Interview Dance

Jonathan Hollander’s dance group is in India

Artistes of The Battery Dance Company

Artistes of The Battery Dance Company   | Photo Credit: Darial Sneed

Jonathan Hollander is on a tour of India with SHAKTI

Elf could have been his middle name and he just might be one, going by his goodness in the dance field: Smiling, helpful, impish, high energy, never say die (though he almost lost much in 9/11), Jonathan Hollander, lives his life in dance, cinemascope. New York's longest and continuous, direct dance connection with India, his Battery Dance Company is named after the district where 9/11 took place, but with many other elves, he built it up again.

Now on a tour of India through five major cities — Mumbai (January 11), St. Andrew's Auditorium; Pune (January 14), Yashwantrao Chavan Auditorium; Bengaluru (January 20), Guru Nanak Bhavan; Kolkata (January 24), Kala Mandir, New Delhi (January 31), Kamani Auditorium.

Jonathan Hollander speaks to Ashish Mohan Khokar, who has followed his work for three decades and more, about his journey in dance with India

It is 50 years since you came to India as an AFS exchange student and stayed in Mumbai with the Mehta family, that had links with the dancing Sarabhais of Ahmedabad, the Manipuri Jhaveris of Mumbai, and Bharatanatyam exponent Sucheta Bhide of Pune. What has India given you?

Whoa! That's a long list. First of all, it gives me a sense of belonging. I feel totally at home in India. Then, due to my India connections, I could create many India-themed productions in the past five decades, too many to list here. Then, when Indian dancers visit the U.S., I try to stage some at my Erasing Borders Festival and give an opportunity to dance in NYC.

I was born in Washington DC in a Jewish family — with a German, Polish and Russian background — so I feel India is a melting and meeting point too.

Dance. How did that happen?

Dance was the first and last art form I tried — first, because I was introduced in my childhood to American and international folk dancing during my summer vacations; last because I studied classical piano from age 5. I performed in theatre productions from age 6, all the way through university; visual arts was the field I thought I would pursue as a career; but I didn’t like my sculpture teacher at the University, saw dance students practising for auditions and felt a powerful attraction to the art form.

Early years. Any family background or involvement?

My mother was a concert pianist; I grew up with two Steinway grand pianos in the living room. So music was all around me. Dance, as an extension of music, therefore had its special attraction. Once I began serious training, it was classical ballet that was the hardest and most essential. My first ballet teacher was Eugene Loring, one of the pioneers of American ballet, along with Balanchine and Robbins. Merce Cunningham spotted me in class (at the University of California, Irvine) and offered me a scholarship at his studio in New York City. I dropped out of university a couple of months later, drove across the country and that was it.

India connection: When did it start?

Fate deposited me in the home of a wonderful family — Siddharth and Nirupama Mehta and their children Anand and Nandita — in downtown Bombay. I was 16. I had been selected from my large public high school in the suburbs of Washington, DC, to be sent abroad as an AFS Exchange Student.

After my year long stay, Fulbright in 1992 brought me into collaborations with C.V. Chandrasekhar, Mallika Sarabhai, Kumudini Lakhia and the Jhaveri Sisters.

How did Battery Dance come about?

I had been in the New York Dance Collective for three years — a kind of breeding ground for professional dancers and choreographers. When the members disbursed, I picked up the non-profit corporate structure and converted it into Battery Dance. This was in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial. Having had a job as a librarian in an arts management library, I had learned various skills necessary to run an arts organisation, and I essentially learned by doing and with the help of tutoring by professionals, lawyers, bankers, accountants, PR executives, who joined the Board of Directors and trained me.

How did 9/11 affect you?

It was a terrifying experience, first because my two daughters were in school, only three blocks from Ground Zero; our family life was disrupted for months not only because we were traumatised but also because our home and dance studios were in the “Frozen Zone” with National Guards forming a protective wall. In the days and months that followed, I realised that Battery Dance was more entrenched in lower Manhattan than ever before because of a shared history or disaster and thus I decided that all of our NYC programmes should be centred in this area.

Your work in Iraq and other troubled countries... How does dance help?

We have run our Dancing to Connect programme in countries such as Iraq, Congo and elsewhere where there are ruptures in society. We help participants find the dancer within ( prior dance training not mandatory).

Our workshops take the participants into a realm where they can overcome such divisions that otherwise create fear, hatred, racism and inequality. We often have mixed groups of participants — Israelis and Palestinians; Catholics and Protestants; Roma and Romanians; South Koreans and North Korean Defectors.

In India, we have worked with survivors of human trafficking and gender violence. To see girls and boys who have been abused reclaim their bodies and feel freedom, joy in movement … this is an incredible motivator for us to continue our work.

What does this tour of India mean, at this point in time of your life?

In a way, this tour is a capstone — it marks 50 years since I first came to India. I have worked for the past two years against all odds to achieve my goal of introducing my new production, SHAKTI, A Return to the Source — the Indian audiences.

Finding funds, sponsors were all barriers to overcome. Only as recently as December, I got the confidence that we could undertake the tour without causing a huge hole in our pocket. India has been incredibly generous — ICCR, Consulate General of India in New York, Air India, State Bank of India, etc.

The difference this time is that the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi has lent support without which we couldn’t have undertaken the tour. This makes our tour a true India-American collaboration, which is reflected in SHAKTI, with Indian guest artist Unnath Hassan Rathnaraju and music by Rajan and Sajan Mishra, Sangita Sounds and Samir Chatterjee.

I’m so happy to come home!

What they say

Long term collaborator guru Sucheta Chapekar Bhide, who is helping with hosting his visit in Pune, says: He is inspirational. Never complains and always explains concepts properly. Once on stage, he seemed to fly because he thought I was floating! There is something ethereal about his art. Other worldly .

Mallika Sarabhai says: I think we met in 1990, although our paths had crossed each other's at Paris Dance Competition in 1977. We both had won. He loved my mother Mrinalini amma and we did lots of collaborations. He also presented our work Sita's Daughters in the U.S.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 2:44:30 AM |

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