Call it postmodern dance, diaspora dance theatre, or just a darn good show if you will—Shyamala Moorty’s style defies categorization.
When Moorty got the go-ahead for her new piece from activist performance organization TeAda, she developed it in collaboration with NISWA, an organization that serves Muslim women and youth, dealing with issues such as domestic violence in a culturally sensitive way. After interviewing staff at the organization and examining some of the domestic violence cases that came through, Moorty had an idea of the themes she wanted to incorporate into her piece, such as how people come to terms with their fears. But a clear vision only emerged after weeks of working with adolescent girls within the organization; these sessions, which mainly involved yoga and theatre exercises, eventually helped shape “Carrie’s Web,” a piece that incorporates spoken word, postmodern dance, and a touch of whimsical fantasy.
While Moorty’s celebrated 2004 interdisciplinary show, “RISE,” was an intensely tragic piece that examined the 2002 Hindu/Muslim riots in Gujarat through a medley of true-to-life characters, the poignancy of “Carrie’s Web” lies in its ability to hold both humor and pain in the same quadrant. “The spider in my show is crazy, wild, and fun, which is something that audiences open up to,” explains Moorty. “The show is funny, but on the other hand, it goes into some very deep subjects without being overly heavy-handed. And the place where comedy and tragedy intersect—I see that as the place where transformation can happen. It gives people permission to talk about (subjects such as) domestic violence, not just let it stay in unspoken darkness.”
In many ways, much of Moorty’s work—fusing traditional and contemporary dance, encompassing postcolonial studies, feminism, and political theatre—is all about looking at dualities. Even Moorty’s current piece, “Carrie’s Web,” presents two characters who are essentially polar opposites.
Moorty, the product of an Indian father and white mother, recalls the concept of “hybridity” being a guiding theme in her early life. “Because I grappled with being more than one thing and having more than one reality, the idea of examining the two sides of something became very intriguing to me. I began to question the idea of purity and marked that space of in-betweenness as the place where I produced my work.”
Moorty, who grew up in Monterey with a fairly broad exposure to the arts, started out in gymnastics and ballet, and eventually moved on to theatre. However, it wasn’t until her college years at UCLA, where she studied in the prestigious World Arts and Cultures program, that she discovered bharatanatyam. “Once you get serious about a classical dance form, even if it is later in your life, you are definitely inculcated into a system,” she says. “Obviously, because I was older when I discovered it, it was part of a cultural awakening for me.”
At the same time, Moorty describes feeling slightly removed from Indian classical dance, since she had been a ballerina in her early years. “Coming into my artistic self meant cultivating the ability to respond to any given dance form creatively, rather than mimicking what I had learned,” she explains. “So the way I related to bharatanatyam couldn’t be about a nostalgic idea of India that classical dance can sometimes induce, but rather, my own reality, which was very different.”
Moorty was conscious of not wanting to disrespect the dance form that had triggered in her the curiosity about her culture and her place within it. But ten years of diverse training slowly ensured that the disparate dances “started infusing each other, speaking to each other, and occupying the same territory.”
While “fusion” tends to be the generic category that artists employing diverse techniques and traditions are pigeonholed in, Moorty prefers to see her work as “interdisciplinary,” particularly since so much of it is informed by theatre. As one of the founding members of Post Natyam Collective, a community of choreographers who explore the changing landscape of South Asian dance, she feels that “confusions” is a more apt description of the work being done in the field. “I like the term confusions, because it symbolizes that there is no easy or exotic fusion of dance forms,” she explains. “The work is very intellectual and often political in nature. Sometimes the dance forms are side by side, sometimes they’re mixed, other times they purposely jar or cut into each other to make a statement.”
In any sort of hybridized dance form, the danger of being censured for “watering down” or compromising the purity of the dance is always a real one for artists like Moorty. “Because I’m half Indian, I’ve never felt as if I completely belonged to any one community, so value judgments like that weighed heavily on me in the beginning,” she remembers. However, time and again, Moorty has performed before dancers and gurus with a predilection for “pure” Indian dance, only to delight them with her technique and talent.
“At one dance conference, I had people coming up to me to say, ‘Oh, you’re a great bridge to the next generation,’ and acknowledging that I wasn’t disrespecting the (traditional) dance but doing it with knowledge and genuine training,” Moorty remembers. “It was a huge relief to me to have people understand what I was trying to do—and it just prompted me to go even further.”<
Moorty’s oeuvre has included work not just with Post Natyam, but also TeAda Productions, which provides creative workshops and opportunities for artists working in a variety of disciplines. With Great Leap’s Collaboratory, she created “Leaps of Faith,” an interfaith dance theatre performance that was performed in various places of worship.
“It’s an exciting time for young emerging artists to come together and create work, especially since we have the experience of being in more than one culture and, as a result, are more fluid and open,” Moorty says.
Moorty, who is now in her thirties and has been a firsthand witness of the sea change in diaspora art forms over the last decade or so, believes that the arts climate is shifting with respect to its receptivity to a less mainstream scene, as well as performance that is truly inclusive of different communities, although funding may be lagging. “It’s reaching a critical mass,” she says. “It came to a tipping point when festivals like Artwallah gave young South Asian people a chance to perform their work for audiences similar to them, who could understand the issues they were presenting. It also gave us a chance to meet other artists and inspired us to keep making more work. Now that there are more of us, I am hoping there will be a new generation of people who will also be hungry for this work and want to support it.”
The recent recipient of a Long Beach Arts Council fellowship, Moorty plans to someday reprise “Carrie’s Web” at other venues.
As deeply as Moorty is entrenched in making work that speaks to a new generation of people, her role as an activist and mentor (e.g., coordinating the YouthWallah summer arts development program and serving as the first executive director of Women and Youth Supporting Each Other, a national mentoring program for young women) is directly related to her work as an artist.
“The arts are so valuable in opening people up—letting them experience their bodies and express themselves. They are such a valuable tool in any community work I’m doing,” she says. For Moorty, the arts present a way to transform audiences and communities afflicted by injustice and suffering.
“For me, the arts are about engaging with real people and their issues. A performance can be beautiful for beauty’s sake, but I’m not always inspired to merely create beautiful art,” she says. “I am more driven to make work that can help the world.”
Nirmala Nataraj is a critic, playwright, producer, poet, creative nonfiction writer, and erstwhile filmmaker. She is also an active community arts organizer and a former board member/curatorial committee member of San Francisco’s Kearny Street Workshop.