Vismaya—Amazement. Mudra Dance Company with visiting musicians

choreography Vivek Kinra
auspices of Chamber Music New Zealand
29 June 2024. Q Theatre, Auckland
30 June 2024. Meteor Theatre, Hamilton
2 July 2024. Little Theatre, Lower Hutt
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Vismaya is Sanskrit for Amazement and proved the perfect title for this highly enterprising project of Bharata Natyam, South Indian classical dance, in performances and workshops on a national tour to five centres—Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch. 

In an inspired move, Chamber Music New Zealand (CMNZ) invited four highly skilled Indian musicians to visit and team up with six dancers from the Wellington-based Mudra Dance Company. Vivek Kinra has directed his Bharata Natyam academy and company here since 1990, but the calibre of his work has always been international rather than merely local, so we expect to be thrilled, and we are, by this performance of enriched chamber music.

Musicians (l-r} Sri Adyar Gopinath (mridangam), Ranjani Ganesan Ramesh (vocals), Jaishri Suresh (Veena), and Tiruchy L. Saravanan (flute). Photo: © Gerry Keating

Vocalist and director of music, Ranjani Ganesan Ramesh, sings with full expressive effect, reining in the ensemble with layers of melody and arcs of harmony. Sri Adyar Gopinath is a consummate player of mridangam/drum, his hands declaiming authority then fluttering and diving like hummingbirds, in mesmerising rhythmic embellishments on the steady beat within the music. Both these artists have had long association with the renowned Kalakshetra school in Chennai where Vivek had trained for many years, so they each know the other’s art as their own, and the dancers are galvanised into brilliance as a result.

Tiruchy L. Saravanan plays flute with great skill, evoking songbirds on the wing, and his solo piece, Nagumomu, is a particular delight of flight. The deeper string tones of the veena, beautifully played by Jaishri Suresh, offer a balm and solace that seems to embrace the listener. This ensemble could have played until dawn and no-one from the audience would have left early.

As for the dancers, we saw something quite sublime. I have attended Mudra performances since 1990, including a number of arangetram, (the two-hour solo graduation recital of a pupil who has attained the required standard). Each of those seasons has carried its own high quality but never before have we witnessed such an explosion of joy and total commitment from the six dancers in this production.

All the choreography by Kinra is new, in a wonderful blend that honours tradition but weaves in many contemporary references. He stands on stage before each work to perform the gestures and motifs of the work we are about to see. These are luminous miniatures and reveal the exquisite qualities he has always brought to his stage presence. The opening Pushpanjali, offering of flowers, is followed by Shyamala Dandakam in which a mysterious Tantric goddess is portrayed, and complete rapport is established between musicians and dancers.      

(left) Shrinidhi Bharadwaj and Banu Siva, (right) Shrinidhi Bharadwaj—in the varnam, Navarasa: Nine Emotions. Photos: © Gerry Keating

The major work, a varnamNavarasa: Nine Emotions—is a tour-de-force. Each dancer has an assured technique with stunning geometric precision in arm and leg movements, intricately detailed mudra (hand gestures), beguiling facial expressions, powerful dramatic timing in sustained narratives, and the range of emotions from love and ecstasy, hope and curiosity, pride and envy, fear and loathing, to peace and serenity. Comedy is also there—for example when Siva disguises himself as an old man and makes approaches to the young devotee to test her love and loyalty. Her disgust is palpable and she passes the test.

Varshini Suresh in Navarasa. Photo: © Gerry Keating

There are solo passages, and other times where two dancers move at great speed but in perfect unison (harder to do than it sounds, but no effort is shown). Shrinidhi Bharadwaj, Banu Siva and Varshini Suresh are hugely effective in portraying the emotions of the drama.  

There is a distinctive quality to the dancers’ elevation as they anticipate on the upbeat, a leap that flies them free of gravity, to then land, of course, precisely on the beat. The effect on us is kinaesthetic—we feel we have been flying too.    

In the final Thillana there is much to celebrate—glorious arcs of dancers curving and intersecting in lines across the stage, in a particularly joyous denouement of a performance that nobody wanted to end. The dancers—Varshini Suresh, Banu Siva, Shrinidhi Bharadwaj, Esther McCreadie, Deepika Sundar and Rhea Homroy—will be long remembered.

Each of the performances I attended, in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington, had appreciative audiences, but the Lower Hutt’s Little Theatre experience was a particular triumph with the audience on their feet acknowledging the performance of a lifetime.

There were workshops, open to all, offered the day before a performance, and these too were memorable and informative—for example: ‘What skin is the mridangam drumhead made of?’—’Oh, I had to replace the leather with a quality plastic for this tour because New Zealand biosecurity measures are very strict and we could not afford to have this drum impounded for a three-week fumigation. We’d have been back in India by the time it was released.’ Each musician spoke to their instrument but had to be paused after 15 minutes by Kinra, who knows that the sacred and Sanskrit history of this art has to be contained somehow, or we would all have missed the following night’s performance. It’s a considerable art in itself to compress so much into the time available, but we catch all of it. We go home through a wild Wellington storm that had hours earlier almost prevented our planes from the north from landing, but the elements, let’s call them the gods, were with us all the way.

The idea for this project was initially proposed by Rose Campbell, a former trustee of CMNZ, and has proved an exceptional achievement for everyone concerned. There have been some voices raised in complaint that CMNZ is departing from its original charter in including dance and ethnic arts in its programming. I’d have thought everything is ethnic therefore nothing is ethnic … that dance is not the opposite of music but that each art can mutually enhance and inspire the other, so entwined as to be one and the same art. Vismaya was chamber music of the highest calibre, expressed through dancing of mesmerising yet accessible quality.  

Heartfelt thanks are due to those whose vision brought us this truly amazing production, to all the performers, and to Vivek Kinra who at the end of the performance thanks us all for coming. That’s the only thing he got wrong all evening. It’s we who are to thank him. 

