Posts Tagged ‘Performances’

RYLA, Part two

June 21, 2011

From 7-10 November, 2010, continued.

The third and final day of the RYLA camp had been the longest yet. Again we’d been forced out of bed before sunrise, awoken at 5:30 for yoga with a counselor yelling in our ears.

“GOOD MORNING!”

It had been another long day. Not so much because of the attention from the other students, which I had grown used to. Rather, I was tired from dance practice, which had been going on since 9 a.m. and eaten up most of my free time. At the beginning of the day, I’d had just one minute of our dance memorized. After the morning’s three-hour practice, I’d taken only half of the five-minute song to memory. And at the end of our final practice, the performance less than an hour away, I still had no idea what I’d be doing for the final 30 seconds of the song.

Nor did our choreographer, but he had an idea. As the song’s final chorus began, we’d break away from our positions and I’d run to the front. Whereas I’d been hidden at the back or shunted to the side for most of the dance, I was to be the centerpiece as the song came to an end. Sitting on the pool’s edge, surrounded by the other students, I was to sit down, put one leg up, and shake both my arms with my palms inward, each pinky and forefinger my only digits extended.

This, apparently, is the American “Yo!” and it’s how we party in the U.S.A.

I understood what this man wanted me to do, but he didn’t understand my English. This posed a minor problem. I vehemently disagreed with what he wanted me to do, but I had no way of offering to him my own suggestion. No way would I portray American culture like this. No, I told him. He had no further suggestions.

Steal the spotlight, or shun it?

I was left with three options:

Option one: Do exactly what had been suggested to me. Perhaps I could even find a black Yankees baseball cap and an oversized hooded sweatshirt for added effect.

Option two: Run off the stage before the end of the song and stand arms crossed, crying, as the crowd and the dancers look at me in disbelief.

Or option three:

Improvise.

———

Like a good boy, I’m doing exactly what’s asked of me. I’m sitting quietly, going over the dance steps in my head. I’m wearing the largest purple sequined shirt the dance crew could provide for me, though it’s still comically small. I’m even wearing makeup, though I know it won’t make any difference, given how far away the crowd is sitting.

Heh. They still don’t know my plan for the end of the show.

Oh yeah. I don’t know my plan either.

It’s too late to think of one, however – the presentation has begun. Actually, it’s technically a Rotary club meeting, just one in which the RYLA campers are playing a prominent role. There’s also several speakers, whose involvement in the community means little to the small kids fidgeting around me. The kids don’t understand the importance of the people on stage, let alone their English.

Franzi wins an award. Most Outstanding Camper, Girl, or something like that. If it comes to a shock to anyone in the crowd, it doesn’t to me. The man with the microphone is heaping praise on her – well-deserved praise at that. She was the first asked to come to the camp, and was the only Rotary student to come without hesitation. She was asked to make a speech minutes earlier, and she did. Franzi’s the only exchange student in Nagpur who would have been here no matter what. And though she later understates the award and the accompanying positive words of the camp’s director, no one at RYLA deserves an award more than Franzi.

I also win an award. Best Campfire Performer – Boy. The night before, we’d gathered around a fiery pile of logs and plastic, playing two games of luck and concentration. Mostly luck. In game one, a competition of shouting other teams’ numbers, I’d caused my team to bow out early, saying the wrong word at the wrong time. In game two, an elimination game which required knowledge of nothing more than the English alphabet and the first letter of one’s own name, I was one of the final five competitors. I earned a bar of chocolate and the award.

The chocolate was enough for me. This award won’t be going on my resume.

The power goes out. This is an outdoor venue with no backup lighting except two small lights and the stars above. We’re plunged into darkness, but the speaker continues to talk, unfazed. This is India. We listen, and wait for our performance to start.

The speakers finish. The lights turn back on. We make our way around the pool and gather backstage.

Franzi’s dance goes ahead of ours. Only later would I learn of the tension she felt before she’d gone onstage, something she could blame on learning just an hour beforehand how seriously her costume sari would limit her leg movement. But from my vantage point, it looks like it goes off without a hitch, and it can’t look any worse to the parents sitting on the other side of the pool.

