By Amena H Saiyid
Motionless like an unwavering flame, there is a flicker. Tehreema Mitha comes to life with a firm stamp and a side kick, as the vocal segues to the beat of tat dhit, tat dhit, taa, darting across the space, in search of like-minded embers to spark. Three embers unfurl, with the same quick-fire movements, dancing, encircling each other with controlled, angular percussive stamps, to the beat of the mrindagam, and the strains of the sitar.
In 2008, the Tehreema Mitha Dance Company performed "Aatish Angaiz", ("Igniting") at the Shakespeare Theatre's Sidney Harman Hall in Washington DC for the Capital Fringe Festival. "Igniting" marked the finale of a quartet of classical bharatnatyam dances celebrating the four elements (fire, earth, water, and air) in which choreographer and artistic director Tehreema Mitha experimented with contemporary formats. Using atypical beat cycles and dance movements, she broke away from the age-old bharatnatyam convention of telling stories or displaying pure technique.
The quartet of dances -"Aatish Angaiz" (Igniting), "Leher" (On the Tide), "Baad-e-Sabah" (A Fresh Morning Breeze), "Ma Matti (Scent of the Earth)" - as well as the more recent Kennedy Centre-commissioned "Blue Jeans" express Tehreema's desire to show dance, and, the theme of her dance, earth bound, relevant, unique and meaningful, freed from its traditional hold.
Come 2011, the Tehreema Mitha Dance Company celebrates its tenth year in the U.S. with a repertoire of over 60 dances that Mitha has choreographed with largely original musical scores. It is hard to pin down the range and repertoire of this Pakistani-born, petite choreographer because she doesn't allow the formalistic conventions to dictate her choice of theme.
Her dance form, although inspired by the South Asian classical bharatnatyam tradition, is anything but conventional. Its style ranges from classical to classical-contemporary to contemporary. The often exploratory themes are atypical, varying from the spiritual "Raqs-e-Rooh" (the dance of the soul) invoking Rumi, the mundane "Regular 925" highlighting exhausted daily lives in the rat race; the joyous "First Rush and the Middle of Forever" celebrating the vagaries of love. The humorous "Entree" displays a modern comedy of manners through a formal dance; the prospective "Gardish" deals with the endless struggle over scarce water resources.
Seated in the verandah of her suburban Washington DC home, Tehreema, a self-described "secular dancer", does not hesitate to voice her views about dance, her own choreography, and her dance company's future.
She is "tired of explaining that classical bharatnatyam, or dance for that matter, is not the domain of any religion, least of all Hindu mythology," with which bharatnatyam has been closely associated. "If I want to do a dance about Greek myths then I shall".
But she refuses to call her work "fusion" - a western political label to "give a western glow to any modernisation of ancient cultures."
Mitha observes that even Martha Graham, the famous modern dancer, embraced Southeast Asian dance style, and that ballets like "Carmen" often employ faux flamenco dancers with pointed toes. "Nobody calls Carmen 'fusion'."
Echoing the 70s feminist line that spoke of the personal as political and the political as personal, she comments. "I am a very political person, and that freaks out people in the dance world."
It's hard for her to be apolitical, having grown up in Pakistan during the 80s under General Zia-ul-Haq's culturally repressive regime. After earning a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy and English Literature from Kinnaird College and a Masters in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts, Lahore, she arranged her first Arangetram, in 1986.
She and her mother Indu Mitha, Pakistan's grande dame of bharatnatyam (and her guru) would spend hours studying and deconstructing ancient and current texts on bharatnatyam, and any videos they could lay their hands on.
Having been a disciple of the Adyar, India-based Kalakshetra Institute's renowned pupil Sri Lalitha Shastri, Indu Mitha initially broke with the South Indian bharatnatyam tradition in the 1950s by setting her dances to North Indian raags utilising the sitar and the tabla. Two decades later, Tehreema followed suit.