Jennifer Shennan, 4 July 2024

Featured image: Members of Mudra Dance Company (from left) Esther McCreadie, Banu Siva, Shrinidhi Bharadwaj, Varshini Suresh, Deepika Sundar. Photo: © Gerry Keating

Arangetram—Indian Dance Performance. Mudra Dance Company

14 January 2024. Whirinaki Arts Centre, Upper Hutt, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

An arangetram is a graduation recital in the Bharata Natyam tradition of Indian classical dance. It’s effectively a solo performance lasting close to two hours—a phenomenon in any dance terms, demanding stamina and memory of heroic proportions. To witness a young performer achieve the standard where they can share what they have learned in up to ten years of study and training is not easily matched in any other dance practice that comes to mind.

Vivek Kinra is a renowned teacher in this tradition, and 45 graduates of his Wellington-based Mudra Dance Academy have performed an arangetram over these past three decades, an extraordinary statistic. Typically, the young dancer will be in late teens, perhaps early 20s (though there are exceptions. ‘You perform when I say you are ready,’ says their teacher) so it echoes the achievement of Solo Seal in ballet terms, though in the Indian case this is a fully choreographed and costumed performance in a theatre. The music is recorded in India, the costumes are made there. Detailed and beautifully illustrated printed programs are given out. Tasty Indian refreshments will be provided in the intermission, and upon arrival you have been greeted by a line of smiling hosts who offer a sugar crystal, and a bindi for your forehead. (‘A bindi … symbolizes spirituality, identity, and heritage, and is associated with the activation of the third eye chakra’).

It’s clear we are in for a special experience. The audience is radiantly attired, so whatever you wear you will be outshone, but you don’t waste time wondering what on earth you have done to deserve an invitation to such an auspicious gathering. You just sit down and read your program because there’s a lot of good guidance in it.

I told you there were exceptions, but today’s arangetram takes some beating. Esther McCreadie is the first full-European student to graduate from Mudra. She is of Irish descent and did not begin her study of Indian dance until seeing Vivek perform when in her 20s. She is now aged 46. I suck the little sugar crystal to calm my nerves. I can only imagine how Esther is feeling.

Kinra is a celebrated graduate of the renowned Kalakshetra Academy in Chennai. It is Wellington’s fortune that he has taught here since 1992. The high standards of his own performing, choreography and teaching are well recognised and his pupils are in safe hands.

The first half of the program comprised Mangalam, Alarippu, Shabdam and Ranjani Mala, a varnam. These dance types have contrasting rhythmic demands and dramatic qualities, but in each of them Esther’s technique and sense of line in sculptural poses are secure and give much aesthetic pleasure. We are immediately at ease to see her mudra handwork beautifully articulated, her strong rhythmic security, and the varied range of abhinaya, facial expressions. Creatures galore are evoked—gods and kings, devotees and cupids, gopis and demons, as well as lotus flowers and jewels of adornment.

After the intermission there are keertanam, bhajan, padam and thillana—in celebratory or meditative mood. The padam, Asai Mugam, is particularly poignant as it laments the dancer’s separation from Lord Krishna whose face she can no longer remember, and she struggles to understand what she has done to deserve that punishment. The final scintillating thillana makes a triumphant end to a beautiful and memorable performance.

Various experts pronounce regularly on the benefits of extreme physical exercise for our human body to function at optimum health. Many people count how many steps they walk each day. I think they’d be better to take Bharata Natyam classes since the mind as well as the body is involved to the maximum, and the music is way way better. Namaskar.

Jennifer Shennan, 16 January 2024

All photos: © Gerry Keating

Featured image: A moment from Esther McCreadie’s arangetram, 2024

Chi Udaka. Lingalayam and TaikOz

19 October 2023. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Chi Udaka was an outstanding collaborative venture between Lingalayam, a company directed by Australian-Indian dancer Anandavalli, and TaikOz, an Australian music group co-founded by Ian Cleworth and Riley Lee and currently directed by Cleworth. The show focused on Anandavalli’s interest in the two Indian classical dance styles of Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, and the intrinsic interest of TaikOz on drumming but with that interest extending to other instruments, especially the shakuhachi and, on this occasion, to the sounds of the cello of John Napier. Chi Udaka is not a new production but this 2023 presentation was part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Sydney Opera House. And the show itself was beautifully celebratory in its inspiring combination of music and dance.

‘Chi’ means earth in Japanese and ‘Udaka’ means water in Sanskrit so the production juxtaposed these two ideas with the story taking place within one day from early morning to late evening, although the focus was not really on a strong narrative structure but rather, at least for me, on artistic collaboration. Nevertheless, it began with a kind of meditation in the early light of morning, with a rare and welcome appearance by Anandavalli who introduced a rhythmic element with chanting and the playing of small hand held instruments, and who eventually rang a bell to announce the beginning of the day. It concluded with Anandavalli closing the show with a gathering together of the cast in a kind of closing communion, accompanied by singing from vocalist Aruna Parthiban.

Between these opening and closing moments the dancing and music were exceptional. The dancers, stunningly dressed in saris designed by Anandavalli, moved with close attention to the detailed movements of bodies, hands and feet of the classical Indian styles, and with extraordinary lyricism between individual movements. A highlight was a duet between one dancer and Riley Lee on the shakuhachi, but every combination of dancer and musician, and there were many different combinations, was transforming to watch and hear.

And can drummers dance? They certainly can. They were completely involved both in the very physical way they engaged with their instruments, and in their awareness that they were part of an overall production. They were just brilliant. But then so was Riley Lee with his shakuhachi and other flute-like instruments, as was John Napier with his cello.

A scene from Chi Udaka. Photo from the TaikOz website. Photographer not identified.

The overall ambience of the work was quite evocative of time and place, changing as the work progressed with a particularly strong contribution from lighting designer Karen Norris. It was in all a show that brought huge pleasure and a renewed interest in what dance and music can achieve together.

