It's startling to remember Anandavalli has been working in Indian classical dance for 50 years but you have to remember she was a child prodigy who started training at seven, made her formal debut within two years and left Sri Lanka aged just 12 to tour in Germany, London and Paris.
Travelling with her mother, lugging bags of costumes and a heavy tape recorder, it was an exacting and adventurous journey that shaped her future. It included a meeting engineered by her mother in the Stuttgart Ballet cafeteria with the company’s great choreographer, John Cranko, who saw her dance and offered to present her in a solo performance.
“My mother was an exceptionally strong woman,” she says. “She was not a dancer or a choreographer but she had a great love of dance. She had the vision, she knew the next step and she wanted the best.”
In 1984 Anandavalli settled in Sydney and started her dance school, Lingalayam, which became the name of her small independent company in 1986.
As her students developed their skills, she was its pivotal dancer. Audiences were treated to her grace, energy and vibrant storytelling in bharata natyam and kuchipudi styles with a contemporary edge. Her stamina was amazing, as was the richness of her productions, with their brilliantly colourful costumes.
In 2003 she retired as a dancer, but she has continued teaching and choreographing and – even at this time of COVID-19 – presenting Lingalayam in a show.
Pancha Nadai has been created to live stream from Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres on September 20. Featuring 12 dancers, it consists of four items, the opening work choreographed by Anandavalli for the occasion. The title refers to the basic rhythmic patterns in the music and dance of South India.
The invitation from Riverside to present a program for its digital platform was greatly appreciated by Anandavalli, who has been deeply distressed by the pandemic.
“I cried for weeks – for the arts, not for myself,” she says. “But one of the biggest things to come out of this year was my students asking ‘When can we come back to class?’ I realised how much dancing gave them the feeling that everything was not bad, that dance was nurturing and the studio was a safe place.”
As for her, like many in the performing arts, 2020 was a year that had promised a great deal – including a new turn in her career, as an actress in a play, The Jungle and the Sea, in Belvoir St Theatre’s cancelled season.
This grew out of her contact with Belvoir’s artistic director, Eamon Flack, who directed the epic play Counting and Cracking, written by her son Shakthi (S. Shakthidharan in formal terms). It took over the Sydney Town Hall to become the award-winning hit of the 2020 Sydney Festival.
It was not only a stage triumph but an extraordinary unravelling of Anandavalli’s family and personal history that had remained largely hidden since she left her birthplace, even from her son.
It was his desire to know more about his background that set him searching for information that became the bones of a major theatrical study of life and politics in mid-20th century Sri Lanka, winding through events that included his mother and grandfather.
Anandavalli was originally involved to give advice on language translation. Then she became cultural and costume consultant, and eventually a regular and emotional member of the audience: “I cried every time I saw it.”
There is no stopping a creative artist of such passion and determination in the face of COVID-19: “I found the words of the 19th century poet Gopala Krishna Bharati going round and round in my head, and I had an idea.”
She applied to the Australia Council for a grant for a short film that will be made in October with her dancing – not really coming out of retirement, she says – to the sung poem. Titled Anthi, which means Twilight, it will reference Australia and bushfires as well as the pandemic, and is intended to be screened on the closed doors of locked-down performance venues to underline what is missing in the lives of artists and audiences.
Pancha Nadai will be live streamed at 5pm on Sunday, September 20. Buy tickets online, choose what you pay from $12.