In Memoriam: Gina Lalli

Pioneer of Indian classical dance in Austin dies at age 89

Gina Lalli in 2010 (Photo by John Anderson)

An artist who journeyed halfway across the world to study both North Indian temple dances and South Indian court dances and then brought them to Central Texas, where she shared her mastery of them for close to a half-century, has left us. Gina Lalli, as generous a guru as she was an accomplished artist, died Saturday morning, Feb. 16. She was 89.

Austin did not seem a natural destination for Lalli. To begin with, she was born in Binghamton, N.Y., where even in her early years she began to feel the pull of India. At age 18, she moved to New York City, where she was able to see the Uday Shankar Company dance – an experience that changed the course of her life. Lalli began to pursue her study of Indian culture there until such time as she could travel to the subcontinent itself. In September of 1955, she made her first trip to India, and in an interview she recalled that as she approached Mumbai, she “knew India was as fabulous as I dreamed it would be. At that moment, I entered a state of enchantment, and [I] remain there to this day.”

During the 12 months of her first stay there, Lalli began to study the South Indian temple dance of Bharata Natyam and the North Indian court dance of Kathak. She absorbed so much in that time that upon her return to the States, she danced at Carnegie Hall. Upon subsequent journeys to India – for eight months in 1961 and 1962, then 18 months from the winter of 1967 to the late summer of 1968 – Lalli not only furthered her studies, but also performed in New Delhi, Mumbai (then Bombay), and Kolkata (then Calcutta). And her dancing was not only accepted in the country but praised, with reviews in the media noting her “finesse,” “grace,” and “uncommon control.”

Having achieved this level of skill and artistry, Lalli might have made a life for herself in India or almost any cosmopolitan center in the U.S. But she chose a sleepy little college town/state capital in the heart of Texas. In a 1990 interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Lalli claimed the decision came after she had performed a Kathak dance in which the sky god Indra sends a great rainstorm down on the earth. As she finished dancing, she said, “There was a big crack of thunder and a downpour. People in the audience came up and told me that it had ended a long drought. So I was very impressed with Austin, Texas.”

That was in 1971, when Austin saw little dance, period, much less the dances of cultures outside the U.S. But Lalli saw to it that the dances of India had a cultural presence in the city by performing them herself and passing her knowledge to other dancers, such as Z-Helene, through private lessons. And Lalli quickly became active in the arts scene in other ways. She appeared in a 1973 production of Fiddler on the Roof at Zachary Scott Theatre Center, and made costumes for a later production of The Wizard of Oz. She was an ardent supporter of other artists’ work, showing up at more theatre and dance productions than the artists’ friends and family members (or, for that matter, critics). It was one measure of Lalli’s exceptional generosity; that, along with her unfailing cheerfulness, made her a welcome presence in any audience.

As the years passed, Lalli found new ways to stay active here, serving for several years as a peer review panelist for the annual city arts funding process, for which she was honored with a “Volunteer of the Year” commendation from the Austin City Council; performing in productions at the Bastrop Opera House, as well as writing and directing shows there; and taking on roles in local films, among them Slacker, where she appears as the Sidewalk Psychic. (“The next person who passes us will be dead within a fortnight.”) But she remained connected to the stage, working with such dance artists as Sally Jacques, José Luis Bustamante (on the duet “Garden of Dreams” for Sharir+Bustamante Danceworks), and the most acclaimed practitioner of Bharata Natyam in Austin today, Anuradha Naimpally (Parampara: Traditional Dances of India for Austin Dance India). Even past the age of 80, Lalli was a figure of grace and elegance.

For all these reasons, the Austin Critics Table wasted no time in inducting Lalli into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame. She was part of the second class of honorees back in 2003. She shall surely be missed in our community, but now we can imagine her dancing alongside the sky god Indra and sending us that rain from the heavens.

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Austin dance, Gina Lalli, Sally Jacques, José Luis Bustamante, Anuradha Naimpally, Austin Critics Table, Slacker

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