The complete work (from a 2016 production) is available on Vimeo at this link.

Michelle Potter, 23 October 2023

Featured Image: Promotional image for Chi Udaka from the Sydney Opera House website. Photographer not identified.

Darpana: Reflections. Mudra Dance Company

2 July 2023. Lower Hutt Little Theatre

Choreography: Vivek Kinra
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Darpana is a retrospective program of excerpts from the past three decades of seasons choreographed by Vivek Kinra for his company, Mudra. It’s a garden of earthly delights with celestial resonance, story-telling laced with joyous cavorting. There are sudden flashes of fury whenever forces of evil are encountered. Furious stamping, piercing glares and dismissive gestures will rid us of them. Only the good survive, only the safe are free.

This vividly expressive form of Indian dance, Bharata Natyam, runs the gamut of human emotions and motives, portraying figures from the parallel realm of deities whose examples are to be followed. It’s an art form in which singing, instrumental music (mridangam drum, violin, flute) and visual rhythm (dance)—in dramatic, poetic, and abstract patterned aspects—all find equal share in the performers’ finely-tuned detail and precise geometry of the body. And then there’s the dress-ups, further feast for the eyes, with carefully gradated lighting effects from full colour to serene silhouettes, from dawn to day to dusk.

After weeks of balmy mid-winter weather, the afternoon suddenly drops 10o, feels like zero, and icy rain drenches us on the way to the theatre. Never mind, Lower Hutt is closer than India so it’s a small price to pay for the transport of joy awaiting us. Every season of Mudra since the mid 90s has revived memories of my visit to India for dance studies in the previous decade. O India, the country with the world’s richest of dance traditions. Time flies, time stands still, to be here is to be there.     

Mudra’s troupe of eight senior performers are all in full flower—joined by 15 junior dancers in bud—(one of them already on the way to stardom, but steady on, no sensible dance teacher wants a prodigy, a meteor that falls and burns out, better a star to last forever. I’ve had my eye on this youngster for 7 or so years now, and she is doing exactly as her teacher and I predicted she would).

Kinra was trained at Kalakshetra, the epicentre of Bharata Natyam teaching, near Chennai. The founder of the school, Rukmini Devi, envisaged a centre of arts and related crafts to thrive alongside community education initiatives. As a theosophist Devi visited New Zealand to connect with the Theosophical Society here, and also devoted time to animal rights’ causes. As a young dancer she had met Anna Pavlova who was touring with her company to India in 1922. Pavlova encouraged Devi in a revitalisation of Bharata Natyam away from the temple, towards the theatre. Her contemporary, Balasaraswati, was the legendary dancer who toured the world’s capitals and showed what heights a solo performer could reach, even towards the age of 70. They say Martha Graham sat in the audience and wept, and she was not alone. (If you don’t believe me, watch Bala, the film about her made by Satyajit Ray. It’s on Youtube). A century later, many cities of the world offer training in Bharata Natyam India’s gift to the world—which takes on intriguing differences depending on each locale.

Kinra’s students are drawn from all the states of India, whether born there and migrated here, or born here. Others are of Sri Lankan or Malaysian Tamil, or maybe Fiji-Indian descent. But wait, there’s a Pakeha of Anglo/Irish line among them—though you only know that from the program note, her dancing is up there with the best of the rest.

Read the BBC news item from a few days ago, a lengthy and fascinating report of the ancient and mysterious folk ritual, Theyyam practised in Kerala—where members of Dalit, the lowest caste, perform in an ancient dance-drama. High caste members are required to attend and revere them. Think about that.

Here with Mudra we watch the daughters of Brahmin neurosurgeons or scientists (so long as under-resourcing of health or academic budgets has not closed down their work places) or of the local corner dairy (so long as ram raiders or armed invaders have not knifed them to death). Many of these dancers hold professional careers in law, education, science, technology, commerce—yet their radiant performances would have you believe they are full-time professional artists.

Each of the nine works is choreographed from the subtle tension between tradition and individual dancers’ personalities, all of whom deserve praise.  One dancer leaps high and sideways, lands in ‘first position’ on the half foot, slowly continues down to a deep full plie, leans sideways then slips onto her knee and hip while sliding over the floor, then she comes back into the vertical and slowly returns to standing, all the while smiling. (Don’t try this at home. Well, the smile maybe, but for the rest you’ll need to be in training for years).

Varshini Suresh makes a stunning position flow to the next with great grace and it’s hard to take your eyes off that as she invests her dancing with expressive joy. Banu Siva has a wonderful poetic and rhythmic clarity in every aspect of her movement. Shrinidhi Bharadwaj is the dramatic force who propels the power of story-telling to great effect. The treasured Zeenat Vintiner is most welcome back as she rejoins Mudra after several years break. Her personal life reads like something from the Mahabharata, and echoes the story of the Polish refugee children who were given haven in New Zealand 80 years ago. Her own experience is a triumph for her, her family and her teacher.

My grandchildren were agog at the stamina demanded of these performers—loved the contrasting qualities between them—and were greatly taken with the calm way the dancers managed the tiniest little ‘things’ that happened: a tiny bell from an anklet falls off onto the stage—we can see it glinting and hope that the other dancers  can too because you would not want to leap and land on that piece of metal. One dancer’s long black braid plaited with flowers comes loose from the belt which holds it in place as she twirls at speed. With great aplomb she continues dancing but ensures by various miniature twists that it not fly out and hit her fellow dancer in the face. (This is like a pilot realising that one engine is malfunctioning. Nought to do but keep calm, switch it off and use the other engine to make a faultless landing). Another dancer leaps high into a very narrow space between two others and knows her foot might catch in the swathe of silk that she’s wearing—so mid-air she leaps even higher and ever so slightly changes course. Stunning. My grandkids say ‘We love watching how these little things are managed—it makes the dancers seem more human and a little bit like all of us.’

