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Community of Creativity: A Garland for Saraswati, a multi-arts work specially commissioned by Lincoln Center Out of Doors

by Rajika Puri
August 11, 2004
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023
212.875.5456

Community of Creativity: A Garland for Saraswati, a multi-arts work specially commissioned by Lincoln Center Out of Doors

Curated by Elise Long of Spoke the Hub Dancing
Producer/Artistic Director: Jenneth Webster

The North Plaza at Lincoln Center
New York, NY

Rajika Puri
August 11, 2004

Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of music, typically portrayed playing her sitar-like instrument, the veena. Often seated upon (or accompanied by) her vehicle, a swan, she is the embodiment not only of music and sound, but of knowledge and the arts. Patron of creativity she presides over all artistic endeavor.

Inspired by her image - often seen in Indian stores - Lincoln Center Out of Doors' Jenneth Webster commissioned a multi-arts work from Elise Long of Brooklyn's Spoke the Hub Dancing as a community event which would involve not only dance, but music, martial arts, drawing, mask-making, creative writing, and theater games - a true garland of creativity. Over the course of two hours professionals and amateurs, children and adults, performers and audience members, would join hands to explore a panoply of art forms.

A highlight of the event (though curiously absent from the publicity material preceding the event) was the program of classical dances to be performed by some of the best Indian dance groups in the city: The Kathak Ensemble & Friends, led by Janaki Patrik; Sadhana Paranji & dancers, represented by Pooja Kondbolu in a Kuchipudi dance; Shiv Jyoti Dance Academy in a Bharatanatyam composition directed by Thejeswini Raj, and The Trinayan Collective in a specially choreographed medley of Odissi dances by Bani Ray.

Saraswati used once to be a river which disappeared underground at the confluence of two other rivers in India - the Ganga and the Jamuna. Spoke the Hub Dancing is associated with the Gowanus canal, which runs close by one of the studios where they rehearse, and they are deeply concerned with attempts to clean it up. At Lincoln Center, this crucial element of water was to be represented by the reflecting pool in the North Plaza, around which the various events were designed to take place.

As it turned out, the whole plaza itself was virtually flooded as torrential rains beset the city on the day of the performance. Although the skies cleared just in time for the performances to begin, the rains returned to drench most of the performances before, tantalizingly, it cleared up again - until a final downpour brought the culminating finale to an abrupt end.

The evening began with a dance to bless the space by Martita Goshen accompanied by the deep chant of a Tibetan monk. As she went round the pool, several other artists - some Tai Chi practitioners led by Kwok Kay Choey, a percussion group led by Matt Moran and Demetri Tashie, other dancers - were set into motion. Then came the first section of Long's choreography, a modern piece inspired by the Indian form, Kathak. Performers wore Indian inspired costumes - simple white kurta-like outfits for some, vibrant turquoise bodysuits embellished with Peacock feathers for others - as they twirled hands, wrists, and bodies in obeisance to the goddess.

The group then continued on to the many workshop and performance activities at the southern end of the plaza, leaving this space to the Indian dance groups who were ushered in by the young Pooja Kondabolu in a lively Kuchipudi dance. Half way through her performance, though, it started to rain. Nevertheless she gamely went on and, unfalteringly poised on a brass tray, with little oil lamps balanced on her head, completed her dance. Her charming smile never left her face.

Heartened by her spirit, The Trinayan Collective decided to proceed with their Homage to Saraswati, even though by now their beautiful costumes were drenched. Variously manifesting themselves as different forms of Devi ('goddess'), they invoked her powers. Meanwhile, to one side - and on a precarious-looking table - Felicia Norton, too, kept dancing. As her diaphanous white costume soaked up the rain and clung to her sculpturesque body, her accompanist LeRoy Jenkins put away his violin shifting to an instrument made up of what looked like cow-bells.

Saraswati must have been pleased, for she prevailed upon Indra, god of rains, to allow the skies to clear. This permitted the Shiv Jyoti Academy to enter with their painting of Saraswati, in front of which they, too, did a medley of dances in praise of the goddess. Particularly striking was the articulation of rhythmic syllables by their director, Thejeswini Raj, and the voice of singer, Ranjitha Iyer. I must confess, however, that it was the aplomb of the younger dancers - Reema, Radhika, Veena, & Dimple - which stole the show.

The Indian section ended with a presentation by Janaki Patrik and friends, who included a Bharatnatyam dancer along with her Kathak Ensemble. As they came to a close, Long and company also rounded off their performance in the south plaza and, led by procession of musicians, made for the Julliard bridge over 65th street - to an area that had been named 'Saraswati Puja Palace' for the evening. There, accompanied by poetry and chanting, they were(among other things) to form a double circle of participants in a final expression of solidarity.

The skies, however, decided otherwise. This time the rains came down really hard and forced performers and spectators to rush for cover. Many began to head for home. Still, their faces were beaming, and many of the Indians laughed, saying - "This is great! We consider rains to be very auspicious. The gods have smiled on us." Even Long, as she contemplated how badly awry her well-laid plans had gone, admitted: "But what did 'go' was spectacular!"


Shiv Jyoti Academy dances in front of a Saraswati painting
Photo courtesy of Rajika Puri



Elise Long & Co. in Kathak inspired choreography
Photo courtesy of Rajika Puri



Peacocks weave in among Elise & Co
Photo courtesy of Rajika Puri



Trinayan Collective dances in the rain
Photo courtesy of Rajika Puri


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