Jonathan Hollander on India and conflict resolution through dance

Though the name ‘Shakti’ might evoke visual images of the feminine aspect of divinity in terms of Indian spirituality, Battery Dance Company’s recent performance was, in fact, inspired by the Hindustani raag Durga rendered by Rajan and Sajan Mishra.

“The other soundtrack in the piece is called ‘Garuda’s dream’, in an album called ‘Ashirvad’ by Sangita Sounds. Connecting these two different pieces of music that are in two different keys and rhythms seemed appropriate to us. It framed a good platform for the dance,” said Jonathan Hollander, president and artistic director; founder and choreographer of the US-based Battery Dance Company, at The Oberoi which hosted him and his troupe ahead of their performance in Bengaluru.

Jonathan has choreographed over 75 works, performed by the company in theaters and festivals across continents. In 1982, he created the Downtown Dance Festival (now renamed Battery Dance Festival) which is known to have become New York City’s longest-running dance festival.

“The formation of the musical score of the piece was a complex choice and process. Indian audiences who are not familiar with contemporary dance may see the flow but may not know how it’s done because it’s so different from the compositional process that a choreographer goes through in India where it’s all in service of a story, although there is an abstract section in Indian dance.”

Battery Dance Company founder Jonathan Hollander interaction with The Hindu in Bengaluru. Photo : Sudhakara Jain.

Battery Dance Company founder Jonathan Hollander interaction with The Hindu in Bengaluru. Photo : Sudhakara Jain.   | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain


An Indian dancer, Karnataka-based Unnath HR, was part of the performance.

“We wanted to do something special for our 40th anniversary, it needed to be something deeply rooted in the company’s history and mission; hearkening back to the roots, at the same time looking forward.”

He had the idea of returning to India, which, he says, has been a dotted line in his career. That’s when they invited Unnath, a Bharatantyam dancer (around 2015) to do a workshop in order to see what would come out of the experience.

“What resulted then, was a composition based on a musical performance. We didn’t decide to make a piece about a goddess, we decided to make art work that somehow recollected shared values and concerns and quests that are common to India and the United States. What is more in the news, and is a concern right now is women and their role in society.”

After decades of collaborations with Indian art forms, Jonathan says there is still a lot left to be explored. He has hosted Indian artistes such as CV Chandrasekhar, Mallika Sarabhai, Swapna Sundari, Rama Vaidyanathan, and Arjun Misra at the Battery Dance Festival in New York. He has also collaborated with several others, including Mallika Sarabhai and Sashidharan Nair on ‘Moonbeam’ in 1992; with Badal Roy, an Indian jazz musician, on ‘Seen by the River’; and with Rabindra Sangeeth through ‘Songs of Tagore’ in 1995. His ‘international outlook’, he recalls began as a 16-year old exchange student when he stayed in the country for three months with an Indian couple who were known for their philanthropy and their love for dance.

“India stands out in the world for having eight distinct classical dance forms and hundreds of folk dance forms so the richness of Indian music and dance can never be fully understood or explored. There’s always more material to discover,” he explains. “My involvement comes from a deep place. I studied piano since the age of five so I have this musical background and it took me a long time to listen to Indian music with understanding and comfort because of the difference between Western scales and Indian scales. I didn’t even begin to use Indian music until about 20 years after I had been to India. I don’t claim to be a scholar in any of this. My role is that of an artist so if I get into a decade about somebody on my understanding I would say that I understood the music in my own way.”

The company has also been conscientious about its work in dance as a means of ‘social cohesion’, most prominently in conflict zones around the world, including Thailand, Iraq, Israel-Palestine and North and South Korea. They are also known for their workshops and programmes that reach out to schools and young talent about the importance of dance. Among the most significant of these programmes is the 20-hour ‘Dancing to Connect’ programme conducted by their dancers in over 62 countries. The company, led by Jonathan, was also instrumental in establishing arts education at the school levels in New York Public schools.

“If we step back and look at something that’s important to Battery Dance, it’s looking at what the company can be in the world. It’s not going to be all about ourselves and self-expression. It has to be about resonance, meaning and change. What we have discovered is that we really care about access and people deserve to have access whether they come from a wealthy family or a poor family, they should have this opportunity. We find so much talent, which is something that is not relegated by economic brackets,” he explains.

“When we undertake a programme like this, it inspires us, makes us love our art form even more because we see that it can do something for people. It can bring joy and reveal capacity to other people that they didn’t know they had.” This stems from their deep concern for the world and the need to understand what they, as dancers can do.

“As a team we contribute a lot. When we do this, we set tasks in motion. Young people like to dance, you are not going to teach somebody to dance in 20 hours, but you can create an environment where they feel free to experiment and innovate. It is about finding ways to undermine their natural self-consciousness and create a safe environment. Young people have so much capacity they don’t even know of.”

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 8:46:45 PM |

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