They are equally pleased by the refreshments at intermission — the best samosa and ladoo in town—and a program note that the catering is by Awhina, the impressive New Zealand enterprise that fundraises to help women widowed by war in Sri Lanka, in a range of small scale development projects. I thank the young woman for my spicy masala tea, tell her how well the performance is going and hope she gets to glimpse some of it herself. ‘Oh I was dancing in last night’s cast—I’m just helping out front tonight.’ she smiles.

Poul Gnatt founded our New Zealand Ballet on ingenuity like that, 70 years ago. He’d have loved this performance as much as I did.  

Jennifer Shennan, 4 July 2023

Featured image: Abiraami Antony-Pillai (left) and Anika Mair in a moment from Darpana Reflections, Mudra Dance Company 2023. Photo: © Gerry Keating

Dance diary. September 2022

This month’s dance diary has, with one significant exception, a Canberra focus, from news about writing by Canberra-based authors (including me) to performances generated, or soon to be performed from within the ACT.

  • Glimpses of Graeme

My book, Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy, is currently being printed and will be available shortly from the Hobart-based company FortySouth Publishing. The book is a collection of articles and reviews I have written over several decades about Murphy’s career. The writing is arranged according to themes I think are noticeable in Murphy’s output, including ’Music Initiatives’, ’Crossing Generations’, ’Approaches to Narrative’ and ’Postmodernism’.

Cover for Glimpses of Graeme designed by Kent Whitmore with a detail from an image by Branco Gaica showing Murphy during the production of his 1995 work, Fornicon

This month’s featured image shows Murphy and cast taking a curtain call following a performance in 2014 of Murphy’s Swan Lake. The image, shot by Lisa Tomasetti, fills the inside cover (front and back) of the book. More information on how to secure your copy will appear shortly.

UPDATE, 4 October 2022: The book is now for sale at the FortySouth online shop. Only 350 copies have been printed so buy your copy soon at this link.

  • Parijatham from the Kuchipudi dance repertoire

Canberra’s Sadhanalaya School of Arts is bringing Parijatham, a timeless, iconic dance drama in the classical Indian dance style, Kuchipudi, to the stage in early November. It tells the story of conflict created between two of Lord Krishna’s consorts, Queen Rukmini and Queen Satyabhama. It is set to classical South Indian music and is one of 15 dance dramas from the admired choreographer, Dr Vempati Chinnasatyam.

Divyusha Polepalli and Vanaja Dasika in a scene from Parijatham. Photo: © Sanjeta Sridhar

In the image above, Lord Krishna, played by Divyusha Polepalli tries to pacify the enraged Queen Satyabhama, played by Sadhanalaya School of Arts Director Vanaja Dasika, after she discovers Krishna has given his favourite consort Queen Rukmini a divine parijatha (jasmine) flower instead of giving it to her.

The work will have two performances only on 6 November at the Gungahlin College Theatre. Book at this link.

  • Daphne Deane

Canberra writer, John Anderson, has been researching for a number of years the life and career of Daphne Deane, an Australian with extensive experience in the presentation of theatrical activities around the world in the first half of the 20th century. I first came across the name Daphne Deane when researching the history if the Ballet Russes companies and their visits to Australia between 1936 and 1940 but very little appeared to have been written and published about her life and activities.

John Anderson’s book is nothing short of an eye-opener! We have much to learn about a woman who was all but written out of most of the historical accounts of the visits to Australia by the Ballets Russes companies, but whose activities during and beyond those visits were extensive. Anderson notes, for example, that Arnold Haskell’s book, Dancing round the world, which has become ’the putative history’ of the 1936-1937 tour to Australia simply ignores Deane by not mentioning her once. Anderson writes, ‘Deane effectively became a woman who never was, written out of the record of the tour’ and later ’In Haskell’s significant omission, we can see the beginnings of a man-made amnesia about Deane’s part in the tour.’

Cover design by Paul Anderson

Anderson’s book is available, free to read and download, as an e-text via Trove. Follow this link.

  • Dance.Focus 22—Film Premieres

Dance Hub SA and Ausdance ACT recently partnered to commission five filmmakers to produce a short film to ’challenge, resonate and engage with screen dance.’ The films premiered on five consecutive evenings and are now available to watch via YouTube. More information and links to the five films are here.

I especially enjoyed Son; Like Mother; Like Son danced by Petra Szabo Heath with her son Rowan and filmed by Tim Baroff with music by Rian Teoh. The outdoor setting was stunning and nicely juxtaposed with an indoor one, and the work reminded me of a comment once made by Graeme Murphy, ’We all dance from the moment we are born.’ But there was also rather more dancing in this short film than in most of the others in this series, which made me wonder what screen dance is, or how those who make screen dance conceive of its dance component.

  • Promotions at Queensland Ballet

And on a non-Canberra note, but one I am really pleased to include, Queensland Ballet has just promoted Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé to principal artists. Both dancers have been dancing superbly recently and the promotions are well deserved.

Patricio Revé and Mia Heathote in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. Queensland Ballet, 2022. Photo: © David Kelly

As it happens, I have been following Heathcote’s progress since she was at the Australian Ballet School when she appeared in a program called Let’s Dance in 2012. See this link (it includes a gorgeous photo of Heathcote from Tim Harbour’s work, Sweedeedee). See also tags for Heathcote and Revé.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2022

Featured image: Graeme Murphy taking a curtain call with dancers (l-r) Brett Chynoweth, Kevin Jackson, Lana Jones, Rudy Hawkes and Miwako Kubota following a performance of Murphy’s Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo: © Lisa Tomasetti

Navarasa. Mudra Dance Company

2 – 4 July 2021, Little Theatre, Lower Hutt
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

For over 30 years Shri Vivek Kinra has been teaching Bharata Natyam in Wellington, at Mudra Dance Academy. There have been hundreds of pupils over the decades, many reaching advanced level and performing the arangetram, two-hour solo recital, that marks their professional debut. Others have arrived more recently in New Zealand and are of Indian, Sri Lankan or Fijian origin. One is of Anglo-Irish descent, proving anyone could be in if prepared to do the work.