It always looks better to the audience than the performer. I think that’s just a rule of entertainment – no matter where you are in the world.

Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani begins to play.

It’s time.

I’ll skip to the end, because the first four minutes or so go more or less as choreographed. I’m slow to remember my steps a couple times, but it’s nothing too noticeable. But then the final chorus begins. And I have no idea what to do. The spotlight is shoved upon me.

Steal the spotlight, or shun it?

Option three: Improvise.

I continue to shake my body and dance in tune to the beat, as do the others. But after five seconds of this, it becomes clear there’s a desperate need for additional choreography. I slowly make my way to the front of the stage, and the other campers are ceding the center to me, egging me on. Still I have no fixed dance to perform. I resort to the type of dance I know best – head-nodding, arm-thrashing upper body chaos. Better for the dim light of discotheques than the focused spotlight of the RYLA camp stage.

This doesn’t seem sufficient.

I look to the others. They’re looking at me anticipatively, shouting, wondering why I haven’t already begun my “Yo! Yo!” performance. But I have no intention of “Yo! Yo!”-ing in front of this crowd, however poor its view of the stage. I sit down and continue flailing my arms my own way, anticipating the final note of the song.

The song doesn’t stop.

The final 20 seconds of the song feel like an eternity. The music doesn’t cease. The bright lights don’t turn off. Unless I want to run off the stage in tears, I have no choice but to keep flailing my arms without coordination. It’s the least prepared I’ve ever been for a performance of this magnitude, but it doesn’t really matter. The audience doesn’t know that I’ve done anything wrong. Nor do they care.

They just keep watching me.

There’s just no avoiding the spotlight.

🙂

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RYLA, Part one

June 20, 2011

From 8-10 November:

Five days before my tour of South India. I’m standing by the only swimming pool I’ve seen in four months. My costume, which has been given to me minutes earlier, consists of jeans, sneakers, and a purple sequined long-sleeved shirt about two sizes too small for me. A crowd of small school age Indian kids has gathered around me, some costumed and sitting quietly, others in plainclothes and joking loudly in their native tongues. The choreographers of our Bollywood dance have their cameras out, and they’re pointing them at me. The sun has set. Loud speakers are blaring loud Hindi music to entertain the hundred or so parents of these children, but the stone bleachers on the other side of the enormous pool are mostly empty.

Funny. If the people sitting forty meters away knew they were about to see a 6′ 3″ blond-haired foreigner perform a choreographed dance to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani, there probably wouldn’t have been any empty seats.

The three-day Rotary Youth Leadership Award camp, otherwise known as RYLA, has culminated in this performance. My group has spent the last three days learning a dance to a recent popular Bollywood song, and several other students – including the camp’s only other foreigner – have dances to perform as well. I’d been coerced into the optional performance just 32 hours before, under the impression it was compulsory. Thus I was shocked when all but three of the boys my age opted out. Now it’s too late.

I didn’t realize I had a choice.

———

In the weeks before RYLA, the Nagpur exchange students and I had been bombarded with requests for activities, usually on one or two days’ notice. We attended some. We turned down others. Some were interesting. Some were awful. It was always better when the others were present, so at least if the proceedings were unbearable, we’d have each other. But I was relying on the other exchange students for my RSVPs. I needed assurance that I wouldn’t venture into the unknown alone. Otherwise my response to an invitation would be “maybe.” And “maybe” normally becomes “no”…

Franzi, who had turned into a courier of sorts for these activities, was the one to break the news of RYLA to us. In fact, she’d given us a week’s notice, enough time for us to discuss amongst ourselves whether or not we should go. But except for Franzi, we’d all decided not to go, unwilling to subject ourselves to the attention we’d receive. It wasn’t worth it.

My host dad had found out about the camp the day before its onset. I told him I didn’t want to go. “Why aren’t you going?” he said. A legitimate question. I had no reply. For a month and a half or so, I’d been caught in the daily timepass I’d vowed to avoid. And indeed, I had no valid reason not to attend. So it was set. I packed my bag, and the next morning I was out the door. But reluctant to leave, I couldn’t help but think:

Why am I doing this?

