Art for Change
Dakshina uses dance to highlight social issues and mirror the multiple identities of second-generation South Asians in the United States.
The myriad identities of second-generation South Asians in the American diaspora are explored by a dance company like no other.
Founded in Washington, D.C., in 2003, Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company seeks to meld Indian dance forms like bharatanatyam with Western modern dance and social issues. It has become a mainstay on the U.S. Capitol dance scene, within a community of power brokers and outsiders. In 2007, Dance Metro DC recognized Dakshina Artistic Director and President Daniel Phoenix Singh with the Founder’s Award for Innovation in Dance, and Dakshina’s fame has continued to grow since. Dance Metro DC provides resources, services and direct support to dance professionals throughout the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
Dakshina means “offering,” and is symbolic of the company’s efforts to give back to the community. Singh sees dance as a way to connect people of different backgrounds and generations. The dance company also delves into social justice work through partnerships with local organizations and schools, and highlights issues like the HIV/AIDS crisis and gender-based violence in its performances.
It also offers free tickets to the underprivileged, through partnerships with local soup kitchens and food pantries.
The first steps
Singh’s interest in dance came about purely by chance, when he signed up for a ballet class in college in order to fulfill a physical education requirement. Dancers aren’t usually given such a late start to begin training, but his enthusiasm was unquenchable. Singh’s separate discoveries of classical Indian dance and modern dance melded into a dream. His blending of both styles of movement has been showcased at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Today, Dakshina is a tour de force in the region.
In the spotlight
It is entirely run by volunteers and Dakshina’s highlight, each year, is its Fall Festival of South Asian Arts, in which international guest artists are invited to perform in the United States. In 2016, artists from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh like Indira Kadambi, Rehan Bashir, Ashwathi Nair, and Alif Laila, among others, performed at the festival. They were joined by Washington, D.C.’s own Lakshmi Babu. The performances included Dakshina’s signature fusion work, as well as classical South Asian dance forms like bharatanatyam, kuchipudi, mohiniattam and kathak. A sitar concert by Laila rounded out the offerings.
A couple of year ago, Dakshina’s fall festival focused on parent-child pairings, in order to emphasize the importance of passing down the language of dance from generation to generation.
The modern dance component comes from Singh’s interest in the work of American dancer and choreographer Anna Sokolow. He attended a performance of her work after moving to the United States and the outcome was a long-term partnership with the Anna Sokolow Foundation. In addition to Dakshina’s performances of many of Sokolow’s works over the years, in 2013, the dance company also received a $10,000 (Rs. 6.6 lakh approximately) grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to reconstruct and present Sokolow’s dance theater work, “From the Diaries of Franz Kafka,” in Washington, D.C.
Singh continues to train in Indian dance forms and at the Maryland Youth Ballet, where he also teaches along with a few other educational institutions. He has also studied the Cuban/Colombian variations of salsa and merengue, and tango.
Dakshina received a prestigious touring grant in 2009 and performed Sokolow’s work in India. The following year, it became the first U.S. dance company to visit Bangladesh since the country’s founding in 1971. A year later, Singh became one of the youngest finalists for the DC Mayor’s Arts Awards in the Innovation in the Arts category, and in 2011, Dakshina was one of the two U.S.-based dance companies invited to perform at the Maximum India Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It also performed “Sangamam: The Confluence” in Chennai in November 2016. The dance event was sponsored by the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai and the Kalakshetra Foundation.
Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.