South Asian dancers fight for justice – variety

Nearly a week after the Oscars were presented, the pain and disappointment of a missed opportunity still weigh heavily on the minds of some South Asian-American dancers, who are committed to never letting it happen again.

Many in the South Asian dance community were baffled by the astonishing lack of South Asian representation in the “Naatu Naatu” performance at Sunday’s Academy Awards. While singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava were on hand to perform their hit song from Tollywood smash “RRR” – which made history for India that night by winning Best Original Song – they were joined on stage by no dancer from South -Asian descent.

How could the Academy have misunderstood this? Especially when they hit the nail on the head 14 years ago with the staging of AR Rahman’s “Slumdog Millionaire” hit “Jai Ho” at the 2009 Oscars as part of a widely celebrated four-minute medley.

“[The 2009 Oscars] had Indian singers and it was a multiracial group of dancers and musicians,” explains Shilpa Davé, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who specializes in the history of media representations of race and gender. “They really showed that music has a global power. That’s why people didn’t have a problem then.”

While Sunday night marked a historic turning point for India, which also won Best Documentary Short for Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga’s “The Elephant Whisperers,” the blatant absence of South Asian performers from Hollywood’s biggest stage was the “last straw.” for dancers like Achinta S. McDaniel.

“Some people say, ‘Just be happy with what we’ve got,’ and that’s part of it [the problem] — this idea of ​​just accepting the leftovers thrown at you,” McDaniel, the founder and artistic director of Los Angeles-based Blue13 Dance Company, tells me. Variety. “Just be happy that an Indian song has been nominated [and won]. Don’t be upset about the overwhelming racism that emerged in the performance.”

McDaniel’s agent introduced her as an associate consultant for the performance two weeks before the Oscars, but her rep was told that AMPAS-selected choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D’uomo — the Los Angeles-based duo known as NappyTabs — were already hiring into their team. (Variety understands that “RRR” choreographer Prem Rakshith advised on the Oscars performance, but that NappyTabs were the primary choreographers.)

“[Equity is] a big part of what I’m interested in, and this has excited so many of my colleagues in the field,” says McDaniel. “That is enough. This is the drop.”

McDaniel is hosting a Zoom for South Asians in the dance community on Saturday to unpack the events of the Oscars and plan ahead for a South Asian summit this summer — an event she hopes to host in conjunction with the national conference’s annual conference. organization Dance/USA.

“This really started a fire,” says McDaniel. “So many people are participating in this Zoom, so we can start with an actual change. It’s been too long since we’ve been quiet.”

Vikas Arun, a New York-based dancer and teacher who specializes in forms of Western and Indian rhythmic and percussive dance, explains Variety there have also been talks this week about creating a cross-functional advocacy group that can rally on behalf of South Asian entertainers in times of crisis.

“When other minorities are confronted [incidents like this], they have organizations they can turn to,” says Arun. “Our community is bad at having organized advocacy because we are so few. We individually fight our own battles and there is no central organization. It also makes it frustrating for new South Asian artists who are not on our level [and don’t have the connections].”

Davé, author of the 2013 book “Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film,” agrees that the “next step” in the conversation is to further question the advocacy of South Asian entertainers.

“It’s about thinking about representation and advocacy, not just for directors, writers and actors, but for artists on a larger scale,” says Davé. “I think dancers have been left out of this conversation. So when we look at casting agencies and talent agencies, [we need to ask] where are the agents advocating for the establishment?

According to talent like Ramita Ravi, another professional dancer and choreographer whose agent has put her forward for the Academy Awards, situations like the Oscars performance “unfortunately happen all the time.”

“I can name a handful of personal experiences that follow the same thread,” she says Variety via email. “But the beauty of us coming together is that supporting each other and building a collective, inclusive voice can create change so that this doesn’t happen again in the future.”

Interestingly, five days after the award ceremony, there is still some confusion about how the production went down in the first place. It was initially thought that “RRR” actors NTR Jr. and Ram Charan were supposed to perform the dance themselves, but Oscars producer Raj Kapoor explained in an AMPAS blog that the actors declined, saying they were uncomfortable with the time constraints. As such, their characters were represented on stage by Lebanese-Canadian dancer Billy Mustapha and American dancer Jason Glover, many of whom mistakenly assumed to be of South Asian descent.

A source tells Variety that AMPAS then planned to fly dancers from India to support the performance, but their work visa fell through, prompting NappyTabs to hire their own dancers. (This claim has been disputed by several dancers.)

While a source close to the production says AMPAS tried to make sure the original team from India was involved in every creative decision – a team that included the film’s public relations team, SS Rajamouli’s son Karthikeya Rajamouli, “RRR” -producers and composer MM Keeravaani – the outcry over the resulting performance also highlights the divergence in what representation means for nationals versus those who are part of a diaspora.

“For many South Asian Americans in the US, we were born and raised in America and feel very much at home here,” explains Ravi. “For other generations, and especially immigrants or people living in India, it’s a bit of a different equation: they might be excited to be invited to the table, while the diaspora wants to be part of building the table. In that way I think the idea of ​​representation in the diaspora is very different.”

Davé adds: “The Indian film industry is the largest in the world, and coming from that background and environment, you don’t see the injustices that are happening in the diaspora and in Hollywood. So [the ‘RRR’ team] was thrilled to win an Oscar – and rightly so.”

But for people in the diaspora, representation is very important, says Davé.

“We see the disparity in America’s major industries, and what it does is reinforce that idea that South Asians are foreigners who live on the other side of the world and are not part of the culture and history of Hollywood and the United States which is not true South Asians have been in Hollywood and been forced into miniscule roles or forced to hide for years [altogether]. So to try to reduce that, in an era where we’ve seen so much progress, that’s problematic.

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