TeluguCinema.com's excellent retrospective on America Ammayi and interview with Devayani give details in her involvement with the film. She was approached for the role by director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao after he saw her debut arangetram dance performance in Madras (Chennai). Since she was trained only in Bharatanatyam, Devayani learnt Kuchipudi from the eminent Vempati Chinna Satyam (who sadly passed away just a few weeks ago).
While Devayani says Vempati Chinna Satyam was one of the dance directors for the film, she says her dance in Ananda Tandavamade was composed by Sree Satyanarayana (I assume she means KV Satyanarayana who also was involved with films like Swarna Kamalam and Srutilayalu), and assistant Shoba Naidu (well-known disciple of Vempati Chinna Satyam). While she clearly has training in Bharatanatyam with the crisp way she holds herself, I find her upper body really stiff and her extremely long arms look lanky and awkward at times especially with the overly-fast pace she's been given. Her ballet training seems to show through, particularly in the way she gracefully moves her arms and hands, and the light "skipping" movements of the feet look a bit unnatural. Every so often there seems to be some Bharatanatyam moves snuck in for good measure. Overall, though, I think she did a nice job. I love the setting of the Nataraja Swami Temple of Chidambaram, and its architecture and karana sculptures are used to wonderful effect. Isn't it wonderful to see a white woman in an Indian film performing traditional dance, and doing it fairly well, rather than the trope of the exoticised scantily-clad gori backup dancer. And most of all it is wonderful to finally be able to see this dance!
Devayani and the "French Wave" in Bharatanatyam
So who is Devayani? Originally raised in France as Anne Chaymotty, she trained in Ballet when she was young and fell in love with Bharatanatyam after seeing the Kalakshetra dance sequence in Louis Malle's Phantom India. She started learning Bharatanatyam first in France through Amala Devi (of Ram Gopal's troupe) and fellow French woman Malavika (originally Christine Clien) who learned the dance in India. Then she traveled to India on the Indo-French Cultural Exchange Programme scholarship and studied under Kanchipuram Ellappa and more fully (for three years) under Muthuswamy Pillai who introduced her arangetram (and later she studied with a few others like Kalanidhi Narayanan, Swarnamukhi, Yamini Krishnamurthy).
Devayani and Malavika were part of a large number of French nationals who traveled to India to learn Bharatanatyam and largely returned to France. Almost all of them seem to have learned from the traditional nattuvanars Kanchipuram Ellappa and V.S. Muthuswamy Pillai. According to Sruti's feature article on Muthuswamy Pillai (Issues 319 and 320), the trend first started with Menaka (originally Verushka) who learned from Ellappa and Padma Subrahmanyam and continued her training with Muthuswami Pillai after Ellappa's death. "Menaka was followed by an unbroken line of students from France, who came to India with the sole purpose of learning from Muthuswami Pillai" and who took Indian names permanently even after they returned to France. Said Muthuswami Pillai humorously, "You see, they used to come in hordes, some fifty or sixty tourists. All of them hopped, skipped and jumped as a group (ellaamaa kuthikkum) maybe for two months or fifteen days or even a week. And paid me according to the number of classes." But then Pillai found that some among these hordes were especially dedicated and made Bharatanatyam their full-time profession.
The wave of French students marked the beginning of a distinct second half to Muthuswami Pillai's teaching career, one which saw him inspired to create new adavus and movements, especially when his last and most prized disciple, Dominique Delorme, arrived in 1987. In 1990, Pillai was awarded the "Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres" award (somewhat similar to the Indian Padma Shri) which he traveled to France to receive. He passed away from ill health in 1992 at the age of 71 leaving a legacy of a new style of Bharatanatyam. Heads up - I'll be focusing on the first half of Muthuswami Pillai's career on my post about him in the coming soon (I promise!) Remembering Choreographers series.
"Padma Shri" Devayani
The most important factor of her Padma Shri award seems to be that she has made India her home, a fact which was highlighted in her inclusion in the 2008-09 Incredible India campaign. While the campaign noted she was "one of the foremost exponents of Bharata Natyam in the world," Devayani steps it up a notch on her website with the assertion that she is "the foremost exponent of Bharata Natyam." I highly doubt the dance community in India considers that last statement true! The thing is, the fact that she admits that in the '90s she began performing fusion dance (apparently combining Bharatanatyam with Ballet and Arabic dance) and the Orientalist vibe I get from her website and Narthaki.com interview leads me to believe that she's followed a different path than someone like, say, the American Sharon Lowen who performs Odissi/Chhau/Manipuri and also had a role/danced in a Telugu film (Swarnakamalam, though her dance is cut from all prints I've seen).
French, Not Foreign (The Hindu)
Star Interview: Chit Chat, Padmashri Devayani (TeluguCinema.com)
Retrospective: America Ammayi 1976 (TeluguCinema.com)