Kinra draws on this pool of talent to form Mudra Dance Company, presenting traditional and new works in seasons that have become a shining beacon in the city’s annual dance program. The technique and expression from each performer is always delivered with the assured musicality that is built in to Bharata Natyam from young pupils’ first class (5 year olds have been known to weep at the door of the Academy since pupils are not accepted until the age of six).

Kinra choreographs and directs these seasons but announced his own retirement from performing in 2015. Fortunately for us he continues to perform mimed cameos of each choreography, by way of narrated introduction to the themes and moods to expect. These little jewels are like dances you can hold in your hand, and are alone worth the time and ticket price. His own training was at Kalakshetra, in Chennai, where he still maintains strong connections, and works with colleagues, Gayatri Lakshmanan chief among them, and the musicians who play the compositions recorded on Kinra’s annual visits to India.

Of the eight items on the program, six are choreographed by Kinra. The main one, Navarasa, which translates as Nine Emotions, lends its name to the whole program. 

It is a stunning depiction of the gamut of valour, love, wonder, amusement, disgust, anger, fear, compassion and benevolence as experienced by the Mother Goddess Meenakshi in various encounters with gods, demons, humans and animals both tame and wild. In Tamil sung poetry, it is, as I was expecting, a miniature masterpiece.

(l-r) Emotions of anger, wonder and valour. Mudra Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Gerry Keating

In its mimed prologue, there was a sudden dying of the light. Kinra continued in the dark but knew it would be better if we could see him. A voice cried out for the gods to send light, which will have shaken awake the lighting technician to do as bid, and all was well. Was this part of the choreography all along? A nod to the Covid year that has darkened so many dance stages around the world? Could have been, should have been. You just have to turn the light back on and carry on as before. Vaccines and danced prayers will see us through.

Another item, this time in Sanskrit, is the Shlokas from Shri Krishna Karnamritam. The intoxicating beauty of this god is depicted through musk paste on his forehead, a jewel on his chest, a pearl at the tip of his nose, bracelets, sandalwood paste and a pearl necklace. But wait, there’s more. A herd of cows, a flock of peacocks, dark clouds and strikes of lightning. The piece ends in a dance about dancing—high sophistication this. The Ras Leela is a renowned depiction of ecstasy, usually performed with sticks that percussively mark the beat and interweaving positions of the dancers. Here subtle handclaps were substituted for sticks and it was poignant to hear a swelling response that had a number of the audience gently joining in that handclapping.  

I first saw a Ras Leela danced by a large group from the Indian community at the first Pacific Arts Festival in Suva in 1972 (when Kinra was a babe in arms). Performed by 100 dancers out of doors, it was staged by the artists based at the Indian Cultural Centre in Fiji, five musicians and dancers resident in a full-time program for two years at a time, funded by ICCR from India. A short while later Professor Jenny McLeod brought those artists to Victoria University for a memorable intensive workshop at the School of Music. Political events in Fiji followed, the Centre was closed, and the next time I visited Suva it was a sorry sight to see the once vibrant place now empty and derelict with doors and windows creaking on their hinges and banging open in the wind. Life goes on but it’s hard to claim that all of history is progress. 

There is a long and interesting history of Indian dance in New Zealand—beginning with Sivaram’s and Louise Lightfoot’s visit in 1950s, Liong Xi in 1960s, Amala Devi in 1970, the Balachandrans, Chandrabhanu, Kanan Deobhakta, two astonishing visits by Kathakali dance theatre, and there are others. Fortunately for audiences who wish to deepen their appreciation of the art, there is a vast literature on the subject. Two leading scholars of the field, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan and Dr Sunhil Kothari, have died recently, but were both aware of Kinra’s work here in New Zealand, in the world map of dance.

There was an exuberant cadence to the performance in the final Thillana, choreographed by the late Rukmini Devi, founder of Kalakshetra. (She too once visited New Zealand, as guest of the Theosophical Society). Mudra’s line-up of radiantly costumed and bejewelled dancers was a joy to the capacity audience. It is not to demote any of their previous memorable seasons to mark Navarasa as their strongest choreography yet.

Jennifer Shennan, 03 July 2021

Featured image: Senior dancers of the Mudra Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Gerry Keating

 Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Image supplied (no photographer named)

2018—New Zealand Dance Year in Retrospect

by Jennifer Shennan

As New Year approaches I like to think back over Old Year and, without consulting notes, check what dance highlights remember themselves.

During 2018 we have lost four treasured and hugely important people from our dance / arts community.

Nigel Boyes, dearest friend and colleague to so many dancers, particularly members of Royal New Zealand Ballet where he was office manager and archivist for many years, and was also a member of prominent Wellington choirs, died in July. (His obituary is on this website).

Sue Paterson, legendary force in the arts, held a sequence of important positions in dance management over decades—at Limbs Dance Company, at Creative New Zealand, at RNZB, as director of the International Arts Festival—and was a generous member of many governing boards. (Her obituary is online at

June Greenhalgh, wife of Russell Kerr who was a stalwart pillar of ballet history in New Zealand, was a foundation member of England’s Festival Ballet. She performed here in the 1959 – 60 season of New Zealand Ballet, but her abiding contribution was as the lifetime companion to Russell. (Her obituary is on this website).

Douglas Wright, giant of New Zealand dance makers, hugely prolific choreographer and indelibly memorable dancer, was rehearsing his last choreography, M-Nod, from the hospice. He was an artist without peer in this country—working also in literature and in visual arts. (A review of M_Nod, and an obituary, are on this website).

To all four of these dear friends and colleagues – Valete. Requiescant in pace,

Haere, haere atu.


