The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Feb 07, 2016

In the studio with choreographer Mythili Kumar, SVCreates’ 2015 Legacy Laureate

Posted by Margot Helm

Margot Helm is the grants and database administrator at SVCreates, a Knight Arts grantee.

It’s a Monday night in Saratoga, Calif., and I’m sitting in a multi-purpose room at the local middle school, surrounded by students of the Abhinaya Dance Company of San José. Dozens of girls from 6 to 16 years old are practicing together in small groups. On my side of the gym, the youngest students are learning a new step while sneaking glances at the older girls, who are working on a challenging sequence of moves. The littlest ones giggle and give me pointers as I struggle to stand in a simple “aramandi” stance with them, my skirt and legs refusing to cooperate. On all of their faces, I can see a mixture of emotions as they practice–focus and concentration, sometimes confusion, always mixed with laughter and joy. This group of hard-working young women is Mythili Kumar’s dream, made reality.

The Abhinaya Dance Company of San José.

Artistic Director Mythili Kumar established the Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose in 1980, to present professional-quality, innovative performances of South Indian classical dance in the Bay Area. Recently celebrating a remarkable 35 years of performance and instruction, Kumar has directed Abhinaya’s growth into a regionally and nationally recognized dance program. Her name is synonymous with expressive dance performances and choreography that explores traditional and contemporary themes, and her work has garnered several prestigious awards over the years, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Sustained Achievement Award from the Bay Area Isadora Duncan Dance Award committee. But at the end of the day, Kumar returns to the heart and foundation of her work: her students.

Kumar learned to dance a variety of classical Indian dance forms when she was growing up in India, and performed extensively throughout her home country before arriving in the U.S. in 1978. She is best known for her performance of “Bharatanatyam,” a style passed down by temple dancers who used its elaborate gestural language–called “abhinaya”–to reenact Hindu epics. As families in the Bay Area began to hear about her expertise, they begged her to teach their children this cultural tradition. “It seemed like the best way to keep up my dancing, and my tradition was to start teaching,” Kumar explains.

Mirroring her own studies, Kumar’s students focus on the “Bharatanatyam” style of dance, to give them a solid foundation that will allow them to grow and explore the other classical dance forms. She has nurtured some 1,600 Indian-American girls over the years, training a generation of exceptional dancers. More than 100 of these young women have completed years of training and graduated with an “arangetram,” a public 2.5-hour solo debut recital.

Tonight, the youngest students are learning from Abhinaya graduates Krishna and Ananya, both 16, who made their debuts in the past two years. They explain that Kumar expects each dancer to stay with the company for a minimum of one year after their debut, to assist in teaching younger students and perform with the troupe, though many stay longer. Through this commitment, they learn to reinvest their time in the community, solidify their knowledge and skills as performers and instructors, and help carry the tradition forward for the next generation. Kumar’s own daughters, Rasika and Malavika, embody this legacy: Malavika, an attorney, is renowned for her skill in leading the orchestra as “nattuvanar,” and Rasika, a software engineer at Google, has continued her dance training under several renowned instructors in India and has become a prominent choreographer in her own right.

Kumar’s commitment to sharing this cultural dance form resonates here in Silicon Valley, where a booming technology industry draws families from India and around the world, many of whom want to give their children exposure to experiences beyond academics and pop culture. In 2015, SVCreates and Knight awarded Kumar a Legacy Laureate award, recognizing her 35 years of artistic achievement and service to the community.

“In 1994 [when she won a choreography fellowship from Arts Council Silicon Valley], it meant that my work and choreography were recognized. To receive the 2015 Legacy award…this recognition means a lot,” Kumar said.

Kumar continues to look for ways that her work can serve new audiences and future generations. Her two current dream projects are to launch an online curriculum in Indian classical dance for teachers worldwide to utilize, and to publish a book that gathers and translates her research from past choreographic works. The Indian classical dance community is already growing under her influence here in the Bay Area–Abhinaya was one of more than 20 dance companies that performed at Natya Mela for Chennai, a recent fundraiser organized to support flood relief in the Indian coastal city of Chennai.

After their class, I asked the girls (and one young boy, who was determined to learn to dance like his big sister!) whether they would encourage their children to learn to dance. The youngest answered with a resounding “Yes!” while the older ones paused before saying, “Yes, but only if they were truly interested.” Based on what I saw during my visit, it’s my guess that Abhinaya Dance Company and Silicon Valley will have no shortage of eager students and skilled instructors for many years to come.

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