Pakistani-American Led Ballet Company Holds New Year Gala
By Ras H. Siddiqui

 


Ashraf Habibullah

This reporter has had the opportunity to cover just about every aspect of Pakistani-American life during the past 14 plus years of reporting here in Northern California and it is quite a mystery as to why Mr. Ashraf Habibullah has not yet appeared in even one news item thus far.
We are about to correct that error here as Ashraf’s Software Company “Computers And Structures Inc.” held its New Year’s Party on a grand scale on Saturday, January 14, 2006 at the Zellarbach Hall, UC Berkeley, as over 500 guests and company employees along with approximately 900 people from the general ticket-buying public attended the Diablo Ballet Company’s performance of Nikolai Kabaniaev’s “The Legend of Taj Mahal” along with K. T. Nelson’s “Walk Before Talk”.
It was quite a gala evening with great food (the Hot Fudge Fountain was a big hit) and where drinks, art and conversation flowed like poetry right down to the fine details, as each lady guest received a single rose in appreciation upon entry. This was a venue where the many evening gowns mingled with just a few Pakistani shalwar kameez and Indian saris, and where English dominated but Urdu was heard and even indirectly celebrated via the Taj story. This gathering indeed had Taj Mahal written in its background but it was also clear that it was the success of one of the world’s premiere Structural Engineering software companies that was being celebrated.
Ashraf Habibullah in whose honor “The Legend of Taj Mahal” was performed at this event took the opportunity to address his employees and friends and thanked Artistic Director Lauren Jonas for her great contribution to the Ballet. He also held a prize drawing where company employees won a number of gifts. Ashraf opened the ballet performance itself by describing the basic commonality of human beings and the love of the arts that can be shared even during troubled times.
A group of Pakistani Americans at the Ballet reception
Mrs. Siddiqui with Mrs. Ashraf and Dr. Khwaja Ashraf
Ballet attendees wait for the doors to open

And now to the performances by the Diablo Ballet: The first segment or The Legend of Taj Mahal which starts off with the Old Shah Jahan ( Andrew Allagree) dancing alone and then moving slowly towards the grave of his beloved wife Princess Mumtaz (Cynthia Sheppard replaced Tina Kay Bohnstedt in this role). In a dream sequence the old Emperor reflects back on their youth and the sadness of her death and later appears to be pleading with the Angel of Death (David Fonnegra) not to take her. But as life triumphs for a brief period, it is death that has to win (and does). Time and age blur into present-past-present as the light reflected contours of the Taj appear and disappear to make room for carpets. The other dancers appearing include the Young Shah Jahan (Jekyns Pelaez) the Salesman (Edward Stegge) and friends of the Princess (Amy Foster and Lauren Main de Lucia).
To the critical eye and ear, this ballet performance beautifully incorporated the fine dancing talents of the performers. It was slow moving, graceful and almost poetic which validated the cultural traditions of 17th century Mughal India and the story of the Taj. It captured some of the earlier romance in the life of the Emperor but was far too short to express fully the later tragedy. Even though the leading performers, especially David Fonnegra as the Angel of Death, did full justice to their parts, more could have been added to the costumes and stage setting. The attire of male performers was adequate but the female costumes could have possibly incorporated something more traditional such as “the clinging churidaars” if the baggy “shalwaar” got too much in the way of dancing the ballet. And even though the musical background (by Peter Gabriel, Ravi Shankar and Phillip Glass) was well done, some resonating qawwali was needed, for which the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would have been perfect (maybe in future Diablo can contact “Junooni” Salman Ahmad to assist?).
Ashraf Habibullah and Syed Hasanain at the reception
Legend of Taj Mahal Send

The second performance “Walk Before Talk” was dedicated to dancer Kyongho Kim who died of liver cancer at a very young age. This performance was much more athletic than the Taj legend earlier and had some very perky musical segments (courtesy Michael Nyman) with almost the same cast (without Jekyns Pelaez and with Lauren Jonas and Victor Kabaniaev added). But even though the energy and quality were there, and keeping in mind that ballet is a very difficult dance art, which often seems almost effortless to us viewers (these dancers make it appear much easier than it is), or possibly because we were just enjoying it too much, my wife and I felt that it just ended too soon.
Our thanks go to Syed Hasanain and Dr. Lubna and Ashraf for keeping us in mind for this event. But now back to another reason for driving a hundred miles to see this performance. Frankly the main reason was just plain curiosity. How often does one encounter a fellow Pakistani American who is the President of an American ballet company? How does the answer “What?” sound? So I just had to ask Ashraf Habibullah himself:
RHS: How did a Pakistani American decide to lead a ballet company?
Ashraf: “So you ask, what is a Pakistani software developer doing running an American dance company? Well I guess when you grow up dreaming about being something more than a structural engineer, like a rock star or maybe a playback singer like Rafi (a South Asian singing legend), this is what happens! You start a dance company! Just to have an excuse to have a good time with all your friends.”
RHS: How did you feel about this event, hosting not only your employees but also your friends?
Ashraf: “Bridging the logical and creative aspects of everything we do has been very exciting for us as a company and for me personally. And of course as was obvious at the Diablo Ballet Performance, for all our friends and associates! It definitely makes us different. A marriage between technology and art! On a broader front, the cross-cultural productions of our dance company will only promote understanding and goodwill between diverse cultures. And let us face it. Today, with all the turmoil and unrest around the globe, this is exactly what the world needs!”
In closing Computers and Structures Inc. is proud to have its software utilized for work on the Freedom Tower which is slated to replace part of the World Trade Center in New York destroyed on 9/11/2001. The Pakistani-American community can feel a sense of pride in being part of this rebuilding effort.
(The Diablo Ballet can be reached at http://www.diabloballet.org/ or at (925) 943-1775. Memberships are open and welcome).



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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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