"Dance is about how you get from one perfectly held pose to the next, or what happens between the two poses," Mitha animatedly explains. It is not about the 64 bharatnatyam positions of statues outside Chidambarum in India. "If you show me a statue and say that is a dance position.
I say that is rubbish!"
She is as passionate about how she and her mother broke with classical tradition of storytelling. "We set our own parameters" - staying true to the Kalakshetra technique and moving on from there.
Using her particular dance form to comment on contemporary issues, Mitha has also shown her capacity for introducing abstract themes such as theories governing the universe.
She choreographed a dance some ten years ago, "Chaos Theory", based on anarchy, where the main dancers performed against a backdrop of a computer screen generating symbols and patterns set to musical notations from the sitar, violin and tabla. Currently, she is choreographing "Time" a dance based on Einstein's Theory of Relativity. At a preview some months ago, Mitha and a co-dancer performed individually and together, combining the classical and contemporary. There was also a pure bharatnatyam section with one performer doing the sequence 'normally', and the other dancing in reverse. The section was set to a bol sequence, or dance syllables.
Mitha embraces the classical Kalakshetra technique of bharatnatyam on her own terms, set to taals, or rhythms of her own devices, and to themes of her choosing. When she needs to portray gestures for a particular theme that don't exist in classical form she invents them - like the story of a peahen, "morni". There are multiple references to peacocks in classical Indian dance, none to peahens.
When she finds a theme that does not fit within the classical or classical-contemporary genre she glides happily into the contemporary. "You don't tell your body. Now I am going to do a western movement...or a jazz movement, or throw in a few bharatnatyam moves to show that I am authentically South Asian. You just do what you feel like, to represent your story. That," says Tehreema, to her means contemporary work - "the freedom to wear either a sari or shorts, or both."
Like any self-taught artist, Mitha bristles at criticism of her contemporary work that some critics term incoherent. They fail to understand it's "all about the mood," she charges.
Other criticism relates to the copious explanations that accompany each dance, while some prefer her classical renditions of bharatnatyam. But Mitha has also received her fair share of recognition at home and abroad. She has performed at the United Nations, New York, as well as in Beijing, and in Oslo, Norway, at the Nobel Peace Prize Hall, the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, Kennedy Centre, and the World Performing Arts Festival in Lahore, Pakistan.
Mitha's husband, William Barron, her company's managing director, whom she met when he was working in Pakistan many years ago, enthusiastically backs her projects. Together, they conceived the first ever National Dance Festival in Pakistan in 1995 and secured Norwegian funding for the endeavour.
Five years ago, her company had nine dancers, but the number has dwindled to just two females (and no males). This is partly due to funding and partly because she is "demanding", expecting rehearsal three days a week, and at least a two-to-three year commitment. "It takes a lot of effort to train the dancers in my style and to disabuse them of their prior training."
Finding it difficult to get patrons for her experimental dance forms, Mitha is particularly disappointed by the lack of support from Pakistanis in America.
Musician Shubha Sankaran empathises with her plight. However, she reminds us that "classical music is not for the masses. It has always been reserved (will always continue to be reserved) for a select crowd".
Meanwhile, Tehreema Mitha continues to rehearse three times a week with her ensemble, besides teaching dance twice a week.
"She's bionic, that one," commented Praneetha Akula, one of her understudies, after a particularly "exhaustive" rehearsal, marvelling at Mitha's commitment and energy taking her students through their warm-up exercises.
This weekend, she will be among a handful of dancers from the Washington DC area showcasing their work at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts. She plans to perform a 14-beat solo classical tillana she choreographed in 1994, using the bharatnatyam technique and an original composition based on Raag Des Malhaar, to the sitar and mridangam.
This is not a dance she performs often. The last time was in 2005, at the tenth anniversary celebration of the United Nation's first conference on women in Beijing, 1995. Ironically, it was at that performance that the Pakistani and Indian delegations reportedly got into a debate - over who could lay claim to Tehreema Mitha!
The writer is based in Washington DC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, September 15, 2011
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