In Bharata natyam, a 2,000-year-old classical Indian dance form, it's not just exacting, stylized choreography that challenges dancers. It's laborious pre-performance preparations that may take longer than the stage presentation itself.
"Our makeup is quite elaborate because the eyes play an important part and we have to draw our eyes big," said Ramya Harishankar, lead dancer and artistic director of Arpana Dance Company, which will perform at the Irvine Barclay Theatre Friday at 8 p.m.
"And we wear headdresses and long braids with flowers attached to the braids and jewelry attached to every part of the body," Harishankar said. "So by the time we get our hair and faces done and pin everything into position--every piece of jewelry has to be pinned down--it takes at least an hour and a half, and there are six or seven of us, so that would take a good three hours, with help, to get ready."
Bharata natyam is a symbolic dance style that incorporates subtle movements of the eyes, the lips and other small body parts as well as the entire frame.
It originated in ancient temples of south India and brings to life the stylized poses of temple sculpture, said Harishankar, 33, who began studying the art form at 6 and moved from Madras, south India, to Irvine in 1981.
In Friday's program, based on cultural and religious festivals held throughout India year-round, several group dances will feature prearranged choreography to the accompaniment of five musicians and five singers.
But Bharata natyam is typically done by one woman who spontaneously executes its ancient elements in any combination she chooses. Harishankar will perform such improvisational solos.
"I just have the basic framework of the number," Harishankar said. "I know the music, I know the words to the songs, I know the thought or feeling the (character) is trying to convey. But if I were to dance five days in a row, each night it would be different."
In addition to founding a company, Harishankar opened a school for Indian dance shortly after she arrived in Orange County, and now teaches some 100 students in facilities she rents in Irvine, Fullerton and Cerritos.
Two years ago, she took some of her students to India to perform and plans to return with two others next month for the "cultural season" in Madras.
"Ten to 15 cultural organizations in Madras . . . take part in the season and every year they honor a senior artist," Harishankar said.
When will Harishankar perform? "I don't know yet. My mother is organizing everything. I'll dance whenever they want me to."
What: "Uthsava: A Glorious Celebration," featuring Ramya Harishankar and the Arpana Dance Company.
When: Friday, Nov. 23, at 8 p.m.
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine.
Whereabouts: UC Irvine campus across from the Marketplace mall.
Wherewithal: $10 to $20.
Where to call: (714) 854-4646.