Shakuntala Returns to Iowa
This article is written by Debina Nath of Gateway Dance Theatre:
It was the 1970s, and the young Penny Furgerson was still settling down with her husband Lee and three boys — Lee III, G. Thomas, and John. She had moved to the USA from the opposite side of the world — India — missing home, and more than anything else, missed dancing. The dance scene in Iowa at the time was very Euro-centric and lacked diversity. When senior Lee saw how Penny’s face lit up when 'dance' was even mentioned, he encouraged her to start something only she could — hence Gateway Dance Theatre (GDT) was born in 1972.
It has been 50 years since then and Penny set the standard for inclusion and diversity with GDT, which reflect in its mission — to use the arts to engage, communicate, educate and collaborate with the diverse communities to enrich lives. This mission holds deep meaning to Penny and everyone at GDT, especially lately, as Iowa has proven to be a melting pot of diverse cultures from all over the world.
Penny with her team of artists have collaborated on several art projects over the years, and GDT has been holding the banner of inclusion and diversity high all those years. GDT has collaborated with artists with Indian Classical dance training such as Bharatnatyam, Asian Taiko drummers, Tap Dancers, Jazz style dancers and Hip-Hop artists. Penny’s granddaughter, Sydney Furgerson — the Project and Program Coordinator of GDT — is trained in Bharatnatyam and plans to take her grandma’s legacy forward. Penny’s choreographies usually fused different styles which are comprehensible in her different dance suites. One of them called ‘The Curried Soul’ fused Indian and Jazz styles and was one of Penny’s famous works. Another known as 'The Gospel Suite' illustrates the African American Church culture and mixes Jazz and African styles. However, the piece of creation that holds close to Penny’s heart was the Production of Shakuntala, a play written in 5th Century CE India, by the legendary playwright Kalidasa.
Shakuntala tells the story of a young woman, Shakuntala, who was raised in a secluded abbey or ashram and fell in love with a monarch, whom she meets in the forest. The play is a contemporary take on the original love story of Shakuntala and King Dushyanta — one of love, longing, distance, hurdles and MAGIC! The production by GDT was adapted to its modern form by their guest artist, artistic partner and friend of many years — Sarmishtha Sarkar from Ahmedabad, India. It was first commissioned by GDT in the year 2016 and was so well received that they took the play on tour in 2017 across Iowa and Kansas.
When asked, Penny tells everyone that Shakuntala is more than just a production to her, “It really brings back nostalgic memories” she says. In the year 1959, when Penny was still a student at Drake University, she was given the opportunity to play the role of Shakuntala, in New York in an off-Broadway production. It was co-directed by Krishna Shah and Lee Morgan. Penny says, “My name didn’t sound Indian enough, so I also had to choose a stage name”. She went by Kamala Kumari for all her days on the stage. “The whole play seems to have come to New York from India through Iowa”, quoted the Des Moines Register. Shakuntala in 1959 was one of the first Indian plays to be staged in New York and the cast then was also remarkably diverse. With several American, American-Indian and Indian actors, the play was well-received and set the tone for Penny’s future endeavors.
Shakuntala in DSM
In GDT’s 50th year, Penny is bringing the magical tale back to the stage in Greater Des Moines (DSM) with a cast of the most diverse cultural backgrounds! They are working and learning together and preparing to bring the best version of Shakuntala to the DSM theatre scene. The play is also infused with many Indian dances to set the mood and add exotic elegance to the theme. Shakuntala is a perfect example of Gateway Dance Theatre’s vision, which proudly aims at integrating and enhancing the diverse arts across Iowa with its cast of varied heritages. The performance is on Saturday, July 9 at 7:30 p.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church Sanctuary, 4414 Allison Drive, Des Moines, IA 50310. Admission is free and open to the public. Free-will donations are welcome. Gateway Dance Theatre invites everyone to come to experience the magical love story of Dushyanta and Shakuntala.
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