Teaching cultural appreciation through dance

Experimental choreography helps others to relate to Sri Lankan culture.

Elaborate costumes and chiming bells on dancers’ feet mixed seamlessly with rhythmic drumming as the State Dance Troupe brought the audience to its feet.

In an effort to bring two cultures together, the Minnesota Sri Lanka Friendship Foundation hosted “Dance and Rhythms of Sri Lanka” at the St. Paul Student Center Theater on Saturday night.

The program consisted of 14 dances, depicting traditional rivalries and celebrations. Chants and proper names of the dances and mythic figures were in Singhala, the native Sri Lankan tongue, choreographer and art director Ravibandu Vidyapathy said.

Vidyapathy is known for combining the time-honored with the modern in his dances.

“I extend traditional forms to tell the stories and express new ideas, but the work as a whole is contemporary,” Vidyapathy said. “I borrow movements from anywhere.”

The State Dance Troupe, formed by Vidyapathy in 1984, has been touring in celebration of Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, which was Feb. 4.

He said he regularly incorporates Shakespeare and Greek tradition, as well as Japanese and Indian dances into his choreography to relate to the different audiences. The drum accompaniment, however, is traditionally Sri Lankan and usually stays.

Vidyapathy said he has also experimented with Western classical, choral music, jazz or African rhythms, but doesn’t use them as often.

“The best way to talk to people is through the arts,” Vidyapathy said. “It speaks to the heart of the people and the intellect.”

The Minnesota Sri Lanka Friendship Foundation was started in 2004 with the intent of aiding victims of the tsunami that ravaged the coastline.

Now that the organization has helped build a preschool, library and technology center in Sri Lanka, its main goal is to strengthen social, economic and cultural ties between Minnesota and Sri Lanka.

“The cultural development is meant to bring two peoples together to better appreciate and understand each other,” Mithula Perera, spokesperson for the Minnesota Sri Lanka Friendship Foundation, said.

Lynn Ramalingam, founder of Ramalynn Montessori Academy in Bloomingtom, brought 22 of her young American students to the performance.

“My mission is to achieve world peace by introducing these cultures to young students,” Ramalingam said. “They make more solid decisions with more understanding of the culture.”

The students have all been researching Eastern culture, she said, and now will write papers about the show.

Ramalingam said she hopes her students will “carry the torch” to be diverse in their thinking.

“We teach them to have tremendous respect for other cultures, but still be an American,” Ramalingam said.

Although she enjoyed the show, Ramalingam said she noticed the audience consisted mostly of Sri Lankans.

Vidyapathy said that attending these types of events “teaches you to respect other cultures.”

“It’s a great thing to bridge gaps,” Vidyapathy said. “It makes you connect and engage in a musical dialogue.”