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Classical Indian Dance Company Embraces a California Story

For almost four decades Mythili Kumar’s dance company Abhinaya (abhinaya.org) has been bringing South Indian classical dance to South Bay audiences. So it’s natural that, as a longtime South Bay resident, Kumar interprets American and California narratives in the classical form.

Her newest work, Si Se Puede — “Yes We Can,” the United Farm Workers’ motto — interprets the story of the migrant farm workers’ movement through the medium of Bharatanatyam, a 2,000 year-old classical Indian dance form. The dance honors the work and life of Cesar Chavez takes the stage at Mexican Heritage Plaza theater in San José.

Fusion and collaboration are in Abhinaya’s DNA. The company has collaborated with modern dance troupes, Japanese Taiko drummers and a Balinese gamelan ensemble and it has participated in the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and local and national Asian performing arts festivals.

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Si Se Puede’s music is also a fusion work, combining Indian classical music — Carnatic music — with Mexican folk and union organizing songs, including De Colores and Nosotros Venceremos (We Shall Overcome). The instrumental ensemble also combines Indian and European instruments, adding saxophone and folkloric guitar to the traditional Carnatic instrumentation.

“In Indian dance, many types of narrative can be used,” said Kumar, “Mythology, folklore, history.” These stories have universal meaning that speaks to all people, not just those of a specific time or place, she said.

Si Se Puede work had its beginning in Kumar’s 1995 dance composition about the life and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi at the 125th anniversary of the great non-violent activist’s birth.

“In that work we told of how Gandhi’s non-violence legacy influenced activists around the world: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Cesar Chavez,” said Kumar.

Contemporary themes of social justice are of particular interest to Kumar and in addition to Gandhi, she has choreographed works on the subjects of environmental destruction and domestic violence. Last year she choreographed Stories of Justice about the legacy of Dr. King and Rosa Parks and their fight against segregation.

“These works speak to current times,” said Kumar. “Farm workers are still fighting for better working conditions. Even in progressive California, they are still the most disadvantaged workers.”

The plight of undocumented immigrants — and increasingly legal immigrants — in the face of the U.S.’s current immigration hostility also receives notice in Si Se Puede, in a solo dance about undocumented workers and the ever-present threat of deportation.

Kumar’s original and innovative work has been widely recognized. She has received several Choreographers Fellowships from the nation Endowment for the Arts, the 2011 Bay Area Isadora Duncan Award for Sustained Achievement, World Arts West’s Malonga Casquelord Lifetime Achievement Award and SVCreates’ 2015 Legacy Laureate Award.

“We want to make sure that our message of non-violence comes out,” said Kumar, “and that we bring that message back to our own communities.”

Si Se Puede plays Sunday, March 3 at 4 p.m. at the School of Arts & Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San José 95116. Tickets are $15 – $50. The production is sponsored in part by San Jose Multicultural Artists Guild (sjmag.org).

You can watch videos of Abhinaya Dance Company at www.youtube.com/user/abdanceco.

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