Indian classical dance has largely been restricted to the sphere of “cultural” events and localized ethnic pride. There’s no real vocabulary in our national lexicon for dance forms like kathak or bharatanatyam, so they are generally relegated to the generic category of “world dance” and are rarely given a platform alongside ubiquitously respected forms like ballet. But thanks to rising stars like dancer-choreographer Amrapali Ambegaokar, the face of dance as we Americans know it is about to change.
On January 26, 2009, Ambegaokar brought kathak to a mainstream audience after nabbing the silver medal in the soloist category of NBC’s reality dance extravaganza, Superstars of Dance. The show was a competition featuring dance routines (in solo, duet, and group acts) from eight different countries. Hosted by Riverdance co-creator Michael Flatley and created by Nigel Lythgoe (of So You Think You Can Dance fame), the show offered an entertaining, upbeat geography lesson through various forms of dance: American urban dance, the martial arts of Chinese Shaolin monks, and, of course, kathak.
The 30-year-old Ambegaokar was stunning, and managed to propel her three individual performances way beyond stale exotic spectacle by virtue of grace, charm, and some seriously intricate footwork. Ambegaokar, who’s keeping herself busy as a guest star on a variety of prime-time TV shows (Grey’s Anatomy and Heroes, to name a couple), doesn’t take for granted the significance of being part of Superstars of Dance, which debuted to 10.5 million viewers this past winter.
“When people think of dance, they think of ballet,” she says. “So it was incredible to work with world dance on a world stage … On behalf of non-western dance forms, I feel I fulfilled my purpose of being in the competition, which was to teach the world about other dance forms and to make kathak accessible to a mainstream audience.”
Dancing In Utero
For Ambegaokar, a first-generation IndianAmerican artist and kathak exponent, opportunities to educate others have been fairly regular. That’s partly because she’s been performing since the age of four and first started dancing under her mother, Anjani Ambegaokar, an internationally recognized kathak dancer and educator. Ambegaokar, who has performed in venues across the world and is also the associate artistic director and principal dancer of Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India company, “started dancing when I was in my mother’s belly. It was very natural, like brushing my teeth, and I didn’t realize until I was older that [being raised around classical artists] wasn’t a normal part of other kids’ lives.”
By no means does Ambegaokar describe herself as a child prodigy. When she was a small child, dance was largely a way of feeling close to her mother, but only around the age of 11 did she uncover her own natural aptitude for kathak. “It was like a flower blossoming overnight, after 10 years of giving it water!”
Ambegaokar’s parents, who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, were “part of a generation that insists you need to have the highest education and make incredible opportunities happen for yourself.” At a young age, Ambegaokar was definitely driven. Through her adolescent years, she recalls waking up at 5 a.m. to dance for an hour and a half before going to school. She was also the drum major in her high school marching band and “loved anything that had to do with singing and painting. And I did every talent show in school. Basically, I was your typical artsy-fartsy teenager … and it was important for me to be a well-versed artist.”
By the age of 11, Ambegaokar was touring and performing internationally and had already received her first review in the Los Angeles Times, which deemed her a glowing addition to the next generation of kathak dancers. While most other teens she knew were busy prepping for exams and fumbling through adolescence, Ambegaokar was selling out stadiums like the Hollywood Bowl, alongside the likes of the Joffrey Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
“It was an upbringing that is very unique to families of artists,” she says. “Other people who come to mind are Anoushka Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s daughter, or Mythili Prakash [daughter of bharatanatyam master dancer, Viji Prakash], who also happened to be on Superstars of Dance with me. And it’s an experience that is isolated to artists whose parents have mastered the art form of another nation … but they themselves are also dealing with a first-generation experience of the United States. There are a lot of complex things you have to navigate.”
An Emissary’s Education
As a college freshman, she was accepted into the prestigious World Arts and Cultures program at UCLA, where she completed a thesis on flamenco, kathak, and modern dance. Despite Ambegaokar’s growing appreciation of other dance forms, it wasn’t until age 17 that she began exploring dance outside of kathak.
