A dancer, if she is great, can give to the people
something that they can carry with them forever.
They can never forget it, and it has changed them
though they may never know it.
– Isadora Duncan –
If you want to know what the term ‘flow’ means and how it can inspire joy in others, then you need to see Thaji Dias dance. Thaji is the principal dancer in Sri Lanka’s world famous Chitrasena Dance Company, which is returning to Australia for the first time after 40 years, performing in the January 2015 Sydney Festival.
The Dance Co was founded 70 years ago by Thaji’s grandparents, the late Chitrasena and his wife Vajira, who at age 82 still teaches at the school. Our families have been closely intertwined for over 50 years and the passion that the Chitrasena Co has brought to their art has been an important source of inspiration for my family and an input into my success in business. So how can a Dance Co be relevant to someone building a financial advice and wealth management business? And what broader relevance does this have to exposing our children and indeed ourselves, to the arts?
To start at the start, the origins of Sri Lankan dancing go back about 2,500 years ago to a time when the then king was ailing. To cure him, the artists of the time put on a ceremony of dancing and drumming which went on for days and nights. The ritual was designed to invoke the blessings of the gods and hence was majestic, evocative and inspirational.
The king happily was cured and granted plots of irrigated land to the artists, allowing them to live amongst their peers as economic equals, while pursuing their art. It has seen the evolution of what Professor Ludowyk describes as a dance form full of fluency, of a great range of variety and accompanied by the drum with its spectrum of seemingly infinite shades of tones. “It is pure dance with its own universal language”.
Following the British occupation of Sri Lanka, the danger was that one of the world’s oldest dance forms would be lost. But then Chitrasena, born into a family steeped in art and culture and trained as a Shakespearean actor, spent seven years in a traditional village mastering the dance, studied further in India, before establishing the first dance school in Colombo in 1942. My mother a journalist, as well as being a teacher, spent years training at the school, before she came with my father to Sydney in 1962 on a contract to promote Ceylon Tea.
Australia in 1962 had virtually no Asians, let alone Sri Lankans, had not yet established a national ballet company and was symbolised by meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars. Notwithstanding this, both my parents, driven by their passion for Sri Lankan dance, came up with the desire to arrange an Australian tour by the Chitrasena Co. Given that they had no resources and no contacts, the idea was audacious, if not ludicrous.
But their passion meant that they only saw the power of possibility. They used their newspaper experience to invite journalists to our tiny flat, a few at a time, where my mother would first prepare a delicious meal and then demonstrate some of the dance steps, which I would accompany on a drum. This led to contact with the trustees of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust (a predecessor to the Arts Council) with whom the process was repeated.
The end result was that the Trust agreed to sponsor the Chitrasena Dance Co, which in 1963, became, what I believe to be the first Asian dance co to tour Australia, to great acclaim by audiences and critics. For example, Roland Robinson, dance critic of The Sydney Morning Herald, said:
The various pas de deux, performed by Vajira as the Chief Swan and Wimal Nayanananda as the noble King Nala, leave the Western “Swan Lake” sadly lacking in imagination and understanding. This critic has not seen in Western ballet mime, acting and dancing, capable of evoking the nature and spirit of the swan to compare with the performance of Vajira in this role in Nala Damayanthi.
We were successful in gaining sponsorship for the Chitrasena Co to come out again in 1972, again to great reviews. Hope Hewitt, of the Canberra News, said:
The Chitrasena Dance Company from Ceylon gave a brilliant program of dance and music last night at the Playhouse. There was also a strong feeling of sheer delight about the entire performance, which is an attitude to the life the dancers themselves celebrate.
Both in 1963 and in 1972, I was pulled out of school to accompany my parents and the Chitrasena Co on their Australian tour, seeing about 30 odd performances on each tour. I was also taken by my mother regularly to the dance school whenever we were in Sri Lanka. But how did all of this help me in my business career? I think in a myriad ways, not all of which are possible to quantify or understand. But some of the main contributions were to my sense of possibility, inspiration, imagination and integration of ideas.
Watching my parents achieve the apparently impossible, I am sure was an important ingredient in giving me the confidence, as a 24 year old, to follow my own path and become an entrepreneur who wanted to change the world. More generally, I think being close to artists who live simply, inspired almost purely by passion and creativity, has given me a greater sense of personal balance and perspective. It’s also developed the creative parts of my mind, complementing my formal academic education.
The integration of knowledge from many areas has been a source of a competitive advantage for me in business as well as a source of strength personally. The most common comment I get from people who engage me professionally or personally is that: “We value you because you care and think differently”.
And this brings us back to Thaji. Like me she was exposed to the steps of the dance and the sound of drums in her mother’s womb. Unlike me, she had talent, spent all her spare time while growing up at the dance school and has now dedicated her life to being a dancer. In doing she is conscious of the subsantial financial sacrifice that her chosen path involves. But she has found her calling.
What is exceptional about Thaji is the technical virtuosity that she has mastered thanks to sheer hard work, combined with the emotion she feels when she dances. She allows herself to be lost in this emotion when on the stage, which gives her dance an authenticity and magic that draws the audience to her and imparts a sense of joy. The ability to share flow with the audience is what marks her arrival as a great dancer. And one, who at the age of only 26 can still ripen and achieve greater heights.
Recently Thaji had the chance to dance in a remarkably successful collaboration between the Chitrasena Dance Co and India’s Nrityagram Odissi Dance Co which was performed in many dance centres, most notably, the Joyce Theatre in New York. New York critic Marina Harss, said in Dance Critic:
At the Joyce there were three dancers from Nrityagram, and two from Chitrasena, all women. All were excellent…[The choreographers] created an absorbing and varied evening of dances-solos, duets ensembles-that draws on both traditions, a thrilling conversation between two techniques, movement, qualities, and styles
Earlier this year my two teenage sons had the chance to see Thaji at very close quarters in 4 private performances at the Chitrasena Dance Centre. She performed a number of items, choreographed by her cousin Heshma, also a grand-daughter of Chitrasena and Vajira. Heshma’s ability and reputation as an artistic director is growing and spreading, in no small part due her contribution to Samhara and to her latest production, Dancing for the Gods. Thaji was also accompanied by some wonderful drummers and dancers. The thing that most struck us having spent a lot of time with these dedicated artists is that they have dedicated their lives to creating beauty.
The financial rewards they get from doing this are pitiful and the life of such an artist is essentially a simple one, with few of life’s luxuries. It would be too glib to say that such artists are happier than most other people. But to be able to share in, and enjoy, their creation of beauty is a pretty special experience.
My sons loved the experience and have become engaged in our ongoing support for the Chitrasena Co. How will it influence their lives? I do not know for sure. But I do know their experiences with these great artists will have a wonderful effect in ways that I cannot predict. To spend time with people who are driven not by money, but by a sense of creative inspiration and joy makes us all better, more rounded people.
I hope that you too will have a chance to see Thaji and her fellow artists perform and walk away feeling just a little bit more joyous and inspired. If you hear of her and the Chitrasena Company performing at a venue near you, don’t miss them!