———

Indeed, I considered that a legitimate question as I ventured the grounds of Bhonsla Military School just outside Nagpur on the morning of 8 November. I was the tallest and oldest in a group of about two dozen boys, but I was having trouble standing up straight. The sanitation of the breakfast that had been provided was suspect, and the bus ride in had violently jarred the contents of my stomach. Now my innards were in disarray; even though the Hindi-speaking army officer in full military regalia was instructing us to stand straight, I couldn’t.

I wanted to go home. I wanted to quit.

But a military camp is not the place to be weak, show weakness, or quit.

As the day went on, I was relieved to learn RYLA wasn’t really a military camp. Saket-dada had told me stories from camps in his childhood, how he’d been forced to run for miles on end and had been deprived of sleep for nights on end, unsmiling officers in the background shouting and pushing him on. But quick glances at the other members of the camp showed me it wouldn’t be like that. Though some of the boys came within an inch of my height and a year of my age, many of the boys and girls stood about two-thirds my height and looked as if a 100 meter jog would exhaust them – let alone a 10,000 meter one. So we spent the morning walking, not running, through the Bhonsla grounds and Vidharba fields, stopping at regular intervals as much for our rest as the attractions we were stopping for.

My stomach settled as morning gave way to afternoon, which was good – otherwise the day’s swimming and horseback riding would have been impossible for me. There was nothing significant about these activities to me – I’d ridden horses before, and I’d spent regular intervals each summer in swimming pools. But seeing the excitement of the younger kids vanquished my apathy. I saw it as the small kids smiled proudly on horseback – probably their first rides on such steeds, maybe their last. I saw it as they splashed wildly in the swimming pool large enough to accommodate five times as many campers as it did – especially in India. I saw it in the dingy Spartan sleeping quarters – a place where ones goods mattered not as much as the good friends around you.

Naturally, these kids took an interest in me, the likelihood of an ulterior motive correlating with age and ability to speak English. I was surrounded at every available moment, asked the normal foreigner-in-India questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? How do you find India? Do you like Indian food? What kind of music do you like? How do you find the heat? After dinner, the crowd around me had swelled to 30 and the questions had ventured into dangerous territory: Indo-Pak relations. Which country do you like more, Chris?

I was relieved when the group dissolved to assemble for the night’s nature walk.

Day two was more of the same. An early morning run through an obstacle course. Some laughably inaccurate attempts in riflery and archery. Military men teaching us about guns. People trying to teach me the prescribed steps to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani. Again, I was unintentionally surrounded by kids for an evening interview, and again the questions ceased to relent.

This time I tried taking a different approach, seizing the opportunity when a brief lull arose. I turned the same questions back on the people asking them: What are your names? What are you all studying? What are your hobbies? These were group questions, and their replies were curt; they seemed uninterested in giving me the same information they were requesting of me. Most of these students were in the higher standards; the younger ones generally stood idle, either unconfident or unwilling to try their English on me.

It soon became clear there were two rather distinct groups of boys. The first group mostly consisted of 9th or 10th standard boys who would ask me peculiar, often crude questions and follow up my answers by turning to the others with laugh-arousing remarks in Hindi or Marathi. Unable to understand them, their remarks didn’t frustrate so much as confuse me.

(And these were only boys. The girls were strictly separated from us for almost every activity of the camp. My contact with them was limited to the occasional brief conversation with Franzi or a quick five-second self-introduction. It was probably better that way. Most members of the camp were wrongly convinced Franzi was either my girlfriend or my sister.)

But whatever this older group was saying, it was clearly affecting the members of the younger one. Most of the younger boys were in my camp – at least that’s the way it was made to appear. On the eve of night two, a group of older boys were sitting on bunks 12 feet away from me, telling jokes in Marathi that I couldn’t understand. The young Hindi-speaking boys around me couldn’t understand them either, but they’d gathered the older boys were speaking of me unfavorably. These small children – none probably higher than 8th standard – had firmly chosen righteousness, and to them, that meant sticking with me. Despite their difficulties with English, they sat in the bunks surrounding me, trying to communicate to me the atrocity of some things that had been said against me, surprised that I remained unfazed.

I reassured them that I was fine. I was.

They were just trying to help. But I didn’t need it. Not this kind, anyway.

