NWCT & Anita Menon

More than 5 Years of Bringing Indian Dance, Music, and Culture onto the Mainstage

The Jungle Book, 2020

In 2012, award-winning choreographer Anita Menon received a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to produce A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Newmark Theatre. Her interpretation combined dance and musical styles not traditionally associated with the script, fusing classical Indian dance with ballet, tap, and hip hop, and music ranging from classical to Indian folk and Bollywood. 

Anita invited NWCT’s Artistic Director Sarah Jane Hardy to attend that show, and she was immediately inspired. “The production was magnificent,” Hardy expressed. “It was fresh, authentic, and audacious. I knew right away that I wanted to work with the creative mind that conceived the idea, and the disciplined artist that made it come to life.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

The first show to grow from this incredible artistic partnership was The Jungle Book in 2015. “Raising children of Indian heritage in America, I wanted to find a way to tell familiar stories while maintaining our traditional culture,” says Anita. “So I started using Bharatanatyam dance vocabulary to tell stories like Little Red Riding Hood and The Wizard of Oz.” The same idea was applied to The Jungle Book.

Anita Menon during a Jungle Book rehearsal, 2015

Sarah Jane explains, “We had to build the entire project from scratch, using our collective professional experiences to generate and curate ideas. At every step of the process we shared decision-making, which made progress slow, but worthwhile. We were building the foundation for an artistic partnership that would extend far beyond the creation of The Jungle Book.”

“Embarking on this production with NWCT was a huge risk for me,” states Anita.

“Bharatanatyam (a classical Indian dance style) is a two-thousand-year-old art form, and the expectation is for teachers to preserve that history by passing it on exactly as they had learned it. The parents of my students enjoyed Western stories being incorporated into our traditional performances, but they may not appreciate their child learning dance from someone who also taught folk dances and Bollywood. In the Indian dance community, Bharatanatyam is to Bollywood as ballet is to Beyoncé!”

But Anita was too excited about the possibilities to let that stop her. She trusted the partnership and process — and trusted that the audience would love it — and she was right! The 2015 production of The Jungle Book was a huge success, becoming the best-selling show in its timeslot in NWCT history.

“The traditional Indian Americans came out in droves out of curiosity, and they were thrilled to see Indian culture being showcased in such a beautiful and yet authentic way,” explained Anita.

This opened the door for traditional Indian stories to be represented on the NWCT Mainstage, including Chitra: The Girl Prince (2018) and Tenali: The Royal Trickster (2019). The show that started it all at NWCT, The Jungle Book, also returned to the NWCT Mainstage in February 2020.  We’re now thrilled to go back even further and present our unique twist on the first title Sarah Jane ever saw Anita produce: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Chitra: The Girl Prince, 2017

“Sarah Jane and I were just two artists working together to create something we could both be proud of,” states Anita. “At the time, we didn’t realize this work would be so impactful. Initially, I thought it would only impact Indian American families, but I’ve learned that it has touched our entire theater community. This work is a demonstration of how a true collaboration lifts everyone.”

Together, Sarah Jane and Anita have been invited to speak about developing audiences through intercultural connections throughout the country, including at the Art of Leadership, Statera Conference (Women in Theater), and Theater for Young Audiences One Theater World.

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