Artistic collaboration between an Indian dancer and American musician forges bonds of creativity and innovation.
American guitarist Matt Bacon and Indian dancer Rofia Ramesh presented a stunning artistic collaboration at the American Center New Delhi. (Photograph courtesy American Center New Delhi)
Cultural collaborations and exchanges are among the key elements of U.S.-India people-to-people ties. An increased familiarity with each other’s culture, music and arts has brought the countries closer together.
For instance, in October 2022, American guitarist Matt Bacon and Indian dancer Rofia Ramesh presented a stunning artistic collaboration at the American Center New Delhi. The show, “U.S.-India Dosti: Coming Together Through Dance and Music,” featured an original performance by Rofia—a Bharatanatyam dancer with over 20 years of experience—choreographed to classical compositions written and performed live by her husband, Matt.
Rofia and Matt’s relationship began years before the American Center performance. The two met after Matt moved from San Francisco to Chennai in 2015 to teach at A.R. Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory. “I didn’t even know where Chennai was on a map at the time,” says Matt, describing his first interview for the job in 2014, “but when you have the opportunity to work for A.R. Rahman, you take it.”
Matt moved to India expecting to work for a year or so. But “ended up having fantastically talented coworkers, doing interesting work for film soundtracks and getting married,” he says. “The past eight years have been a huge adventure.”
The artistic process
The duo chose about a half dozen of Matt’s musical compositions to serve as inspiration for Rofia’s Bharatanatyam choreography to create the final performance. “For every piece, I started with a blank slate and asked Matt not to tell me what his visualization was when he wrote the piece,” says Rofia. “That way, I could see it fresh, through my own experience of the music.” After paying attention to her emotional reactions to each musical work—and how those feelings manifested in dance movements and rhythms—Rofia asked for Matt’s thoughts on the pieces. “Luckily for us, so far, Matt has always found that my emotions, stories and movements resonate with how he would visualize the piece,” Rofia says. “I guess it also helps that we are married!”
A cultural handshake
After Rofia completed her initial choreography, the two began rehearsing and developing their performance. “We hit some interesting challenges setting a jugalbandi that we both composed,” describes Matt. “This is an Indian classical form where there is a call and response between my guitar and her dance, where we mimic each other set to specific rhythms.”
“It turns out the usual stuff I would come up with on guitar translates to a super-complicated rhythm for a dancer,” he continues, “and the easy rhythmic groupings Rofia had as a default setting were really hard to pair with something convincing on the guitar.”
The couple worked through the piece’s artistic and technical challenges. When it became time to share it live, the performance spoke for itself. The audience reacted strongly to the performance, which ended with a two-hour-long interaction. “The audience made such keen, insightful observations that we were blown away,” says Matt. “It was like they understood our performance better than we did, which is nuts, because we did not sit for months, pondering what the best ‘cross-culture collaboration’ would be. We simply played to our strengths and met in the middle.”
The couple only had about five days to rehearse before the performance. “We kept what worked and didn’t think too much about it,” says Matt. “We let our intuition guide the process.”
The couple’s creative efforts didn’t stop with “Coming Together.” Matt’s current and future endeavors, for example, include a partial performance of his orchestral composition “Concerto Malabar” by Rahman’s Sunshine Orchestra joined by a youth orchestra from Scotland, and short compositions for guitar currently in the works.
Rofia’s artistic instincts are guided by decades of studies under noted dance masters, and national and international performances. Investing the time to master your art is necessary and rewarding, says Matt. “You have to understand yourself through your instrument,” he describes. “Anything short of that, and you can’t communicate with an audience.” Rofia agrees that practicing the technique of musical performance, dance or any other art form is just the beginning. “I also strongly believe in having mentors you meet regularly and keep finding avenues to grow more,” she says, “not just your art form, but also your relationship with the art form.”
Michael Gallant is a New York City-based writer, musician and entrepreneur.
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