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Portland Choreographer Jayanthi Raman's 'Duality' Hits Political Hurdle

Jayanthi Raman blends Modern and Bharatanatyam styles of dance to create visual wonder.

Jayanthi Raman blends Modern and Bharatanatyam styles of dance to create visual wonder.

Courtesy of Jayanthi Raman

Putting together a multi-layered dance performance with international artists is never easy. There’s the travel, logistics and airfare — to say nothing of navigating the paperwork to obtain work visas. Hillsboro-based choreographer Jayanthi Raman, of the dance studio Rasika, has aced it many times over the years. But this year was different.

Raman came to Portland from India nearly 30 years ago when her husband took a job at Intel. She’d spent her days in India as a doctor, but had danced her entire life. Over the years, she built up an entire second resume for her movement work.

“All the validity that was there, the press and everything,” Raman said. But in the States, “you have to rebuild yourself. It took over 10 years to reestablish as a choreographer, to tell people to come and see my work, and actually know that I’m good.”

She ultimately retired from medicine and started a dance school. Raman has created, choreographed and starred in some 25 performances here. Many feature local dancers as well as artists from India.

A scene from "Duality: A Ballet of India."

A scene from “Duality: A Ballet of India.”

Courtesy of Jayanthi Raman

Two years ago, Raman won a Creative Heights grant from the Oregon Community Foundation for a show called, “Duality: A dance ballet of India.” The show blends theater and dance to tell the story of an Indian woman who gets married to a man from Portland and emigrates to the U.S. It is about the challenges she faces as a dancer, as an engineer, as a woman, and as an immigrant.

With an international cast of professional dancers from Delhi, Chennai and the U.S., the performance features Indian dance forms Bharatanatyam and the martial arts-based Chhau, as well as local dancers in an elegant contemporary dance production. Raman weaves a story that, in a way, tells her own tale of migration and integration in America.

“Thirty years ago, there were not so many Indians [in Portland]. There was nothing to hold you and make you feel like this was home,” she said. “It took a long time. That is the story.”

The Indian dancers were supposed to arrive in the beginning of March. But then, President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily stopping immigration and travel from seven Middle Eastern countries. Visas for the international “Duality” dancers were delayed and couldn’t make it in time for the March 19 performance. India is not one of the counties on the list, but Raman speculates the bureaucratic backlog is to blame.

“I’ve been doing this for over 25 years. I’ve been working and hiring professional dancers from India to work on my projects,” Raman said. “This is the first time ever that I’ve had a delay or a change due to visa issues.”

When Raman wrote the grant, she had no idea the show would end up being remotely controversial. 

“I never created this to be a political art. If I had wanted it to be a political theme, and if I had started it that way, it would be an extremely controversial thing. I could have put so much suffering into it. I did not. I wanted to send a message of hope, and celebration, and a positive message, and to me, art has to be that. If we lose that hope, we’ve lost ourselves and this is the greatest place in the world to be, this country.”

The dancers all arrived this week, and rehearsals are underway. Working with the Newmark Theater and other sponsors, Raman was able to reschedule the performance for April 1. 

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