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Meet Lakshmi Vishwanathan - Creative Choreographer And Dancer

Nirmala Garimella

What is the most important piece of expression that a dancer uses? Ask a few and you will get strong opinions about everything from hand gestures, to stance to feet movements, to facial expressions. To Lakshmi Vishwanathan, International Artistic Director, Choreographer and Dancer from Chennai, Abhinaya or facial expression is her personal odyssey. Much of it is evident in her Dance production ‘The Banyan Tree’ which was recently staged at Boston.

The first time I meet Lakshmi Vishwanathan it is at the rehearsal of her Dance Production ’The Banyan Tree’. There is this moment in the dance when the dancers stand transfixed as if under the heavenly skies their fingers clasped over their heads. It is a moment, Lakshmi explains, when the dancer is being sculpted and brought to life by the sculptor. The fleeting tranquillity of this action and the subsequent movements are part of the story of Bharathanatyam that is the essence of the Banyan tree. Lakshmi points out that just as the Banyan Tree grows and spreads its branches in different directions, dance has also grown and evolved to this stage. It is a challenging production with sets, costumes changes, props and Lakshmi herself intervening to explain the story in her eloquent voice.

Lokvani caught up with Lakshmi after the night of the show in a telephonic chat. Some excerpts:

Nirmala: Could you comment on the scenario of Indian dance and its progress?

Lakshmi: Oh! I think it has progressed a lot. It is more demanding and takes a lot of your time. Even in India too things have changed. Two out of every ten become a full time artist. I am a full time artist and but that is my choice. Yet when I see the next generation trying to achieve a lot of things, I encourage and support them. However, once a commitment is made to a theatrical production I expect dedication, body, mind and soul. It is difficult here. Out of 100 dancers only two or three may become professionals. But that is reality. The question of economics also arises. Most artists take the risk. My own attitude is, I have less comfort. If I had do something else, I will have more resources to enjoy a material life but I may be a mental wreck, We sacrifice one for the other. All jobs are demanding. Artists don’t regret it. One doesn’t work for success only. Satisfaction is equally important.

Nirmala: Do you teach and train students in India besides performing?

Lakshmi: Yes I do, only the senior students and scholarship students. I may teach them a Margam or Abhinaya, or Varnam. This is only after they done their Arangetram. I am selective. I have students form Holland, North India and I also conduct workshops for students outside India. My specialty of course is Abhinaya.

Nirmala: In Scene 2 and 3, the form was entirely different and simplified. The dancers did not use chellangas (feet anklets) for that matter. Could you tell us why?

Lakshmi: Dance was not a performance art in the beginning. It was more a spontaneous dancing of people to celebrate events in their lives. The old texts describe war dance, dance of fertility, dance of welcome, transdance etc. I have also contextualized the Kalari movements as a war dance is meant to welcome the warriors. The choreography has remained the same since I first made this production. Only this time, I got a real Ballerina. It was hard to find one but we were happy to find Rachel and she did an excellent job.

Nirmala: You have incorporated some modern movements in your dance?

Lakshmi: They are not modern as much as contemporary. There are more than 1000 movements to take from folk tradition. I take only from the Indian tradition since in Indian choreography there is not much scope for western movements. I don’t take risks on this. The greatest advantage of being a dancer of any classical form is you can pick up movements from other forms easily. Even something like Bhangra for example.

Nirmala: One scene particularly caught my attention - The gossip mills where all dancers show their mettle through facial expression and movements. I thought that a stroke of ingenuity and hilarious.

Lakshmi: (laughs) Wasn’t that good. I believe that choreography has to change with the times. We needed a costume change for the main dancers and so I introduced this in between. Rukmani Devi is leaving from the Guru. So what to do. The money lender, the fake swami, the ordinary housewife, the irritated Devadasi were all involved in the original production. I showed it to the dancers here. I do not like to force a theatrical idea on to somebody. But they liked the idea and it worked. Two male dancers from India, Sri Thiruchelvam and Sri Narendran worked on the nitty gritty, and it came out very well.

Nirmala: Your most memorable moments of your dancing career?

Lakshmi: I had my Arangetram when I was seven years old. It is only after I went to college that I seriously thought of taking it as a career. I have done solo for twenty five years and when I did my first dance production, the Banyan Tree everybody was shocked. I have done five to six shows and it involved research, music compositions, detail, costumes, etc. I studied Kuchipudi and In 1969 gave my first performance. Within I few months I was recognized and then there was no going back. I had my first European tour with Maurice Bezar in Belgium and have toured many other festivals. I have also performed at other festivals in England, France and Germany. I have done residencies in Brandeis University here and one workshop at the dance department at UCLA.

Nirmala : What are your future plans?

Lakhmi: Right now I have been invited by the famous Mark Morris, the American Choreographer in New York to do a workshop at his dance center. Then I head to Delhi for a performance in Navarasa and then hit home to write a book on Bharathanatyam. I love to write and contribute to the Arts and Culture section of the Hindu. Whenever I travel I write on my experiences . For instance I wrote on the Opera Eida which I saw in front of the pyramids, in Singapore, I saw the Javanese dance and it all so much fun for me.

Nirmala: Your advice to young dancers ?

Lakshmi: Enjoy Dancing.. . Remain young at heart and do your best

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