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'Peoria has never seen that before': Indian classical dance program takes the stage at ICC

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Rama Suresh
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Costumes being used for Mythili Dance Academy Peoria's "ARPAN - An offering."

While many people’s first thought may go to Bollywood when they think of Indian dance, that’s just one, newer style. There are about eight different Indian classical dances, and one Guru is looking to highlight the most ancient of them in her studio's upcoming program, “ARPAN - An Offering.

Presented by Mythili Dance Academy Peoria (MDA), ARPAN is a dance extravaganza featuring 40-plus dancers from Peoria, Naperville, and Brookfield, Wisconsin. The full-length dance program highlights the most ancient Indian classical dance of Bharatanatyam. This dance form is one the artistic director of MDA, Rama Suresh, has been practicing herself for decades and teaching to others for 35 years.

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Rama Suresh
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Rama Suresh, artistic director of Mythili Dance Academy, Peoria

“So, Bharatanatyam is about 2,000 years old,” said Suresh. “It was danced by the devadasis, who were like the handmaidens of the gods. They were married to the gods. So, they would dance for every ritual in the temple from like, 4 a.m. in the morning till midnight. And this art form was taught from generation to generation within the devadasis families. And in the early part of the 18th century, the Tanjore Quartet, there were four brothers, they were the ones who actually codified and documented this as a performing art.”

Many of the dancers featured in the program are senior professionals who have been learning the art form since the age of 5.

“It's like ballet. It's something that is very traditional. It takes many years to master the technique, and even then, you don't master it. It's always, you know, continuous improvement. So, all these dancers that are going to be performing in ARPAN on Nov. 19 are practitioners of this art form. They are very passionate about this art form. And we are going to be showcasing Bharatanatyam in all its glory on that day,” explained Suresh.

Not only will the dancers be performing in Peoria on Saturday, Nov. 19 at the ICC Performing Arts Center, but they also will be taking the program on the road with performances scheduled in Chicago, Milwaukee, and other cities.

“We are going to take it on a tour because the entire program is so very unique. Even for practitioners of Bharatanatyam, they would not have seen some of the dance numbers that we are showcasing in this program,” said Suresh.

The free program also is a celebration of the centennial year of Suresh’s Guru — Kalaimamani Sri. Thanjai Arunachalam Pillai — who comes from the artistic lineage of the Tanjore Quartet.

“He was somebody who knew some of those hundreds and 200-year-old traditional dance numbers that were composed by the Tanjore Quartet… and they're very complex… and so each dance number that we've chosen for ARPAN has been carefully thought out… We are going to be showcasing some of the works, the compositions of my Master Guru, Thanjai Arunachalam Pillai, and also some very, very unique gems of the Tanjore Quartet compositions,” Suresh said.

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Rama Suresh
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Children from MDA during their Shyam performance

Bharatanatyam is known for its dynamic rhythms, expressions and emotions, and storytelling capability. The art form is very complex and intentional in nature, and Suresh taught almost all of the program to her students via two-hour Zoom sessions every Monday.

“A lot of these are not easy to do over Zoom… So, it was challenging for me. And I also wanted to bring in the choreography of my Master into this, not just my own creative choreography. I wanted it to be extremely traditional the way that he had taught me in those days. So, I taught that through Zoom, and then we had workshops…where we had everybody come together and then taught the more complex of the rhythmic patterns and the storytelling aspect where I needed all the different people to be there to play the characters,” explained Suresh.

All of this work will be revealed on stage on Saturday, with Suresh guaranteeing that Peoria has never seen something like this before.

“I can tell you with absolute certainty that this is so unique," she said. "Nobody has ever seen this before just in terms of the magnitude of the program, and the magnitude of the talent of the dancers that are coming together to perform. Peoria has never seen that before.”

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Jody Holtz
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WCBU
Rama Suresh

Even for novices who aren’t familiar with classical dance, Suresh said they are sure to enjoy the program, and everyone is welcome.

“They always leave the program in awe of, you know, this dance, with so much joy in their heart, with such a fulfillment and a deep sense of appreciation for this art form Bharatanatyam,” said Suresh. “I've seen that happen every time we have a program, and so this is the kind of joy we want to give to the audience and Peoria. And also, it's an educational thing in terms of theater and performing arts for people to come and see this art form, as well…It will be a scintillating memorable program with absolute guarantee. I can tell you that.”

ARPAN - An Offering” starts at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 19 at the ICC Performing Arts Center. The performance is free. Peoria Mayor Rita Ali will be the chief guest of the program. Those interested can RSVP via the Facebook event page.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program director and host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and WCBU's morning news podcast On Deck.