to offer so many opportunities for those who practice Bharatanatyam and other styles of Indian dance, but I was noticing a real void or absence in San Francisco itself,” Ramaprasad recalls. And this wasn’t simply an observation; she felt a call. She wanted to do something to change the dance landscape; to bring more visibility to Indian dance in the city. So began some larger conversations, particularly with Joe Landini, Executive Director of SAFEhouse Arts. “While I was part of the Resident Artist Workshop program at SAFEhouse as a LEAD artist [an additional residency track within the RAW platform], the idea emerged that a larger event of Indian dance could be part of my RAW journey,” Ramaprasad shares, “Joe was really the driving force behind the festival and wholly encouraged me to both curate and organize it.” The project had been hatched; soon, plans and designs were underway. And at the end of January last year, When Eyes Speak: South Asian Choreography Festival (now known as When Eyes Speak: Indian Choreography Festival) debuted at SAFEhouse Arts with two days and two distinct programs of Indian dance.

Ramaprasad characterizes this first event as “scrappy, with not too many resources.” But like so many grassroots endeavors, there was a strong sense of camaraderie and community among all the participants. “Everyone really came together with the goal of bringing this dance into the city, pitching in and taking ownership of the festival,” she remembers. Program A paired the Atlanta-based Bharatanatyam duo of Puneet and Taniya Panda with a work by Vidhya Subramanian, a renowned senior Bharatanatyam dancer who regularly performs in India; while Program B featured a solo by festival co-organizer Sri Thina Subramanian alongside an ensemble work from local gem Nava Dance Theatre. “With my objective being to showcase and celebrate a wide swath of Indian classical dance, it was important to me that the programs were different each night, and that there was the chance for a Q&A after each performance so that audiences could ask questions and learn more about the form,” Ramaprasad adds.

male Indian dancer
Arun Mathai / photo courtesy Chella Videos

Just over a year later, Ramaprasad, Abhishek and Subramaniam are busy readying 2019’s festival, which has expanded significantly from its inaugural event. Part of the reason for the growth is that the festival is now working with a slightly larger operating budget after receiving grants from both the Zellerbach Family Foundation and the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT). The run has doubled in length from two days to four, and the program has similarly followed. “This year, there are four unique programs with local, national and international presences,” notes Ramaprasad, “we have Rasika Kumar with Abhinaya Dance Company from San Jose, California artist Arun Mathai, Vaibhav Arekar from Mumbai, Umesh Shetty from Malaysia and New York-based Preeti Vasudevan, whose work links Indian and contemporary dance together.” Another change is that some of these works will feature live accompaniment this year, including musician Ananya Ashok as part of Program 3. Ramaprasad’s role itself has broadened too. In the first iteration of the festival, she both curated and managed logistics. Now, she adds performer to that list, “I’ll be dancing a piece with my festival co-organizers titled The Affair – it was choreographed by Sri Thina for the West Wave Dance Festival and is based on a 12th century poem that chronicles an ancient mythological love story.” When Eyes Speak is also moving venues this year, and will be presented at ACT’s Costume Shop, a cozy black box space that opened in 2011 on Market Street near UN Plaza at Civic Center. For Ramaprasad, these smaller, blank canvas venues are an ideal fit for Indian dance, “we like the theaters to be intimate, it really allows the audience to experience the subtleties in the dance, like the movement of the eyes.”

With all this growth and expansion, the festival seems on quite an upswing in only their second year. What might that mean for the future? “I would love for the festival to carry on, for it to be even longer, and to have talks and panels that could foster exchange between artists and audiences,” she says, “but at the same time, for it to continue, we must have the right resources and I don’t want to put pressure on it to be an annual event.” So stay tuned for what may lie ahead. But in this moment, Ramaprasad’s time and energy is dedicated to the present day, to the here and now. When Eyes Speak: Indian Choreography Festival is only a few weeks away, and Ramaprasad is excited to bring the event to viewers and see what emerges, “I hope that people will come and witness the reach and potential of Indian dance; that it inspires them; that they connect with it and seek out more.”

This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of In Dance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.