In February we were delighted by the spirited response to the inaugural session in the series of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, held at Victoria University. The lecture, on Kristian Fredrikson’s life and work in theatre design, was delivered by Dr. Michelle Potter who has since continued work on her biography of Kristian which is now heading towards publication. The occasion also included the performance of Loughlan Prior’s choreography, Lark, with Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in the cast, and Hamish Robb accompanying on piano.

A trip to Auckland’s Arts Festival was warranted to see Akram Khan’s dramatic and atmospheric production Giselle performed by English National Ballet. Tamara Rojo, the young artistic director and manager of this company, is clearly a leader of intelligent and visionary force. It’s always edifying to check the New Zealand involvement in the history of any dance company and there are several prominent soloist careers to note of New Zealand dancers who performed with English National Ballet, formerly Festival Ballet—Russell Kerr, Anne Rowse, Loma Rogers, Donald McAlpine, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them.

In Wellington’s International Arts Festival, the hugely memorable Loch na hEala/Swan Lake by Michael Keegan-Dolan (of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre fame) had the stellar Alex Leonhartsberger in the lead male role. Alex has previously danced in Douglas Wright productions and it was a renewed thrill to see him in this season. Keegan-Dolan’s work has interested me intensely for some years and I rate him, with Lin Hwai Min and Douglas Wright, as the three choreographers who have kept my world turning for decades. An intriguing new project, under the auspices of this Festival, will next year have Keegan-Dolan in residence here, developing a new work and offering a public involvement for those interested to trace that process.

Betroffenheit, by luminary Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, in collaboration with Jonathan Young, was another highlight of this Festival season. Its theme explored the reactions and after-effects of an unspecified catastrophic event, and suited well the mood of disastrous developments we see in current world affairs, as well as referencing tragedy at a personal level. It proved a remarkable and mature work of theatre.

Closer to home we saw the remarkable season of Meremere by Rodney Bell. This has rightly proved an award winning choreography and performance, produced under the auspices of Malia Johnston’s MOTH (Movement of the Human). Rodney lives and works in a wheelchair, but his mana and charisma in both his life and his dance are the operatives. It takes about five minutes to forget the fact that he’s using a wheelchair. His stories are what matter. Sarah Foster Sproull also made Drift, for Rodney and a female dancer, resulting in a miraculous menuet for our time.

The second half of RNZB’s Dancing to Mozart—in two works by Jiří Kylián—revealed the calibre of both choreography and performance we have been accustomed to from our national ballet company. At New Zealand School of Dance graduation season, two works After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon, and Wicked Fish by Cloud Gate choreographer, Huang Yi, proved outstanding. The time-honoured question from Irish poet W B Yeats, ‘O body swayed to music, o brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?’ always comes to mind when choreography and performance are equally inspirational. There’s a causal connection of course, but it’s a symbiotic and reflexive one between dancer and dance.

Tempo Dance Festival billed Between Two—with works by Kelly Nash and by Douglas Wright. That season, reviewed on this website, is remembered as a most poignantly crafted, perfectly balanced program with birth and death book-ending the life between. No more fitting tribute to Douglas Wright’s astonishing body of work could be imagined. I do not expect to see again anything like this multi-talented artist who was so resolute in communicating his vision. There was a heartfelt memorial service held in his favourite Cornwall Park in Auckland, and then gatherings at both Nga Taonga Film Archive and City Art Gallery in Wellington, to hear tributes and watch fine films of Wright’s work, including the stunning documentary, Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley.

Many were very sorry that Anton Carter’s contract as director of DANZ, the national networking agency, was ended, since he had been a stalwart and popular supporter of dance events and individuals across many different forms and communities. Although now working at Museums Wellington, he continues to attend performances and that is the kind of loyal support, outside the call of duty, that is so appreciated by dance practitioners.

The news is recently announced that Lucy Marinkovich, outstanding dancer/choreographer working independently on projects with her partner and colleague musician, Lucien Johnson, are the joint winners of the Harriet Friedlander award which gives them $100,000 to reside in New York. When asked ‘How long will you stay there?’ they answer ‘Till the money runs out’. I personally and rather selfishly hope they do not get offered something they can’t refuse since I want to continue seeing their fresh and invigorating dance work here. They have wit and style and ideas, together with all the skills needed to bring dance and music alongside each other where they belong. More of that is needed for all our sakes.

In the books department, Marianne Schultz’ history of Limbs Dance Company—Dance for the People— was welcome (see my review in New Zealand Books, December 2018), as also was the memoir of Sir Jon Trimmer—Why Dance ? by Jon with Roger Booth (my review of that is on DANZ website).

As I write this retrospective I am still happily high from last night’s astonishing Indian dance event—the arangetram, or graduation recital, of Leeshma Srirankanathan, student of Sri Vivek Kinra, of Mudra dance school and academy. This was a two hour wonder of solo performing by an extremely talented 18 year old dancer, and the 42nd arangetram directed by Kinra in his 30 years as a master teacher here in Wellington. Leeshma’s Hindu father and Catholic mother were each honoured in the opening prayers and puja of this event. A lesson of peace and tolerance to the world I reckon, if only the world would listen.

We are anticipating the second Russell Kerr lecture in Ballet & Related Arts which will be delivered on Sunday 10 February, on the topic of Russian Ballet companies that visited Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939. It will be delivered at Victoria University of Wellington by Dr. Ian Lochhead, dance critic for The Press, Christchurch. All are welcome, rsvp for further details to

Happy New Year to all readers, and my thanks to Michelle Potter for hosting this website so generously.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 December 2018

Featured image: Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Photo: © Buskar

Gayatri Lakshmanan and Vivek Kinra, Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington

A little corner of India in Wellington

Ever since Vivek Kinra began teaching Bharata Natyam classical dance in Wellington in 1990, there has been a little corner here, an enclave of India, brought close. His commitment to highest standards and consistent discipline is familiar from all dance training, but the way Kinra has single-handedly built up his academy for the daughters of Indian families here to study to the same level and standard that would be available to them back in India, is remarkable.

