Los Angeles

The Sacred Styles of MARA


They say that a Bharata Natyam dancer must be equally dedicated to the music as to the movement. Mythili Prakash, a Los Angeles choreographer whose new work, MARA, is based on the Bharata Natyam technique, can relate. Her brother, Aditya, composed the score.

Bharata Natyam is a sacred style of South Indian dance deeply rooted in Hindu philosophy and mythology. Nurtured in the ancient temples of India and brought to the proscenium stage in the 19th century, the dance form has a wide range of graceful movement and poses accompanied with classical Carnatic style music.

MARA, which has its world premiere at the Ford Theatre Sept. 21 at 8 p.m., draws from its medieval roots but tells a phantasmagorical story about the struggle for spiritual freedom against our inner demons. Led by the sibling duo, MARA is a multi-media dance and musical theatre production that features a cast of 35 dancers and musicians, including guest dancers from the Los Angeles based Shakti Dance Company and Kalapeetham Dance Company.

Aditya Prakash Ensemble

The Prakash siblings, who joined forces last summer to work on MARA, say they've combined Eastern philosophy, the aesthetics of Indian classical arts, and the dynamism of Western stagecraft and music. Many of the traditional elements remain (ornate sarees, symbolic jewelry and familiar raga rhythms), but their South Indian ancestors might be surprised with the high-octane direction they've taken the art form.

Their two-act multimedia production delves into the mythical creature, "Mara," who -- as it is told in Buddhist lore--famously tried to seduce Buddha with objects of desire, and represents all the worldly passions that tend to trip up humans on the way to enlightenment. In MARA, the protagonist, "Jeeva" struggles against Mara as she tries to break free from the chains that bind her to this world.

The book by Deepak Chopra, "Buddha: A story of Enlightenment," was the inspiration behind the production, they say. After finalizing the script in January, they began the music composition and dance choreography in April/May.

"The whole show is based on the fact that the world is the projection of your mind," explains Mythili, at a recent rehearsal at a small church in Redondo Beach. "We see inside of Jeeva's head with her emotions, desires and dreams and go deeper with relationships and attachments. We use video to essentially see what's happening in Jeeva's mind during meditation as she goes one on one with Mara trying to battle him and go beyond him."

Jeeva Malini Mara alapadmas

A renowned artist in the Thanjavur tradition of Bharata Natyam classical dance, Mythili began performing at the age of 8. Her mother, Viji Prakash, is one of the first classically trained Bharata Natyam artists from India to both teach and perform in Southern California beginning in 1976, she says. The family runs a school, Shakti School of Bharata Natyam, which has branches in West L.A., San Fernando Valley, Orange County, Cerritos, and Torrance, and has a performing arm, the Shakti Dance Company.

Due to the dance form's complexity and commitment (both spiritually and pragmatically speaking), many disciples are hobbyists. But for Mythili, a UC-Berkeley graduate, her parents encouraged her to pursue it as a profession. "I was in love with it and it was clear I wouldn't be happy otherwise," she says.

Both Mythili and Aditya are devout students of South Indian culture. Mythili, 31, performs around the world as a soloist and as part of the Shakti Dance Company. She was recently featured on NBC's Superstars of Dance. Aditya has toured with artists such as Ravi Shankar, Anoushka Shankar, Karsh Kale and Salim Merchant. They spend half the year studying with gurus in India and gathering inspiration from other artists performing their craft.

In MARA, Mythili says that while she draws upon the fundamental building blocks of the ancient Bharata Natyam technique that she's cultivated over the years from the Indian grand masters, she has also added her own "Mara accent."

"You wouldn't recognize these movements from class," she says. "We communicate things that typically wouldn't be in our repertoire." For example, she says, Jeeva rides a bike and paints her nails in the show. "I think in 'Bhata natyam.' So even the way I hold the bike's handlebars reflects that. This is not something you'd have learned as part of a traditional piece. But it's very much in the vocabulary of the art form," Prakash says.

Mara hovering alapadmas

Six years her junior, Mythili's brother Aditya, grew up around Indian musicians who performed with his mother. He listened only to Indian classical music until he was 12 and trained on the wooden double-headed drum, Mridangam. He also showed vocal skill mastering complicated Indian classical Carnatic ragas with "unusual and extensive" ornamentations (musical flourishes) "I didn't know who the 'Red Hot Chili Peppers' were," he says. It wasn't until he studied ethno musicology at UCLA, that he began to broaden his global musical horizons and became particularly interested in jazz.

Aditya joined a jazz ensemble comprised of a piano, bass and drums with him performing vocals. After improvising with ragas and different jazz arrangements, they thought they might be on to something interesting. "One night after a jam session, we tried some new things and decided we should get serious about our music," he says.

He founded the Aditya Prakash Ensemble, a Los Angeles based music group which released its first album, "The Hidden," in 2012.

In MARA, the orchestra, which consists of flute, violin, percussion, horn, bass, piano and vocals, is billed as a "heady mix of Indian ragas, brass band jazz, modern funk and global rhythms." Aditya, who performs as the vocalist, says the horn section in particular adds a new twist to traditional instrumentation.

They both agree that their MARA is "a really unique venture." So how would the production go over in India? "I have no idea!" Mythili says. "It's definitely contemporary and modern and takes the whole idea and character of Mara to a different level. We've created a new world."

Adds Aditya: "It's so important we don't want to lose sight of the classical South Indian foundation. It can be hard to understand, so we are trying to present it in a way that's easy to digest for an audience."

For tickets, visit the Ford Theatre website or call 323.461.3673

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Top Image: MARA.

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