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A dance must make a statement, says choreographer Malathi Iyengar
Malathi Iyengar, a choreographer and artistic director of Los Angeles-based Rangoli Dance Company, inspires a lot of aspiring dancers with her astounding choreographic skills and excellence in Bharathanatyam. What makes Malathi Iyengar very special is her effortless balancing of home and career. Malathi Iyengar grew up in an artistic environment amidst tradition and art. Her parents - Sharada and Venkatachalan - were actively involved in not only pursuing their own training in vocal music and violin, but were also key figures in organizing music concerts, religious discourses (called Harikathas) and Gamaka Rupakas for Rama Navami festival and other community events in a small village called Soladevanahalli (near Hesaraghatta, home of Nrityagram) in Bangalore, India. Her marriage to Suresh Iyengar, a practicing dentist in Los Angeles at the age of nineteen, took her to Los Angeles. Suresh is an accomplished sculptor and a visual artiste. He has been source of great support for her. She began her dancing lessons along with her daughter Lakshmi with Guru Narmada. Her dedicated journey in the domain of Bharathanatyam has been instrumental in the establishment of the Rangoli Foundation of Art and Culture.

Rangoli Foundation for Art & Culture, a non-profit organization, was established in 1985 to realize a creative vision of presenting visual and performing arts of India. Rangoli, the traditional Indian visual art, symbolizes beauty, hope and tradition. And, it is from this visual art that the Rangoli Foundation derives its inspiration and has presented a wide variety of dance performances, festivals, music concerts, visual art exhibits and the like. Rangoli Foundation is committed to developing cultural awareness and inter-cultural dialogue through dance, music, theatre and visual arts. The foundation brings renowned tradition bearers, dancers and musicians from India to the United States, often for the first time, to work with company artistes. In August 2004, Rangoli Foundation published 'Dance and Devotion,' the first book written by Malathi Iyengar. Rangoli looks forward to celebrating its sliver jubilee in 2010. Malathi Iyengar discusses with Sangeetha Shyam how tradition and innovation can complement and supplement each other.

How hard was it to adapt to living in the U.S. after being raised in a village near Bangalore in India?
Malathi: I came to the U.S. in 1974. There were not too many Indians at that time in the U.S. It took several years to get accustomed to a foreign place. Since I was young, I did not have friends or my immediate family members here. After I joined the college and work, it got better as I started to have some identity, connections and friends.

I have read that you started learning Bharathanatyam along with your daughter, just out of interest and to be in a better position to coach and guide her. Tell us about this learning experience. What made you take it up professionally?
Malathi: I was in my early thirties when I started dancing along with my daughter. Initially, it was only to help her with the practice. Slowly, I got hungry for more knowledge and experience. My teacher, Guru Narmada, was the main person who encouraged me to keep going at it and take up to performing and teaching. She also sat next to me and had me do nattuvangam for my daughter's programme. She was generous and very giving.

How did you manage your time while taking up higher learning at the University of California, Los Angeles? You were a dance student, teacher and, most importantly, a wife and a mother. All at one time!
Malathi: Going back to do graduate program at UCLA was one of the most challenging periods in my life, as I had to wear many hats and still be polite and courteous to all. This is mainly because I had to be a student all the time at home and outside of home. It was also the most fruitful experience as it opened my eyes to endless possibilities. Had I not gone to do MFA in Choreography, I would have not had that edge or another perspective to dance making. I had to stay focused and have single minded devotion to learning. My family was very supportive, yet we all had our moments. When I went to UCLA in seventies, I pursued graphic design. Later in during 1993-96, I concentrated on choreography. I feel visual arts and performing arts go together. My experiences at UCLA both times have been very profound and necessary.

Your choreographies have a geometrical aspect about them. Not only are the spatial arrangements very balanced and neat, but the costumes never scream for unwarranted attention. They look like paintings/rangoli drawn in space. Tell us about your choreography process and how your interest in visual art helps you with this?
Malathi: I generally like neatness in dance. I do not like clutter or meaningless movement. A strong choreographic piece begins with a strong intent and blossoms further. Elements like time, harmony, expression, body language, balance, level changes, speed, silence, grouping, space, shapes, jumps, leaps, transitions, all matter. I put myself in the auditorium very frequently while I am choreographing. I often pose myself this question: Will I sit through this dance?

Pacing is very important in choreography, as it affects both cast and audience. I try not to have hierarchy in my works unless a particular character commands attention. I feel, as a dance maker, it is important to make each cast member look, feel and dance his/her very best regardless of the duration of the piece or the stage time given to a particular dancer.

I don't get all ideas in one day. The thoughts come sporadically or, sometimes, in random sequences. I usually jot them down or try them on some of our dancers. Before I go to the studio to teach the choreography, I generally have multiple images and ideas. Sometimes ideas generate after seeing a dancer move in a particular way. I teach quite a bit in one session. I pack lot of material in a class. I give generously and I expect a lot from a dancer, too.

I usually develop scripts, write out all scenes, entries, exits, rhythmic structure, narrative sequences, and then get music composed. Usually I need 2-3 years to develop and stage a piece.

Having a visual arts background is very essential. The imagery and graphics we create or see on paper, canvas or sculpture can be seen and created in movements, too. They go hand in hand. A dancer must look at the positive and the negative space to shape movement.

I am inspired very much by the European architecture, industrial and product designs. Inspired more so by the Bauhaus School of Design. It has influenced my choreography quite often. Most of the costumes since 2002 have been designed by my daughter, Lakshmi Iyengar. Her background is in dance, theatre, production, Italian language & literature, and visual arts. She has a keen eye for design and style. She creates a full visual specification for the choreography, including costumes and ornaments. We both like the dance to make a statement. Costumes and other body extensions are only meant to enhance movement. My husband Suresh Iyengar creates sets, made out of stone, wood, metal and Styrofoam. His work is completely traditional and fits into some of our works very well.


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