Desai’s latest work, Malaysia, weaves movement with dialogue, including stories of the dancers in her company about their experiences of immigration and identity. “I was interested in challenging the boundary of ‘us and them.’” Desai says. “In the dialogue, I use the words ‘here’ and ‘there,’ ‘from here,’ ‘from there,’ a lot—the idea is to reveal how arbitrary the line between ‘here’ or ‘there’ is. It’s just a concept that because we look like this, or our parents look like this, we’re fromthere. That we’re foreigners no matter how long we’ve been here.”
All dance, on some level, is a contradiction. There is the visceral experience of watching a dancer move, a communication that happens between dancer and audience, “without words. It says layers of things that you could never express verbally.” On the other side are the themes and concepts with which good choreographers imbue their work, the strong cerebral base that resonates with audiences long after they have left the theater.
Desai’s solid intellectual core is at the heart of many of her dances. As an undergraduate at Stanford, Desaiworked with luminary Katherine Dunham, a pioneer in the field of Dance Anthropology. She became interested in the intersection between art and social science: “In my studies I was learning about colonization and post-colonial immigration, and I was really interested in expressing histories and cultures that were hybrid through movement.”
Desai is quick to point out that her work is not a search for identity but an expression of it. For some, the blend of different dance forms makes Desai’s work hard to categorize. Desai, however, is very clear about how she sees it. “It is very important for me to say through my work that I am an American.”
In some ways, utilizing both Indian classical and American modern dance allows Desai to express themes and concepts in a way that is uniquely engaging and intellectually satisfying. “What I love,” she says, “is the interplay [that American and Indian dance forms] give between meaning and abstraction; that interplay has a lot of possibility. What I think is so wonderful about Indian dance is that, because it has such a focus on narrative, it has emotion that really draws people in. At the same time, if things are too literal, it doesn’t allow the audience to bring their own interpretation. So I try and have something that’s emotionally and narratively very clear, but has some spaciousness of meaning for the audience to draw their own conclusions.”
Desai started dancing at age five, when she was enrolled in bharatanatyam classes in Houston (she was born in India). Far from being the star pupil (“I saw a video of a dance performance I was in when I was nine,” she remembers. “All the other kids are going to stage right with their hands cupped in puja position. I’m going to the left.”), Desai quit her dance classes when she was an adolescent, only to be encouraged by her mother to try jazz dance. There, she found herself waking up to dance and movement. Around the same time, she remembers watching her cousin practicing bharatanatyam and connecting with it for the first time. “I was thinking, ‘this is such a rich tradition with many histories encoded into the movement.” In her case, the appreciation of dance in one form led her to appreciation of dance in another. “What is amazing to me is that at the [same] time I was seeing how this quintessentially American dance form spoke to me, I was [also] seeing how this Indian dance form spoke to me. It was confusing—this is me, and this is me. Which one?”
Desai did not choose one or the other. Instead, she started taking bharatanatyam classes again with a new sense of appreciation and started to enjoy performing, something she had never particularly liked before. “Once this happened, in high school, I realized dance was something natural to me, innate. In fact essential, I had to do it.” Using both dance forms, Desai was “building a vocabulary of movement” which started to become more and more compelling after she graduated from college. Desai was sure she was going to make her impact on the world through education, either as an elementary school teacher or working with a policy-focused NGO, but in her evening dance classes, she was beginning to make discoveries that would not let her go: “I was trained in both of these forms, and I was excited by the vocabularies of movement that I had learned. I was really charged by the idea of using the modern dance framework to express a Indian-American experience. I knew that needed to happen, and I knew that I had to do it.”
Following this imperative has not come without its challenges. Aside from the harrowing logistics of running a dance company, carving out a space in the dance world for new forms, and the inevitable difficulties of coordinating and collaborating with other dancers, musicians, and designers, Desai struggles to do her best to respect the art forms she draws upon. “I’m working with Indian classical dance and Western dance, which are huge bodies of knowledge about what moves an audience, what excites an audience. I want to respect them by really studying them, training my body. But it takes a lifetime of work to master those traditions.”
For Desai, the rewards of the work make it worthwhile. “Probably the most special aspect of being an artist is the discoveries you make in rehearsal. It’s in the moment when you’re working with people and it’s really not about trying to impress anybody. It’s absolutely humble. And when the people you’re working with find the solution, it’s just so beautiful. You think, ‘Wow, we didn’t know what we were doing—and now we have a new way of moving, or of working together that we didn’t know about before. Or we have a new way of playing this kind of music, or communicating as musicians and dancers. It’s unspeakably amazing.”
“Of course,” she says, laughing, “performing is pretty up there, too.”
PDDC will perform in the Bay Area as part of a residency through the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. Visit their website at www.parijatdesai.org for details.
|Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.|