Astad Deboo’s dream began in the cargo hold of a boat bound for Iran with a load of goats and sheep.
Armed with an economics degree, a backpack and a taste for Western dance, Deboo left his native India on the last vessel to sail before the monsoon season. After hitchhiking around the Persian Gulf and up through Europe, catching the ferry from Calais to Dover and hitching some more, he finally walked into a Martha Graham class in London.
But his quest to embody East and West, which began in 1969 and will land him at Sidney Harman Hall on Sept. 22, wasn’t over. Deboo also studied with Pina Bausch and one of the founders of Pilobolus. In bell bottoms and an afro, he improvised an Indian dance with the not-yet-rock-stars Pink Floyd as his backup band. He trekked from London to Australia, San Francisco and New York, layering his muscles with dance techniques and life experiences, feeding a career that still flourishes. Audiences can see the results when Deboo performs a program of solos as part of the 10th annual Fall Festival of Indian Arts, which runs Sept. 20-28.
At 66, Deboo is one of the festival’s youngsters.
The husband-and-wife duo of Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan are 70 and 74, respectively.
In the wake of Diana Nyad’s historic swim from Cuba to Florida at age 64, this dance festival is shaping up as further validation of all the nifty shades of gray. Gray power is a dearly held tenet of Indian dance: Far from being sidelined in favor of younger dancers, the older Indian dancer is respected as a seasoned artist with a treasury of experience to share.
“They can call on that deeper well of feeling,” says Daniel Phoenix Singh, founder of Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company and organizer of the festival. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of his company and of the festival, he has brought in some of India’s most respected pioneers in dance, artists like Deboo who have pushed the boundaries of the classical forms.
“It’s as if Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Doris Humphrey and JoséLimón were all dancing together,” Singh says.
As much as he hungered to learn Western modern dance in his youth, Deboo credits his longevity as a performer to his roots in the percussive Kathak and highly gestural Kathakali dance forms.
“Dance in the West is much more physical theater; choreographers make the young dancers work, and in the bargain, they sometimes hurt themselves,” he said, speaking by phone recently from his home in Mumbai. “Speed is the buzzword, or defying gravity. Whereas Indian classical dancers are more firmly rooted.”
Facial expressiveness, absent in much of Western dance, is a prized hallmark in India’s storytelling traditions. If flexibility isn’t what it used to be (“I can’t just say, ‘Okay, the leg goes up right away,’ ” says Deboo), refinements can be made in balance, control and subtle shifts of mood and emotion.
If you harbor any doubt that the face can carry a live performance, allow me to introduce two of the most captivating faces I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. They belong to the delightful, white-haired Dhananjayans, who have danced together for more than half a century. They created their own style of Bharata Natyam, which they teach at their long-standing academy in Chennai. They spoke to me recently from their home there via Skype.
“As long as the muscles and eyes can move, and you can feel, you can express anything and everything through your facial expression,” says V.P. Dhananjayan. “Communication becomes more and more easy, because, with experience, we can feel things much more than in our younger days.”
I asked for an example. “Well, we can transform ourselves into a young Krishna and young Radha,” he said, offering a glimpse of the stories of Hindu mythology they will perform at Harman. He removed his glasses and cocked his head toward his wife, his eyes alight and glistening, his eyebrows tickling up and down. Shanta Dhananjayan tilted her head away coyly, her large dark eyes widening and narrowing, as if lowering the shade on her interest.
“Or we can show fear,” V.P. said — his eyes rolling side to side like demonic marbles — “or something disgusting!” His forehead pleated into half a dozen sharp folds.
Leaning into the computer screen propped on their dining room table, the couple took me through their facial exercises, eyes whirling like tops, exaggerated frowns, noses wrinkling and vibrating like giant rabbits, heads sliding side to side atop their necks as easily as you might snap your fingers. Combine these with hand gestures and you have a whole world: Shanta cupped her hands together to form a round lotus blossom, while V.P. sharpened his fingers into the stinger of a bee headed for nectar; their eyes darted and danced to show the bee drunk on sweetness. They nuzzled together as deer with wide Bambi eyes.
Who cares that they’ve had to give up backbends? “I used to lift my leg up in the air, but I cannot do it now,” says V.P. “Some of the poses of Shiva are very difficult now. But as far as hands and faces, no problems.”
“We concentrate on the complete perfection of the art form,” he says. “Though we cannot be completely perfect. Perfection is like a mirage.”
“Every time we go onstage it’s a new chapter,” says Shanta. “We always learn something. It’s like the first time.”
Audiences and presenters clearly agree; the dancers say they have never been busier. Says Shanta with a laugh, “Every time we think we should slow down, we get invited somewhere.”
Fall Festival of Indian Arts: Among the performers: Sept. 20, Dakshina and Madhavi Mudgal Dance Company, performing Odissi dance; Sept. 21, Bharata Natyam dancer Leela Samson and Kathakali dancer Sadanam Balakrishnan, with a sitar concert by Alif Laila; Sept. 22, Astad Deboo, Anu Yadav and Lakshmi Babu; Sept. 27, Sheejith Krishna Dance Company; Sept. 28, Dakshina and Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan.