Jonathan Hollander, an outstanding choreographer and a creative leader founded Battery Dance Company in New York City in 1976 and has choreographed over 75 works that the Company has presented in major theaters and festivals across five continents. In 1982, he created the Downtown Dance Festival (now renamed Battery Dance Festival) which has since become New York City’s longest-running dance festival.
Battery Dance connects the world through dance. The Company pursues artistic excellence and social relevance by creating and performing vibrant new works on the world’s stages and teaching people of all ages with special attention to the disadvantaged and areas of conflict. Battery Dance is committed to enhancing the cultural vibrancy of its home community in New York City, extending programming throughout the U.S., and building bridges worldwide through international cultural exchange.
Battery Dance company was in India recently for a 5 city tour featuring their major dance works including the one that was presented in New Delhi called - SHAKTI - A return to the source. We are grateful to Mr. Jonathan Hollander, artistic director/ founder of Battery Dance, who took out some of his valuable time to speak to The Dance Bible about providing a global platform to dancers around the world and his deep artistic connect to India.
Q: Battery Dance Company has had an incredible journey. Forty two years and counting, numerous choreographies, traveling across five continents with prominent festivals amongst other highlights, how would you describe this journey and what were the early inspirations that led you to starting the company.
The journey is like that of Sisyphus – you just keep pushing the boulder up the hill, never achieving the summit. But then again, what would be the summit for someone in the arts? I think we have chosen a field where there is no summit. One has to enjoy the climb or else it is all meaningless.
I had been in a dance collective for 3 years in which we all shared responsibilities for performing, creating and managing affairs. I enjoyed the collaborative atmosphere but I also had a desire for leadership, something that had been manifested early in my life in various ways – serving as president of my high school class one year, president of the honor society the next; and one of two students selected to go abroad as an exchange student out of a class of 600. In me, these qualities were not oppositional to each other – but required that I find a special place for myself in which both could co-exist. And thus I formed Battery Dance when I was 24 and have continued and evolved without deviating ever since
Q: You have traveled extensively with dance, even taken this art form to conflicted zones and worked with refugees. Social relevance has been a big part of what you (and the company) do. How important is it for a choreographer to create meaningful and thought provoking pieces, speaking of social and political issues, especially in today’s times?
I really cannot generalize about this issue. It is so specific for me to be who I am and to pursue the themes and programs that I choose. There is something inevitable about it, given my background, my parents, my culture (Jewish) and the accumulation of my life experiences. The work with refugees from the Middle East and Africa grew organically from my company’s 10 years of engagement in Germany with Turkish immigrants, and then expanded when Angela Merkel opened the doors for over 1 million refugees.
Regarding the work with survivors of human trafficking in India, one of Battery Dance’s Board Members, Laura Entwistle formed an NGO in India called EmancipAction. She knew that we had worked with a similar population in Thailand and when she asked if we could bring to Delhi and Badlapur in 2014, we didn’t hesitate. Our newest production, ‘On Foot’, was a direct result of having learned the stories of refugees, having a displaced Iraqi dancer as part of our troupe as well as meeting a Syrian visual artist whose imagery was informed by the forced immigration of his grandparents from Armenia to Syria, and his own departure from Syria to the U.S.
Q: You’ve worked with many artists from India and the other parts of the world. Working with, Jhaveri Sisters, Mallika Sarabhai and now Unnath Hassan Rathnaraju (to name a few), how has your experience been connecting to India, artistically and culturally? Tell us about some of these experiences and how does the choreography process change when working on such collaborative works with artists from different countries?
I assume every choreographer feels that each work has a life of its own. I certainly do. Working with Mallika and the dancers from Darpana back in 1992 was a treat – discovering new flavors and colors, rhythms and dynamics. A few years later, when I decided to choreograph a selection of Rabindra Sangeet, Mallika was initially opposed. However, she relented and we created a solo to Naii Rasa Naii which I still remember as being fierce and highly theatrical. The movements were made for her body, for her artistic sensibility. I didn’t ever create with the Jhaveri Sisters. My role in their case was to ensure that their elegance and purity would be seen by the American audience. They had toured 40 countries but because one ‘gate-keeper’ in the US questioned their authenticity as Gujaratis performing Manipuri dance, they were not seen here until I organized a national tour which was appreciated tremendously. Unnath was essential to the process of creating SHAKTI which was recently seen in 5 cities of India. It was the alchemy of Unnath and my dancers working together, sometimes struggling, sometimes in hilarity, always with mutual respect, that led to the work that was so well received over the past month.
Q: The Durga Project was premiered about two years back, in New York to mark the 40th anniversary of the Battery Dance Company in 2016. “Shakti: A Return to the Source,” also finds its roots Raag Durga. Tell us more about what inspired this choreography and your process?
Durga and SHAKTI are the same work, renamed so as to avoid having the Indian audience walk into the theater with preconceived notions and concerns about an American taking up a Hindu deity as the theme for a contemporary dance work. Rajan & Sajan Mishra’s rendition of Raag Durga was the glue that held the piece together, along with the tabla solo created specially by Samir Chatterjee, and a musical fantasy entitled ‘Garuda’s Dream’ produced by Indian musicians under the expert producer Darren Sangita. My goal was to reflect and resonate on Indian music and philosophy without aping it. I hope we succeeded.
Q: You are also at the centre of the Indo-American Arts Council. Tell us more about its vision, and how important is this bringing together of art and artists from the two sides of the world.
Aroon Shivdasani was the true heartbeat of the IAAC for the past 20 years. I take credit for having introduced the idea of the arts council and for choosing Aroon to run it. I stayed on the Board throughout the IAAC’s tenure. However, sadly, the IAAC will fold up after the film festival this spring. Aroon is retiring and no one was at hand to step into her very very large shoes. The film festival will continue under other auspices and Battery Dance Festival will continue to present Indian dance on one day every summer. But the literary and art activities will cease as far as I know.
Q: What do you think the future holds for Performing Arts in India? Any words of wisdom for the many aspiring dancers across the world?
India is producing brilliant dancers and musicians, and yet the infrastructure and resources are far behind. Most dance studios are too small and have stone, concrete or tile floors. Stages are poorly equipped and the presentation of dance, for example, is often hampered by dangerous flooring, outdated lighting equipment, and the callous tradition of sponsors putting their signage on the backdrop, destroying the visual impression of lines and patterns in the choreography itself. The fact that it is next to impossible for someone from a lower economic bracket to break into the performing arts is unfair and robs India of potential talent and even genius.
While India has the most liberal and far-reaching CSR policy governing corporate philanthropy, I don’t know of any arts organizations that are benefiting from this source of funding. Finally, the habit of purchasing tickets to dance performances doesn’t exist. Therefore, revenues do not come from the box office and audiences are limited to those who are on everyone’s guest list. I hope there is some way to change the pattern in future. For a country with the most advanced and multi-layered dance tradition of any in the world, these conditions serve to undermine India’s impact on the world stages, and cause injury and unscalable walls for the artists themselves.
Thank you so much Mr. Jonathan Hollander fr such an insightful and inspiring interview.
Battery Dance company’s upcoming show is called MOVING STORIES - LIVES TRANSFORMED BY DANCE. A film by Sundance award-winning director Rob Fruchtman, writer-producer Cornelia Ravenal, filmmaker Mikael Sodersten and producer Wendy Sax.
It will be premiered at the MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art, New York on 18th February. 2018, 7pm.
Here’s a glimpse:
Once again, Thank you for all your work Mr. Jonathan. Hoping to see you and the Battery Dance Company grow to greater heights and help arts change the world for a better place.