Saturday, April 12, 2014

Uday Shankar, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn in Utah!

While browsing through the Utah Digital Newspapers website (mostly public-domain material, woo!), I was surprised to learn that Uday Shankar, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn all performed multiple times in Utah, my current U.S. state of residence, between 1911 and 1962!

That Uday Shankar performed here was most surprising of all. In all my past reading and research about Uday Shankar, I had never read a reference to him or his company performing anywhere in the Intermountain West region of the United States. Very little details about Shankar's touring schedules are available, and for a long time I assumed his company only performed in big cities like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles because those were the only ones briefly mentioned.

General details of Uday Shankar's tours are outlined in the writings of Mohan Khokar and Ruth Abrahams. Nearly all of the performances in the U.S. by Shankar's company were sponsored by the renowned impresario Sol Hurok who first saw the group perform in Paris. Uday Shankar's first company (comprised of family, friends, and Simkie) first toured the U.S. in 1932-33 and 1933-34. Uday Shankar's second company (with new choreography and dancer additions Zohra Segal and Madhavan) performed in the U.S. in 1936-37 and 1937-38. After a return to India, the opening and closing of the Almora Center, and the release of the film Kalpana with little commercial success, Shankar and his third company (entirely revised with dancer addition Amala Shankar) returned to the U.S. in 1949 for a 10 week tour and again in 1951-52. The company's last performances in the United States took place in 1968.

Ruth Abrahams' dissertation on Uday Shankar is the only source I've found that gives specific details about Shankar's tours. A 1933 touring schedule on page 147 reveals that beyond the expected big cities, the tour included stops in places like Cleveland, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; Springfield, Missouri; Birmingham, Alabama; Waco, Texas; Tuscon, Arizona; and cities along the coastal pacific northwest and California. Abrahams notes, "The magnitude of the tour effort is remarkable to consider when one reflects on the circumstances of the times, the lack of convenient transportation, and the sheer bulk of personnel and baggage. Amenities, both professional and personal, were schizophrenic in effect—sometimes luxurious, but more often minimal, and the company was hard put upon to locate decent, affordable restaurants and housing. Usually, they just ate and slept on trains between concert dates." I wonder if the company encountered difficulties in their Deep South performance in Birmingham. When Indrani Rehman and her troupe performed in Louisiana almost three decades later in 1961, the troupe was refused admission to two restaurants due to racial segregation [14].

Source: Utah Daily Chronicle [12]
It wasn't until I took a stroll through the Utah Digital Newspapers website that I discovered Uday Shankar and his company performed in Utah at least three times in the 1950s and 60s. The company performed first in 1952 at the Capitol Theater in Salt Lake City and then in 1962 gave two performances—one at the College of Southern Utah in Cedar City and another at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah. The picture on the right is from an article announcing the Kingsbury Hall performance, and I don't believe I have seen it anywhere else! A 1962 tour is not explicitly mentioned in Abrahams' or Khokar's descriptions (Khokar just says Hurok sponsored Shankar's tours several times from 1949-1968), so this discovery adds to the knowledge base about Shankar's touring schedules.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Found: Vyjayanthimala's Other Bharatanatyam Dance in Chittor Rani Padmini (1963, Tamil)!

In my first post on V.S. Muthuswami Pillai, the nattuvanar who among many things choreographed most of Vyjayanthimala's best Bharatanatyam in Indian cinema, I had discussed a beautiful Bharatanatyam dance of Vyjayanthimala's in the 1963 Tamil film Chittor Rani Padmini but lamented that I couldn't locate the second dance at the end of the movie she was said to have performed for the king.

Well! The dance has now been located, at the rich treasure house of Kandasamy Sekkarakudi Subbiah Pillai's YouTube channel, and it is fantastic! Whereas "Devi Vithayar Bhavani" depicts the dance of a devadasi inside a temple, "Paarthuk Kondirunthaaley Pothum" depicts the dance of a rajadasi at the king's court. Muthuswami Pillai choreographed the numbers differently; the former dance is restricted to a small physical space and the choreography is performed very precisely, but the latter court dance is snazzed up with expansive flourishes and speedy embellishments fit for the court. And what elevates it from so many other mundane and sloppy Bharatanatyam-inspired court dances in cinema is Vyjayanthimala's sheer talent and training.