Over the years, there have been 27 public seasons of original choreography performed by Mudra Dance Company, there have been 40 arengetram or solo graduation recitals each of several hours duration, and the number of pupils attending classes over the years would be close to 2250. At least as impressive as these numbers is the fact that Kinra can probably tell you the names of them all without having to look up any records. The incisive mind and indefatigable memory of an Indian dancer is a source of wonder, and it is heartening to know that Kinra’s work here has been recognised when he was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in the 2010 Queen’s Birthday honors for his ‘huge contribution to the New Zealand dance scene’. In February 2015 he received the Absolutely Positively Wellingtonian Award for his ‘outstanding contribution to Wellington through his work with Indian classical dance’.

Krishnaveni Lakshmanan was one of Kinra’s main teachers at the renowned Kalakshetra School in Chennai where he trained full-time from 1982 to 1987. Her daughter, Gayatri, and Vivek have been close colleagues since their student days, and she has visited New Zealand four times as a guest teacher at Mudra Dance Academy, and to act as artistic associate in the preparation of choreography and related arts for Mudra productions. Gayatri has performed in three productions in New Zealand with Kinra.

I watched Gayatri teach a number of classes at the junior and senior levels, and also spoke with her at length. (I am fortunate to be currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at VUW, profiling three dance communities in Wellington—free-lance ballet artists, the dancers at Mudra, and the Tokelau community dance group at Te Umiuminga in Naenae).

Gayatri instructed the pupils, ‘The little boy Krishna has long black curly hair—you show that by this gesture—not just wavy hair, but truly curly locks—lit from behind by a silver moon, a new moon, giving him a natural halo—quite different from a full bright moon that would be impossible to look at. He is an adorable little boy playing about. Of course you are going to fall in love with him, and it’s sure that we will too. You have to show us these things in the way you dance…’ I remark later that portraying the soft light of a crescent moon as opposed to a full moon is a sophisticated concept for young students to master. She replies, ‘Well, if dancing was so easy we would all be somewhere else.’ True.

Gayatri Lakshmanan teaching a junior class,. Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington 2018
Gayatri Lakshmanan teaching a junior class. Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington 2018

‘Actually I don’t separate myself as a dancer from the dance itself. I’m lucky—I believe in Krishna so I can easily dance about him. But for my young students (Gayatri runs her own school in Chennai, where she has 75 pupils)—and these young ones here, many of them do not go to the temple, they possibly they do not believe in Krishna. So I have to encourage them to look inside themselves, to think about what similar qualities they do believe in, to portray those instead.

I will tell you something. When I was 15 years old, I was with my Father—and he had an accident. It was just terrible. I stayed with him, but he died from that accident. After that, I hated the Gods, I did not want anything to do with them. I gave up dancing—left it altogether—for three and a half years, I did other studies. After that long time, I came back to dancing, and started preparing for a special performance where I was to portray a devotee of Krishna. I had to search for him, to make some sense of what I believed in, what those beliefs represented and how they related to my dancing. By degrees I found him. Now his spirit is in me, always close by.

My mother taught me “Do not look at the audience while performing, do not try to connect with them. You will distract yourself, and them as well. Concentrate on creating the character, the little child. You will disappear and the audience will see the child in your place”.’

To her students, ‘Now listen—Siva from many temples can be depicted in dancing in a number of different ways—this mudra, that pose, that movement—but if it is Siva as Nataraj from Chidambaram you are dancing about, there is only one way to show him. You must first depict the architecture of the temple, the circular points, your arms are there, your wrists are here, your fingers are thus. This is uniquely Siva as Nataraj, in Chidambaram.’

The temple at Chidambaram, a Hindu pilgrim centre in southern Tamil Nadu has all the original poses of classical dance depicted in sculpture. I was lucky to visit there in 1985, en route to Kerala for Kathakali studies, and can summon the impressions from that visit as though it was yesterday.

Kinra’s students are primary school pupils, or at college, or university … some work as school teachers, engineers, accountants, hospital theatre nurses. All are female, most are Indian, a few are pakeha. None of it is easy for anyone though they must strive to make it seem so. ‘My Mother says dancing is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration’, Gayatri reminds them. There is an electric atmosphere of concentration from every pupil in the studio.

I slip away after the class in awe of the 8 year old pupil I have just seen who is most exquisitely immersed in perfecting this demanding dancing. She hasn’t a clue how strikingly talented she is. She’s too busy portraying little Krishna stealing the butter without being caught. We will see more of this child, both of them.

Jennifer Shennan, June 2018, Wellington

Featured image: Gayatri Lakshmanan (right) and Vivek Kinra, Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington

Gayatari Lakshmanan and Vivek Kinra, Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington

La Bayadère. Queensland Ballet

31 March 2018 (matinee), Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Queensland Ballet’s La Bayadère is not the Bayadère you may have seen before. Choreographer Greg Horsman has reimagined the old story and created a new narrative set in India at the time of the British raj. The change is clear immediately one enters the theatre where a striking front cloth from designer Gary Harris is in place. It features a head and shoulders portrait of a young Queen Victoria, set against a background of two opposing armies and a sketchy map of parts of India.

The love triangle between Solor, Nikiya the temple dancer, and Gamzatti, which we know from the Makarova version, remains. But Gamzatti is now Edith, daughter of the Governor General of India in the British era. Edith kills Nikiya, danced by Lina Kim at this performance, in a fit of jealous rage. But she does it with a dagger rather than a snake concealed in a basket. The opium dream—the Kingdom of the Shades—also remains but is better contextualised. The last act is suitably dramatic, but without the almighty crash of the temple. Instead Solor, in a drunken state after a boisterous wedding celebration, strangles Edith on their marriage bed and is then shot by Edith’s military supporters. The love of Solor and Nikiya continues in an apotheosis.

