Outreach Through the Arts
New York City-based Battery Dance Company builds bridges internationally through performing arts.
As a teenager in the United States, Jonathan Hollander was chosen by an organization called the American Field Service to represent his high school on an adventure of studying in another country. The field service is now called AFS Intercultural Programs.
Little did Hollander know that the subsequent journey would not only take him halfway around the world to India, but also lay the groundwork for a multidecade career spreading friendship, dance and diplomacy between his native and adoptive homes.
Diplomacy through dance
Hollander is the founder and artistic director of the New York City-based Battery Dance Company, an innovative organization inspired in no small part by his experiences of studying, and dancing, in India.
Hollander describes the company as “a multifaceted institution with a 41-year history of engagement in the creation of new work, teaching and spreading its collective passion for dance, and facilitating international cultural exchange and engagement.” Founded in 1976, Battery Dance Company teaches people of all ages, with special attention to the disadvantaged and those in areas of conflict. It has participated in international arts festivals, conferences and symposia in 70 countries.
Thanks to Hollander’s early explorations and focus on building international connections, the company has deep roots in India and continues to launch innovative initiatives that tie both countries together.
In 2000, Hollander co-created the Indo-American Arts Council in New York, an organization that promotes Indian performing, literary and visual arts. The council collaborates with Battery Dance Company every summer in presenting Indian dancers, many of whom have never performed in the United States, before large public audiences.
Some of Hollander’s bridge-building is inherent in his creative work. In 1997, during India’s 50th year of independence, Hollander brought a production he had choreographed for Battery Dance Company, called “Songs of Tagore,” to India and Sri Lanka, touring 17 cities in all. “The production demonstrated to young audiences that [Rabindranath] Tagore was not ‘old school,’ but a source of inspiration for an audacious dance company from New York,” he says.
In 1992, Hollander traveled to India as a Fulbright lecturer on dance and “exposed many dancers and students to the American way of choreography and philosophy of dance, which include freedom to choose a theme and to build a vocabulary of movement from scratch, rather than by using a codified method such as in classical ballet,” he says.
This approach, coupled with the respect he showed toward other classical forms of dance, sent an important message, he says. “In the postcolonial period, some Indian dancers who wanted to innovate—Mallika Sarabhai and Chandralekha, for example—were accused of destroying the tradition that had so recently been revived.” Hollander’s efforts supported the innovative instincts of these and many other artistes, encouraging them both to honor the traditional roots of dance and add their own artistic voices to it.
For Battery Dance Company’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2016, Hollander created a production inspired by the music of Hindustani vocalists Pandit Rajan and Sajan Misra, as well as the dance of bharatanatyam soloist Unnath Hassan Rathnaraju. “We hope to bring the production to India and have been invited by various festivals and theaters for December 2017 and beyond,” says Hollander.
Past, present and future
When Hollander first arrived in India as a young student, he was placed with a welcoming host family in Mumbai and soon began to learn about Indian dance from some of the country’s most renowned experts. “This was an incredible opportunity for a callow 16-year-old,” he says with a laugh. “I learned about Manipuri dance from the Jhaveri sisters, bharatanatyam from Guru Parvati Kumar and his leading student Sucheta [Bhide] Chapekar.”
“The most surprising thing was how generous people were with their time and patience,” he continues, “including [then] Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who entertained me and my fellow American exchange students on the lawn of her residence.”
As both an outsider and an expert with deep roots in India, Hollander has a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing dancers in the country.
“India has so much to be proud of with its brilliant array of talented dancers,” he says. “I hope the federal, state and local government departments which look after culture will increase their budgets and standardize their grant-making procedures, and ensure the most worthy artistes receive support.”
“I also hope the Indian dance community, as a whole, will band together and make a unified plea for better conditions to address the financial and logistical challenges they now face,” he adds. “So many changes are happening in India that may improve conditions for Indian dancers of future generations.”
Hollander’s dreams for the future include expanding the innovative work his company began in 2014 with survivors of human trafficking and young people from disenfranchised communities. “I also hope we can work with mixed groups of Pakistani and Indian teenagers in the framework of our Dancing to Connect program,” he says. “We have seen this program erase borders between Palestinian and Israeli youth, between Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants, and between wealthy dance students and those from communities where few amenities are available.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.