‘Artists have to stay ahead of the curve; but at the same time, not lose the human aspect’

Nikhil Parmar
Friday, 12 January 2018

Jonathan Hollander, founder and artistic director of Battery Dance Company, is holding a workshop today in the city. The takeaway from the workshop, says Hollander, is to get involved in a dance production and understand the process of creation

plus4, artist, Jonathan Hollander, director, Battery Dance Company, workshop, features, Nikhil Parmar

As a teenaged exchange student, Jonathan Hollander lived in Bombay with an extremely cultured Gujarati family. During his stay, he learnt painting, attended dance rehearsals and Indian classical music concerts. He also visited Ajanta and Ellora caves, Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri, all serving to form a bond with Indian arts and culture. Therefore, collaborating with Indian dancers and artistes has come easy to Hollander. 

Currently, he is in Pune, to hold a lecture-demonstration — ‘Quest for New Horizons’, which has been organised by Naadroop and Artsphere. The founder and artistic director of Battery Dance Company will also be travelling across the country with his new production — ‘Shakti: A Return to the Source’. 

Excerpts from the conversation...

What is your vision in presenting and collaborating with Indian artists? Are you excited about sharing your work across India?
- I have always viewed dance as a means of collaborating — with musicians, designers, and of course, other dancers. Combined with my ease at adapting to other cultures, this desire for collaboration extended to working with Indian dancers and musicians seamlessly. 

There are so many dancers and musicians with whom I have had the honour and privilege of collaborating. I will name just a few: Mallika Sarabhai, Sasidharan Nair, C V Chandrasekhar, Sucheta Chapekar, Rajika Puri, Arjun Mishra, musicians Rajan & Sajan Mishra, Badal Roy, Samir & Sanghamitra Chatterjee, Karaikkudi Mani, painter Anil Revri, costume designer Sandhya Raman, and now the dancer who is featured in our India tour, Unnath Hassan Rathnaraju. 

This India tour, our seventh, will take us to cities and in some cases theatres where we have performed before. I am looking forward to receiving audience reactions to ‘Shakti: A Return to the Source’, and the other works. 

Can you share your thoughts on ‘Quest for New Horizons’, an initiative of Shama Bhate and Nadroop? 
- I am always happy to have the opportunity to have an intimate experience with dancers and dance-lovers, and I am therefore especially grateful to be a part of the ‘Quest...’ under the auspices of such an illustrious and innovative artist/Guru as Shama Bhate. 

I plan to deconstruct some of the work, especially of Shakti, to expose the motivation, the techniques employed and the challenges faced in undertaking such a cross-cultural production.

What could one hope to take back from this lecture demonstration?
- It is one thing to watch a performance on stage, to let the choreography resonate intellectually and emotionally, but it is something else altogether to meet the artists involved in the production, to get inside the process of creation. This is what I believe ‘Quest...’ will enable us to achieve as a supplement to the performance itself.

You’ve been a patron of Indian Classical dance on a large scale, by not just promoting but also presenting the biggest names in the field of dance. Comment.

When I returned to the US from India after a 3-month stint on a Fulbright grant, I became aware that great Indian dancers, if they had a chance to perform here, were relegated to the suburbs, temples and elementary schools, far away from the spotlight of mainstream theatres in New York.

This seemed terribly wrong to me and I set out to upend this situation. I organised national tours for C V Chandrasekhar and his troupe and Darshana and Ranjana Jhaveri. Why both? Because I underestimated the challenges involved. Undeterred by the complexity, my next project was ‘Purush: Expressions of Man’, in which Anita Ratnam and I collaborated on assembling great male dancers and musicians representing five of the Indian classical dance forms, as well as my own choreography to bring the Western aesthetic into the mix.  

Anita presented the first performance at Music Academy and I took over in the US with Lincoln Center, followed by 12 cities across the country. We had some financial issues with performances in Trinidad and Tobago cancelled because of a hurricane. The artists had all expenses covered but returned home without a packet that had been anticipated. This was deeply upsetting to me and I determined never again to let such a situation occur. 

The next and final national tour that I organised was for Mallika Sarabhai and the Janavak Folk Ensemble. This tour was riddled with bizarre episodes — three dancers decamping from the group while on tour,  and the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. The troupe managed unscathed but there were many extremely tense moments.

With the founding of the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC), I saw the opportunity to institutionalise what had largely been a personal odyssey, and through a partnership between the Battery Dance Festival and IAAC, Erasing Borders Festival of Indian Dance was born. The parade of talents that have been presented on our stage in New York is well known. 

There has always been a conflict between the classical idioms on authenticity of the form. How important is it for any artist to maintain the aesthetic and authenticity?
- As an American and essentially an inside outsider, I find the entire concept of authenticity to be a black hole, a faulty default that means essentially nothing. What is authentic in a performer is immediately recognisable by audiences — passion, precision, fluidity, musicality, spark, expressiveness, physicality, beauty. These are the criteria that I rely upon to judge performances. 

How important is to understand arts management for a dancer?
- I share the joys and sorrows of arts management with my dancers to the extent that I feel they need to know and contextualise each tour, each circumstance. We have company meetings where my colleague Emad and I put forth the situation we face when preparing for a tour. Sometimes, a month beforehand, we still don’t have all the funding in place, there are gaps in the schedule, and so forth. We ask the dancers whether they are comfortable in signing on the project at that stage. 

Can you share your thoughts on the role of dance across international and multicultural borders?
- We live in a world where everyone is exposed to everything that happens to pique their curiosity. You want to see folk dances of Zambia? Click on YouTube and there you are in Lusaka at a folk festival. You want to understand the intricacies of a particular mudra in Bharatnatyam? There are lessons available online. In order to be relevant and current, we artists have to stay ahead of the curve; but at the same time, not lose the human aspect. 

At that human level, we have seen first-hand how dance can transform lives — can break through prejudice and fear, build trust and bonds between people of starkly different religions, cultures, educational level and economic strata. 

A new documentary film is coming out next month in New York that will make the rounds of international film festivals. It is called Moving Stories and chronicles our experience of conducting ‘Dancing to Connect’ workshops with survivors of human trafficking in Delhi (in 2014), North Korean defectors and their South Korean counterparts, Roma gypsies and mainstream Romanians, and the inspiring but ultimately heartbreaking story of our interaction with an Iraqi dancer whose thirst for training, performance, exposure and travel was undermined by the violence of his circumstances in Baghdad.

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