The story is told well, in fact it is quite gripping, edge-of-the-seat material most of the time. It makes so much more sense to a contemporary audience, despite the odd occasion where I had to wonder whether there was a slight (unnecessary) pantomime element to the portrayal of the British raj. I also wondered about the Indian references in the choreography but I was assured Horsman had consulted and researched.

Artists of Queensland Ballet in 'La Bayadere', 2018. Photo: © David Kelly
Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Bayadère, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

One of the best scenes to my mind was that in the opium den, which immediately preceded the drug-induced dream Solor has of the spirit(s) of Nikiya, which we know as the Kingdom of the Shades scene. The den was filled with an assortment of drug dealers and half-drugged customers, including Solor. It set the scene so well for what followed. We returned to the den as the dream of Solor faded and we watched as he was hunted down, found in the den (after efforts by the dealers to hide him failed) and brought back to the reality of his impending marriage to Edith. The golden full moon and star cloth of Harris’ set was instantly arresting and his tutus for the Shades—a half tutu with a choli-style top—made brilliant sense.

Neneka Yoshida in 'La Bayadere', Queensland Ballet, 2018. . Photo: © David Kelly
Neneka Yoshida in La Bayadère, Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

The very best dancing on this occasion came from one of the newest members of Queensland Ballet, Suguru Otsuka, as the leading temple dancer in the final act. Choreographically his solo demanded some spectacular turns and leaps and was set so that the dancer appeared to be an Indian statue (of perhaps a Shiva figure) come to life. Otsuka gave a courageous, breathtaking performance and is definitely a dancer to watch.

I missed some of the dancing in the wedding scene because my attention was drawn frequently to the increasing drunkenness of Solor, who was danced by Kohei Iwamoto. While he danced and partnered well throughout the ballet, my eyes were so often on his acting at this stage as he dismissed advances by Edith and was consumed with his own issues.

This Bayadère was inspirational especially in the way the story was cleverly reimagined and so beautifully redesigned, but yet retained the essence of the storyline. I was at a performance where live music was not available but nevertheless, from the recording made by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, it was clear that musical director Nigel Gaynor had done a great job with the score, adding Indian overtones by changing a major key to a minor one and by including some non-Western instruments.

The performance I attended also marked the last performance in a major role by company soloist Teri Crilly who is retiring from dancing and taking an administrative position with Queensland Ballet. She danced Edith at this performance and at the end of the show was farewelled onstage by Li Cunxin and the cast, and was given an exceptional ovation by the audience.

Michelle Potter, 2 April 2018

Featured image: Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Bayadère, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

NOTE: Below is an image of Gary Harris’ frontcloth, taken from the program (and cropped slightly). This is not an official media image but the cloth was too striking to leave out.

Front cloth for La Bayadere, Queensland Ballet 2018. Design Gary Harris
Liz Lea in 'The Incense'. Photo: Lara Platman

India Meets. Various artists

20 August 2016, Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra

India Meets received just one performance, which is a shame because it offered a truly fascinating and diverse experience of Indian and Indian-inspired dance. And it was a sold-out performance.

The evening was the brainchild of Liz Lea, who took the opportunity to put the show together to bring to a close a visit to Australia by British Indian dancer, Seeta Patel. Patel’s training is in the Bharata Natyam technique, a style which Lea has also studied and has performed throughout her career, so the focus of the evening was strongly on this style of movement. The live component of the show, for example, began with a solo, Ashtapadi No. 19, beautifully performed by Canberra-based exponent of Bharata Natyam, Jenni White, who danced to a mesmerising voice and percussion accompaniment by Mahesh Radhakrishnan.

For those in Canberra, however, who remember Kuchipudi dancer Padma Menon whose work was an integral part of the Canberra dance scene in the 1990s, it was a more than pleasurable experience to see Shivashtakam, performed by local Kuchipudi dancers Vanaja Dasika and Suhasini Sumithra. Their exuberant performance was a delight and offered insight into another South Indian technique.

Lea herself performed two pieces. The first, The Incense, was based on a 1906 work by American dancer Ruth St Denis whose interest in spirituality led her to look to India for inspiration to nurture her choreographic and performance career. In The Incense the dancer enacts an incense burning ritual and Lea’s reinterpretation was strongly performed. She held the attention with some fine lyrical movement and arresting poses. The second of Lea’s solos, When Tagore met Einstein, was based on a discussion that took place between poet Rabindranath Tagore and scientist Albert Einstein in 1930. This work perhaps needs to be seen more than once for its full value to be realised. It was hard to follow the extraordinary complexities of the conversation, which was used as a voice-over, and at the same time to focus on the choreography and its performance. Both pieces represented Lea’s interest in historical conjunctions between the cultures of East and West and also demonstrated, in particular with When Tagore met Einstein, her interest in using classical techniques in a contemporary manner.

Patel showed two solos. Patra Pravesham—Ananda Nartana Ganapatim, which concerned the elephant-headed god Ganesha, and which included a strong display of some of the technical aspects of Bharata Natyam; and Padam (Theruvil Vaaraano)—Raga Kamas, showing the expressionistic side of the style. Patel has a powerful sense of focus, meticulous attention to detail, and is an extraordinarily articulate dancer in the manner in which she moves through the choreography and the complex expressionistic language. Only the very best dancers, in whatever dance style they might espouse, have the ability to make their movement look as though it is completely at one with the body. Patel has it all and her performance was moving and utterly entrancing. She is an extraordinary dance artist.

Two short (very short) films were also part of the program. Both gave insight into Patel’s process and practice with one focusing on the work in which she has been engaged in Australia with contemporary choreographer Lina Limosani. For more on Patel’s Australian visit, including a link to the Limosani collaboration, see this link.

Michelle Potter, 22 August 2016

Featured image: Liz Lea in The Incense (detail), 2005. Photo: © Lara Platman

Liz Lea in 'The Incense'. Photo: Lara Platman