The dance starts at 2:16 with a Bharatanatyam salutation (quite similar to that in New Delhi) and raises ones hopes of seeing classical choreography come to life on screen, but the next three minutes are a mix of abhinaya and "filmi classical" movements that reminds me so much of the way that Padmini danced in cinema, though Vyjayanthimala has a more methodical grace. At 5:10, some refreshingly-skilled tabla playing kicks off a four-and-a-half-minute, fast-paced, pure-dance segment in which Vyjayanthimala energetically mimics through dance the raaga-scaling vocal antics of Sivaji Ganesan's character in a "call and response" fashion. The speed she is performing at is too fast for a lot of the adavu-fusions, but despite that she manages to lock her limbs into place and create beautiful visual geometry. Look at her go! Only Kamala and Vyjayanthimala are capable of dancing Bharatanatyam in films with such speed while maintaining relative poise and form.


Wow! Of her film choreography that stays quite close to Bharatanatyam, this is her most energetic and exciting dance number! The knee spins at 8:20 are an interesting inclusion. I found the ending quite disappointing because the lazy footwork and editing didn't match the increasing excitement of the vocals and pace. Wouldn't some of this song's choreography have been spectacular in the epic danceoff in Vanjikottai Vaaliban!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Zohra Segal's Shankar-Style Choreography in Neecha Nagar (Hindi, 1946)

For some time the only thing I knew about Zohra Segal was that she was an adorable elderly woman who had small roles in a lot of recent Hindi films. Then I learned that Zohra's life has been one of path-breaking excitement! From her burqa-clad beginnings in an orthodox Muslim family, she moved from one adventure to the next: training in Mary Wigman's famous modern dance school in Germany, dancing as a core member of Uday Shankar's troupe, marrying the Hindu Kameshwar Segal (aka Sehgal, Seghal, Saigal), choreographing dances for films and theatre, and finally acting, her greatest love, first on the stage with Prithviraj Kapoor's company and the IPTA and then later on the silver screen and television series such as The Jewel in the Crown.

Zohra w/ Ravi Shankar, Paris, 1937 (source)
Zohra's dance background and involvement with Uday Shankar's artistic legacy is fascinating and helps fill in some gaps in the data. After Shankar's wild success with Simkie in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he returned to India and added more Indians to his troupe including Zohra who became as prominent a dancer as Simkie. The period was fruitful with significant choreographies, touring, and finally the opening of Shankar's dance school in Almora in the late 1930s. Zohra's teaching and organizational skills learned in Germany proved influential in her role as the Almora school's main teacher and creator of the institution's syllabus [3]. But in the mid-1940s, Shankar's desire to devote all his energies towards making a dance film caused conflict with the long-time members like Simkie and Zohra [1]. Around this time Zohra left the dance school with fellow Almora dancer Kameshwar Segal whom she had married [3]. Due to internal conflict as well as external factors, the Almora dance school abruptly closed in 1944 and Shankar moved to Madras to begin making his dream production, Kalpana. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Film Dances of L. Vijayalakshmi

L. Vijayalakshmi—the cute-as-a-button, dimple-faced dancer who danced and acted most prolifically in 1960s Telugu cinema—is a dancer that I've not featured much on this blog to date. For a long time I didn't like her classical film dances. They were too filmy faux-classical and she had a habit of lunging her upper body forward in jumps. But as more films and songs have become available online, I've watched a wider range of her dancing (including her Western-style dances) and have come to admire a few. I've even found a new, early dance of hers. In my usual style, I will feature my favorite dances of hers, a playlist of all of her known dances, and note some information about her life—including surprising details about her current work today!

L. Vijayalakshmi's Film Dances

Neethipathi (1955, Tamil) - "Ananthame Anantham" - This is L. Vijayalakshmi's earliest film dance that I'm aware of, and for that it gets listed first on the list. She is on the right paired with a young and adorable E.V. Saroja in the twin-dance format that became wildly popular after Sayee-Subbulakshmi popularized it in Rathakaneer and Malaikkalan the year previous.

Renukadevi Mahatyam (1960, Telugu) - This is the dance I'm most excited to feature! Filmed a few years after Neethipathi above, Vijayalakshmi still looks very young here. The choreography aims for sharp form and geometrical lines in the pure dance movements—characteristics that softened into a more filmy hybrid style in later years. Notice her ankle bells (gajjalu in Telugu) at 12:16 and the way the elongated bells hang downward. It's unfortunate the print jump cuts through material at times, but at least the visual quality is quite crisp!

Start 10:49