———

Christmas in India: Part six

January 18, 2011

I wish I could tell you our performance was a rousing success.

I wish I could tell you all the dance steps I’d forgotten came back to me as I performed. I wish I could tell you our yoga demonstration went off without a glitch. I wish I could tell you our musical performance was so mesmerizing the audience gave us a standing ovation.

Unfortunately, none of those wishes came true.

But we did get a curtain call.

Had you been backstage during our performance, unable to see the action on the other side of the curtain, you might have expected something catastrophic to happen during our performance. Maybe an overhead light would give way, and topple down onto the stage. Perhaps a pack of monkeys would be released, and chase us into the crowd. Minutes before our performance, we were clearly paying the price for our procrastination.

For all I knew, maybe a monkey had looted my bag – the red sash vital to my first costume was nowhere to be found. The Bengali dance was the second item on our program, and some changes to our costumes would have to be made if we were to perform as planned. I ran around desperately, searching for the sash backstage, but I didn’t run into any good luck.

The reason for my wardrobe malfunction had to do with my misunderstanding of the order of events. I’d wrongly assumed my other dance would be performed first, so I removed the dhoti-kurta I’d been wearing over the Maharashtran dance costume. When I realized the order was reversed, I put it back on. Somewhere in that costume shuffle, the sash was lost, and our group had no choice but to improvise.

I walked onstage about ten minutes before the performance to put our instruments in place. I couldn’t help but notice that with ten minutes until showtime, the gazebo was far from full, with over two-thirds of the 1500 seats still empty. So as I made my way onstage the second time – my hands on my hips and my feet in step with the music – it was with mild surprise that I found the room filled to capacity.

It’s a shame we didn’t give those people a better performance.

Unlike the inaugural kathak dance, which by all accounts went smoothly, our Bengali dance left significant room for improvement. Perhaps the audience didn’t notice our many errors, but we certainly did. In one particularly embarrassing stretch, my mind went blank for several seconds, and I could do little more than tap my feet in tune to the music. Often I found myself a half-second behind, perceptive to but not assured of the steps I was to take.

It wasn’t quite a debacle, but even the polite applause we received seemed too gracious. It was obvious that we’d learned the dance in three days.

Although I assume the ensuing Eastern dance in which five girls performed went well, I wouldn’t know. My mindset had been switched to the coming Maharashtran dance, my mediocre showing in the Bengali dance already forgotten. So it came as a surprise when I learned our musical performance was next on the program, not the final of our four dances. I removed my triangular dance hat and made my way on stage again, reassured that at least my second performance would be better than my first.

I have nothing memorable to report of our brief concert. The first few seconds of the tabla part were marked by volume trouble, but the sound was soon turned up accordingly. A tuned ear would have noticed split second differences in our coordination, and perhaps the crowd would rather have seen us play longer, but I can offer no complaints. The audience was our pacemaker, clapping along as we played tabla, and they were appreciative of our performance.

And the Maharashtran folk dance went even better. So much better, in fact, that the audience called for an encore. This required me to rush my props across the backstage as the girls began their bit and yell “Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!” at the person closest to the entrance on stage left. My double-backstage-sprint was for naught, however, as the music faded out and the encore ended before I had the chance to come on stage once more.

But my sprints were just beginning, and so was our yoga demonstration. Once I ran to discard my costume, which I wouldn’t need for yoga, once I ran to stage right in the erroneous belief that was where I’d be entering, and once I ran back to stage left, realizing my mistake about two seconds too late.

It was a hectic start to a performance that left a lot to be desired.

We entered the stage without the plates that were to hold the petals, although that hardly mattered when we could just hold the flowers in our palms. After our initial “om”, a silence prevailed that had little to do with meditation. For about a minute, the accompanying music had nothing to accompany, and we could do little but softly chant “om” two or three times more. Until someone backstage found a microphone for Brii, she could say nothing, and even then, it took several seconds to get the volume turned on.

I can’t comment on the rest of the demonstration, because I had my eyes closed until my part at the end. It seemed to go well, though.

And then it was over. That was it. The end. Bas.

