Leaps and Bounds

January 31, 2012
 
Duke's largest student production is a showcase of unbridles talent.
Dress rehearsal
Dress rehearsal: Members of the Class of 2012 run through the Senior Bhangra, Awaaz’s closing number.

In the wings of Page Auditorium crowd a few hundred students, filling every inch of backstage space with nervous energy. Pants and shirts go flying across the backstage halls and deodorant gets sprayed liberally as students practice a quick costume change. Others find corners to stretch muscles and rehearse intricate spins. Weaving in and out of the throng are sophomore Ajay Parikh and junior Ashvin Kapur, who are rounding up the approximately 300 seniors who are due on stage for the next performance. Everywhere you look, students of every ethnicity whisper and bounce, waiting for their moment in the spotlight.

For many, the next two nights in November will be the first and last times they will perform on a stage at Duke. They've put in months of practice and planning to come to this, the final rehearsal before the largest student-run performance on campus. And, no, it's not Hoof 'n' Horn or a cappella or improv.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Awaaz.

Awaaz found its humble beginnings in 1985, when a few students put together a small show in the Giles common room to celebrate Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. By 1999, Diya, the South Asian students association, had renamed the festival "Awaaz," a Hindi word meaning "voice," and moved the show to Page. Though the show primarily highlights Duke's three Indian folk dance groups— Lasya, Raas, and Dhamaka—it has gradually grown to include other dancers and other ethnic traditions. Today, Awaaz includes a cultural and artistic smorgasbord that spans the globe.

But more than just a celebration of South Asian culture—or even culture, generally— Awaaz has become an outlet for the creative energy of Duke's broadly talented students. More than 600 students are participating in Awaaz's November 2011 show, spanning a range of experience and artistic ability. On one end of the spectrum are the veterans of Duke's performance circuit, students in Sabrosura, DefMo, Duke Chinese Dance, or one of the a cappella groups that has performed at Awaaz in recent years. In the middle are the newer groups still discovering their identities, such as Stop Motion, a break-dancing group in its fourth year; Dhoom, a twoyear- old hip-hop and Bollywood fusion troupe; and Duke Irish Dance, also in its second year.

At the other end are students with no performance experience at all who join "lottery" dances that are open to anyone. Lottery dances bookend the event; the opening number is reserved for freshmen, while the closing dance, lately known as Senior Bhangra, brings seniors together to learn and perform a bhangra routine.

Sprinkled between are skits, video clips, and more dances, all produced, choreographed, and performed by students. Put it all together and you have a campus- wide culture jam—a free-flowing event to break up the monotony of fallsemester midterms.

Backstage, Parikh and Kapur race around the narrow maze of hallways, shuttling messages to the tech team and the performers. Dancers gather around stage entrances, still practicing moves, while others try to duck out of the way. It's the last chance to iron out all final logistical details.

As Diya's codirectors of the 2011 show, Parikh and Kapur already have spent months working on Awaaz—holding auditions, contacting performers, and recruiting students to work on the array of committees dedicated to various aspects of the show. They began assembling the teams within the first weeks of school. There's a ticketing committee, which sells the show to friends and family across the country. (The show routinely sells out the 1,232 seats in Page for its two shows each year, with proceeds going to charity.) There's a food committee that arranges a catered feast in the Great Hall prior to the performance. The tech committee manages lighting and sound. Publicity and decorations committees are deployed to design artwork and branding around the theme of the performance. And, of course, there's coordinating the myriad student groups who want to participate.

The activity peaks during late October, a time the students working on the event affectionately call "Awaaz time." In the last two weeks of preparation leading up to showtime, "everyone rehearses, like, every day," says Sahil Prasada, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering. Prasada and Purva Dave, a senior majoring in chemistry, are the emcees this year, meaning they are charged with sewing all the threads of Awaaz into an entertaining, if not always coherent, tapestry.

Typically, this means writing and acting out a collection of skits, which often riff on a film in the zeitgeist. This year's theme is "The 40-Year-Old Desi" ("desi" being a term for a South Asian person in America who might not be especially hip). The emcees follow the gist of the Steve Carrell comedy, with Dave attempting to help Prasada land a date with Tara Iyengar, a junior and external president of Diya.

Prasada and Dave, who have been involved in Awaaz for several years, saw emceeing as an opportunity to do something out of the ordinary. "Writing a script is very different from anything I've ever done," says Prasada. Neither Dave nor Prasada ever intended to act, but after years of being involved in Awaaz as dancers or technical managers, both were excited to try something new. "It's something I've secretly always wanted to do," says Dave.

It's easy to see the students' enthusiasm for trying new things. During rehearsal, certain faces reappear. Dave and Prasada pop into a few dance numbers, including a lottery dance that Prasada co-choreographed. Dave plays guitar in a musical ensemble and joins the DefMo performance, too. Kapur takes a break from directing backstage traffic to join Dhamaka, practicing their high jumps before taking the floor for their lengthy Act I finale. Later, Parikh slides into an act called "Second Hands"—an all-percussion group with a mix of South Asian and Western drums. Diya board members Komal Patel '13 and Gargi Bansal '13, who co-produced Awaaz in 2010, flit between multiple dances, as well.

Parikh smacks another student's backside as a new round of performers takes the stage for the second act. The team cheers and hollers with smiles so wide they might fall off their faces. In the audience, the glow of laptops dissipates as seniors line up to grab their Senior Bhangra T-shirts and head backstage. Dyuti Mahendru, Diya's internal president, hands them out, still dressed in a business suit from a dinner with her future team at Deloitte, where she will work after graduating. Once the T-shirts are handed out, she'll slip backstage to change and join the rest of her class on stage in the dance she helped choreograph.

It's early enough in the year that the hours racked up in rehearsals and preparations aren't pressing too heavily on academics, and senior nostalgia hasn't quite kicked in yet, either. The performers, who start cheering themselves on once they are on stage, are just there to have fun. It's as simple as that. As Mahendru says, "Everyone loves Awaaz."


—Elissa Lerner