Choreographer Preeti Vasudevan and New York city Ballet principal dancer Amar Ramasar explore their roots through dance in India.
When classical Indian dancer and choreographer Preeti Vasudevan and ballet dancer Amar Ramasar first performed a series of duets for a group of children in India, they encountered an unexpected response. “There was a very funny moment when we showed them a very, sort of, tongue-in-cheek, bravura sort of piece — what we call the ‘show off’ piece to each other,” explains Vasudevan. “And then we said, ‘Well the next piece, it’s really about intimacy.’ And [Ramasar] said, ‘In ballet we hold the women.’ Immediately some of the boys who was younger said, ‘Eww!’ Some of them actually closed their eyes! It was so funny. We said, ‘Well let us show you,’ and they said, ‘No! We don’t want to see it!’”
Vasudevan laughs as she describes the episode, but it also made her realize something.
The children reacted this way not only because physical contact as an expression of intimacy is rare in classical Indian dance but also because the pas de deux was being performed by Vasudevan and Ramasar, specifically. She elaborates, “Given that I wasn’t a foreigner, given that I was Indian, I think it resonated more for [the children] to feel this way. If I was blond, they wouldn’t have cared. And same thing for [Ramasar]. If he were a white guy with blond hair, I just wonder how they would have responded. I thought that was a very interesting revelation.”
This episode highlights the complex nature of the collaboration between Vasudevan and Ramasar. The work that Vasudevan, an Indian woman, and Ramasar, a man with Indian ancestry, have done together goes beyond just creating choreography that combines balletic and classical Indian elements. Their collaboration represents a multi-year effort to explore their own heritage and ancestry, to ask questions about race and immigration, and to create a dance vocabulary that allows them to investigate the depth and range of human relationships — from violence to intimacy. The medium of dance has allowed the pair to express the evolution of their initial meeting as strangers into a close friendship, using the storytelling mechanisms in their respective art forms, while stripping away some of formal elements, making their work intimate and universal.
Vasudevan and Ramasar have been dancing together since early 2016. That year, when Vasudevan received a fellowship from The Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU, she reached out to Ramasar to ask if he would be interested in working together. She reports, “I just thought what a great way to get to know a ballet dancer — and a male ballet dancer. As a female choreographer, I wanted to work on a male body. And so he said yes. And through that we started developing work which ended up becoming more about our story, like how we got to know each other and how we’re getting to know each other still.”
This past summer Vasudevan and Ramasar embarked on their most extensive collaborative project to date: a three-week trip to India, where they performed and ran workshops across the country, visited Vasudevan’s parents, and traced Ramasar’s family roots — all while accompanied by a small documentary film team that recorded their adventures. The trip gave them a taste of what Indian audiences made of the mashup of ballet and Bharatanatyam, Vasudevan’s primary style of dance. It was also an important process of self-discovery for Ramasar for more than one reason. Ramasar was able to visit some important sites of family history, including the port of Kolkata, where his great-great-grandfather was shipped as an indentured laborer from India to Trinidad by British colonial forces. At the same time, Ramasar was working through his own emotions and thoughts related to the recent sexual misconduct allegation that saw him fired from and later reinstated post-arbitration at NYCB.
According to Vasudevan one purpose of the trip was to provide inspiration for further work. Over the course of their journey, Vasudevan and Ramasar wrote letters to their deceased grandfathers asking them questions about identity and home, and they sought answers as they traveled together. The text of the letters forms the basis of a script for their new live work, aptly entitled “Letters.”
“In some ways,” Vasudevan added, “I would say that we’re still exploring the sand while the ocean is ahead of us.” The pair plans to premiere a full evening of work in 2021, based on insights they gained while in India. Vasudevan is currently working on one part of this production, entitled “L’Orient,” as part of her fellowship at The Center for Ballet and the Arts in New York this year. This piece draws on Léo Debiles’ opera “Lakmé — which portrays Indian Hindu worshippers through Debiles’ perspective as a 19th-century French man. But in her version, Vasudevan will reverse the gaze back to Debiles himself. “It’s looking at the orientalist lens of Debile and how he sees the temple dancer and the music…and also how in India in the same period, people looked at their own lives,” she explained. The piece will shed light on how we look at others and how we like to be perceived.
Along with providing inspiration for new work, the trip to India gave Ramasar and Vasudevan a chance to open up about the personal and professional crisis following the sexual misconduct allegation at New York City Ballet. Prior to the trip, Vasudevan found herself answering to others about why she continued to want to work with Ramasar. Even Ramasar tried to distance himself from her out of concern for her, but Vasudevan told him that said continuing their work together and allowing emotions to be expressed in the studio was the only way she could rebuild trust between them. She said, “It was a question of trust for me as well. I needed to know if I could trust him and, more importantly, if I could trust myself, and the only way to know was to do this with him.”
Vasudevan also believed that it would be a disservice not to give him an opportunity in the studio to work through his own feelings and redevelop his own ideas about consent and transgression. In the wake of the crisis, they scheduled two weeks of studio time together, and Vasudevan set a series of themes for each block of time. “One of [the themes] was non-consent” said Vasudevan. “And that day on non-consent a really good duet came out of it, about nine minutes long. And it’s pretty intense and at times violent.”
The pair then brought their various duets, including the recent one on transgression, to India. Vasudevan believes that the cultural differences and the unfamiliar audience reaction in India prompted Ramasar to think more deeply about the question of consent than he might have in the United States: “This was like a reminder of the cultural nuances that are so embedded and the line of respect, the line of taboo, the line of permission because what Amar had to go through there was to reflect on permission.”
The final goals for the trip to India were to make a documentary film of their journey and pave the road for a more long-term plan to continue working with children in India. Vasudevan has been teaching children for years, and she has been partnering for over eight years with Yo-Yo Ma’s ensemble Silkroad, which aims to bring music, storytellingand education around the world to foster inclusion and dialogue in conflict zones. She and Ramasar plan to bring collaborative dance and storytelling to Indian children, especially those who are homeless and lack educational opportunities. During this past trip, they conducted a workshop for homeless children, and in the future the pair hopes to make regular trips to the subcontinent to develop the project. According to Vasudevan, Ramasar’s personal story as a child who grew up in the Bronx and eventually became a ballet star can inspire children in India to dream big.
For the Indian children they met, as well as the adult audiences they encountered, seeing Vasudevan and Ramasar together on stage brought a new level of respect for both ballet and classical Indian dance. Their work together on stage in India deconstructed hierarchies of east and west, suggesting that both the respective dance forms and the respective dance communities have many ways to learn from each other, rich potential for collaboration, and the promise of building and supporting profound friendships.
Stay tuned for the next part of our series. We’ll tell you more about the social project Vasudevan and Ramasar are dreaming up, and we’ll include some video clips of the pair’s innovative dance style.
To learn more about Preeti Vasudevan and her work visit www.threshdance.org