Backstage at Jesse Auditorium on Saturday, dancers for MU’s “India Nite” fussed with their costumes, preparing for a diversity of dance performances.
A troupe of children started the entertainment by singing the national anthems of India and the United States.
Musicians hovered in the wings, waiting to take the stage after the children. Officers of MU’s Cultural Association of India, the show’s organizers, donned suits and directed traffic backstage.
And two of the emcees nervously jostled around near the front of the stage, pumping each other up with pre-show bravado.
These are the performers who survived the auditions for the annual gala. Some performers practiced for a few months before the auditions. Others have been students of dance or music since early childhood and have practiced their art for years. In the end, more than 100 were selected to perform.
Here is a behind-the-scenes look:
The first half:
It’s 30 minutes until show time, and 9-year-old Niyati Rangnekar still needs mascara.
Niyati is one of eight girls donning black pants and black sequined tops in the green room below Jesse Auditorium. Their Bollywood-style dance, which combines traditional Indian dance steps with Western dance forms, is the fourth act on tonight’s program.
Anchal Sethi, 13, choreographed the dance the girls will perform tonight, but right now, she is their impromptu make-up person for the girls. She calls for the next girl needing mascara. Niyati bounds over, and Anchal tells her to close her eyes as she sits down.
Some of the mothers call the girls together for a photograph. The girls strike glamorous poses, and the moms laugh.
“Very nice poses!”
“Look at her, she’s like a film star!”
Flashes fill the air. One girl calls for retakes because she blinked.
Mihiri Udawatta is one of the mothers snapping pictures. She is from Sri Lanka; she walks in the mornings with some of the Indian mothers in the green room. When the girls fell one person short for their dance in August, they asked Udawatta if her daughter, Methma, would like to join them.
“She’s done jazz and hip-hop, but this is her first experience with Bollywood dance,” Udawatta said.
The girls were soon ushered upstairs to the stage, where they waited impatiently in the wings to perform their dance barefoot.
“Are we next?”
“Did my make-up get smeared?”
Finally, they’re on. The girls line up on stage and pose. The audience is laughing at the emcees one minute, and the next, the music starts slowly, and purple lights hit them as the curtain rises. The music moves faster, smoke fills the stage, and they’re off.
When it’s over, the girls run off-stage and back down to the green room for more pictures and more posing.
“Did we do great?”
The crowd seemed to think so.
The second half:
At the end of intermission, Pranita Katwa, a 20-year-old sophomore at MU, fights with one of the sets of bells bound to her ankles. Katwa grew up in Columbia and has been dancing and participating in India Nite for years.
“I was so little I don’t remember my first India Nite,” Katwa says. “I’ve been doing dance and music for my whole life.”
It is close to 8 p.m., and Katwa and her three fellow classical dancers will perform shortly. Katwa finds a place to stretch and asks for a glass of water.
Her bright blue and magenta costume looks warm. The mother of one of the other classical dancers helps her pull loose strings off of its gold trim. Her hair is immaculately bound with white and orange flowers, and topped with a jeweled headpiece that dips down to her forehead in the front and attaches to her earrings on the sides.
She started getting into costume about 4:30 that afternoon, she said.
Katwa’s family moved to North Carolina four years ago, but she returned to attend MU. Because of the move, she had a gap in her classical Indian dance training. Now, Katwa can continue with her lessons from Asha Prem, a St. Louis dance instructor who comes to Columbia every two weeks to teach local students.
“She choreographs all our dances, and everything we learn is from her,” Katwa says. “Choreography is a very important part (of this dance), you have to reach a certain level of skill to choreograph.”
She explains that classical Indian dance is a 2,000-year-old tradition that tells a story, usually from Hindu mythology, and that each movement has a meaning. The dance Katwa performs tonight recounts a tale from the childhood of Krishna, a Hindu deity.
“It’s about storytelling,” Katwa says, “and that’s what I love the most about it.”