We couldn’t really celebrate until we were back in the cottage, our costumes un-costumed, our bangles-unbangled, the mess awaiting us inside un-made. But we’d made it through our performance unscarred and unfazed. All the mistakes we’d made were now in the past. At last, we had nothing to worry about except how to enjoy the evening ahead.

Back at the cottage, I decided to look through my backpack again.

You’ll never guess what red piece of fabric I found inside.

🙂

Christmas in India: Part five

January 16, 2011

After two hours in the sun at Suraburdi Meadows, it’s safe to say I was warmer than I’d ever been on Christmas Day.

In spite of the relentless December heat, the complex where we spent the day was the nicest I’d seen in Nagpur. Nowhere else in India had I seen a place like Suraburdi, with acres of closely mowed, cleanly manicured green grass. As our bus drove in around noon, a beautiful blue lake sprawled out before us. Beyond the main compound, dozens of cottages sat spaced far apart, one in which we would be staying in the hours before our performance.

Christmas dinner was remarkably unremarkable. Other than some chicken biryani for which I was not tempted to take seconds, nothing on my plate resembled anything that would be there for the American version. In fact, nothing about our meal resembled the cozy American version. Instead of gathering around a table in a well-heated home, we sat bunched in a row, our legs dangling over the edge of a makeshift veranda. The enemy wasn’t bitter cold, but searing heat. Unlike our Thanksgiving dinner in Coimbatore, there was nothing emotional about our Christmas Day buffet. The ice cream was good though.

You’d think with our performance so imminent, we’d be harried to practice at the first available opportunity. But India had turned us into professional procrastinators. As we entered our cottage after lunch, it was with four hours and about 1000 square feet to spare. With no supervision, we had no intention of getting to work anytime soon.

We found different ways to enjoy each others company before our instructors arrived. Some of us broke out our Christmas presents, wasting no time in putting them to use. Jakob and I attempted to play (American!) football with one of the many water bottles we’d taken from lunch. Eventually I made my way to the back room with five others and plopped myself in a cozy-looking chair. It was no use resisting the downward pull of my increasingly heavy upper eyelids…

I don’t think I ever fell asleep, although my eyes stayed closed for the better part of an hour. Before four p.m., just a couple hours before show time, I was roused from my half-conscious state.

It was time for our final practice to begin.

———

I’d been in two plays my senior year of high school, so I knew the atmosphere from the hours before a performance. People pacing, muttering lines under their breath. Makeup being made up. Dance steps being re-stepped. An omnipresent, transparent nervous anxiety as the clock cruelly ticks closer to show time.

Everything was there but the last one as we rehearsed in the cottage together, the imminence of our performance at last upon us. But any tension, if present, was minimal, and the distance between our practice and performance sites was palpable in both distance and time. We had no set to construct, few props to assemble, and Brii was the only one with lines to rehearse. But given the amount of information we’d learned but had yet to commit to memory, I was surprised those final hours weren’t more hectic.

I had two costumes. One was a plain white pajama-kurta with red trim and a triangle-shaped hat that I’d be wearing for the Maharashtran dance. The other was a white dhoti-kurta with a red sash and a white headband for the Bengali dance I’d learned just days before. The pajama-kurta would suffice for the yoga and music portions. I’d wear one kurta over another, and my in-performance costume changes would take seconds. It seemed simple.

Actually, everything we were asked to do seemed simple on its own. It was just when everything came together that everything fell apart.

Our tabla part gave us little trouble, but the copy we’d been promised still hadn’t been given to us. The flutes and drums were still having troubles synchronizing, and our teacher had decided to replace one of Brii’s drums with a porcelain orange sphere, which would change the sound of the drum solo significantly.

And my dances were still a mess – particularly the Bengali dance. Our practice was better than that from the day before, but only marginally. It was lucky I’d be entering the stage behind Jakob and Jordan, as I was far from qualified to lead in this situation. With the three girls still busy applying makeup and jewelry, we rehearsed anyway, but we just couldn’t get our legs, arms and torsos in the right rhythm.

And just like that, it was time to go. With our costumes still in flux, our makeup half-applied, and our dances more demonstrations of disarray than delight, we were rushed out of the cottage and into our cars. My tabla in the trunk and my backpack in hand, we set off for the performance center.

Ready or not, we were coming.

🙂