The biggest influence on Sri Lankan–Australian Anandavalli’s international dance career was the implacable determination of her mother, Lingambikai. By Kate Holden.
Anandavalli is a renowned Australian choreographer, dancer and teacher based in Sydney. Born and raised in Sri Lanka, she trained internationally in dance: first in India, in classical traditions of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, and later in Britain and Europe. Having established a successful international career as a solo performer, she moved to Australia and founded the all-female Lingalayam Dance Academy (and later Company), of which she is still artistic director. Lingalayam presents works celebrating female dance and power. Its 50-plus original dance dramas and ballets include Helpmann Award-winning work with Sydney’s Belvoir theatre company. A collaboration with percussion ensemble Taikoz, Chi Udaka, will run at the Sydney Opera House from October 18-21.
Anandavalli chose to speak about the significance to her career of her mother, Lingambikai. The company’s title is drawn from her name, combined with alayam, meaning “place of worship”.
Tell me about your mother and how she helped you.
I have been performing as an Indian classical dancer since I was 12. The greatest living authority on South Indian classical dance used to come to [Sri Lanka] to conduct the music exams. My grandparents were very well-known people; my grandfather was a politician. So Professor Sambamoorthy came to our house to pay respects to my grandparents and he happened to see me rehearsing in the garage. He said, “Who’s that girl? She was born with bells on her feet.” I was basically a tomboy. I was just up the tree with the boys, playing cricket, breaking windows. She sent me to dance class purely to get some kind of femininity into me. So when this professor said this, it was something that was so totally unexpected. But he being who he was, she took it seriously.
My mother was a person of great courage. I wouldn’t call her a ballet mama, but she took this statement as a responsibility, an investment for the arts, rather than making a star out of her daughter: “If this is true, I have to do it for the art form. If my child is a prodigy, it should not go to waste.”
So she somehow – I suppose I had some talent or they wouldn’t have taken me on – managed to get these amazing gurus to teach me. I had three different gurus at the same time. She would fly me up to India for the school holidays, and she sacrificed a lot. We lived in a miniature palace, a house that had seven bedrooms, seven attached bathrooms. My first guru in India, Adyar K. Lakshman, he lived in a very small house. There was no bathroom, you had to dig a hole to go to the toilet. We had a single mattress that we both slept on, the size of the little room that we occupied in my master’s house. She sacrificed a lot, with a single-mindedness, to have me trained by these gurus. I would dance 14 hours a day sometimes, in three different classes. But I loved working with my gurus.
At the same time there was a gentleman who kept telling my mother, “She needs to dance in Europe.” So my mother took me off to London. I spent from 1969 to 1975 in London and going to India to learn new repertoire. The Sri Lankan government wouldn’t let money be sent out of the country. My father founded the oldest and largest firm of chartered accountants in Sri Lanka. He was earning enough to send money for us to live on, but he couldn’t [finance the trips]. So under the staircase she made a sewing room, and she would stitch kaftans and things to sell.
I performed extensively in London. Then she got hold of Ram Gopal, who’s a legend, and Ram came to see me dance because he was intrigued. He took me under his wing and presented me at the Victoria and Albert Museum lecture theatre as a young dance phenomenon.
He not only taught me and mentored me, but also, you know, that sly thing of treating me – the silver linings of high tea, going out, those little things I now do for my students. We work like hell, but when the show’s over we go out, we enjoy ourselves. Those lessons are not something you can learn from a book. When I perform, people from the audience tell me: the way you reach out to the audience, the way you’re able to grab and engage and speak with them – those are things we don’t see onstage. I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about the beautiful, unconditional, generous mentorships I’ve had.
There’s so much hard work and tears and stress behind, but there’s also that glory of applause, the glory of the respect, the admiration you command: there is an aura you end up carrying. Those auras are what people like Ram Gopal had. My guru Mylapore Gowri Ammal – she was a devadasi – she was a wrinkled old thing but she would stand up and make a gesture and you could just see that art blossom in her; it was in her body and her soul.
And then I was performing in Germany and we saw one of [Stuttgart Ballet director] John Cranko’s productions. He was an amazing storyteller. He took classic ballet, gave it a contemporary twist. My mother, being who she was, said that John Cranko had to see me dance. She went to the Stuttgart State Theatre canteen, dressed in her finery with her diamond earrings, with me there dressed up in my Indian clothes, and she just sat there until Cranko finally came into the cafe. She walked right up to him, introduced herself. Cranko had probably never been accosted by an Indian woman. She wore her sari with great pride and dignity; she was not a person you could ignore. And a date was made for me to dance for the Stuttgart Ballet. He’d invited the whole company to come and they were intrigued. I honestly don’t know why John did it. I was hoping a hole would open and swallow me up. But once I’d performed for them I was a part of that family from that day onwards. He was going to present me at the Stuttgart State “Little Theatre” but unfortunately he died a few months before.
I’d sit in the studio and watch John create those ballets. What I learned from John was the use of space in choreography. They say, “Your use of space is unbelievable.” I think it was a seed that was planted in my head, from watching him. Those were lessons I could never have got. I have this knowledge in so many different aspects of dance – not just Indian classical dance – and experiences, so I realise how generous they’d been and how fortunate I have been, being a recipient for all this knowledge.
It all came from your mother’s resolve.
Every bit! But my mother didn’t push. If invitations came, they came. She didn’t say, “Oh my daughter has to dance here, my daughter has to dance there.” Even taking me to Cranko, Cranko wanted to present me. She was told this child could dance, she was told this child was a prodigy, that she was remarkable. It was a question of, “She’s my child and I’m not going to let her go to waste.” Vocabulary, dance, showmanship, choreography. And those were all the seeds that were planted in me, thanks to my mother.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "Anandavalli".
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