“My mother wanted me to be a pure kathak dancer, so that I’d maintain the integrity of the form. When I was a teenager, I thought it was unfair that I couldn’t be on the dance team, but looking back on it, the rewards associated with only doing kathak for so many years were exponential. Coming of age in one dance form is priceless, almost virginal … you get a deeper experience of it. And when I was an adult exploring other forms, that experience was much more personal, not just an indiscriminate sampling.”
After college, Ambegaokar’s love for performance led her into the pageant circuit, where she took five titles altogether, including Miss India USA and Miss India North America. At 22, she was picked up by Cirque du Soleil and became the youngest member and principal dancer (“Oceane,” the goddess of water) of their show, Dralion, which fused Eastern symbols and philosophy with the company’s avant-garde approach to modern circus. For over two years, Ambegaokar performed in 750 shows all across North America.
“For that show, they Indianized my character and the modern dance, which was great, because it felt like ‘Indianness’ was being put out on a commercial level. Plus, audience eyes are so accustomed to Cirque’s art forms … acrobatics, a little ballet, a little jazz, a little contortion; viewers are a bit jaded by it. Now we’re seeing a renaissance of other dance forms from places around the world, and it’s instigating a greater appreciation of dance.”
As a young woman out of college, Ambegaokar began to seriously think of her purpose, “apart from following in the footsteps of my mother.” She came to the realization that the communal, educational aspects of sharing her dance with others was of primary importance. “Kathak is storytelling—I knew there had to be a way of showing this without over-explaining. And even though what I’m doing is pure kathak, there is a very American side to the dance, since I am a first-generation dancer. I was blessed with an abundance of resources and opportunities, so I feel it’s my responsibility to work [from] what my mother built.”
An Actress is Born
Ambegaokar continued dancing and educating others after her stint with Cirque, but she also began to explore a passion that had silently stewed on the back burner for years: acting. In college, she participated in a variety of acting classes and workshops, but it took a few years for her to seriously follow her natural inclination for acting. After going to India for a year and a half and doing some work in Bollywood, she came back onto the U.S. scene with a vengeance. In the past few years, Ambegaokar has made a name for herself as a guest actor on television shows like Boston Legal, ER, Alias, Grey’s Anatomy, and more recently, Heroes. Many of her opportunities stemmed from the feature film, American Blend, starring Anupam Kher and Dee Wallace, which Ambegaokar acted in, choreographed for, and provided vocals for on the film’s soundtrack. Her first commercial acting role was on ER, which eventually led to a recurring role as an “uptight, overachiever Indian intern” on Grey’s Anatomy.
Ambegaokar’s versatility and rising star status also endeared her to the Heroescasting crew. She was featured in the February 16 episode of NBC’s hit series, as an Indian woman named Annapurna who helps recurring characters Hiro and Ando find their path back to heroism. “It’s a beautiful storyline where they save her, and she empowers them and saves them in the process,” says Ambegaokar. “It’s really fun—with lots of action and kidnapping, a few beat-up scenes, and some wedding stuff going on. And there’s this full character arc, so it’s a very pivotal role.”
All the same, it might be Superstars of Dance that will have Ambegaokar recognized for years to come. Ambegaokar notes that because kathak is not an art form that has received much visibility in mainstream western culture, reactions from people unfamiliar with the dance are usually made in the spirit of discovery.
“People get fascinated because they don’t quite understand what they are watching, but the response is positive because there is this recognition of the purity of the form [which] wouldn’t have existed had I learned to mash things up at a young age,” she explains. “You figure out ways to insert [more of yourself] into the dance, but it’s about respect andmaintaining the integrity of the dance.”
Ambegaokar’s three performances on the show each focused on a different Hindu deity: Shiva for the first piece, Krishna for the second, and Ganesh for the final. “There is the voice of a spiritual presence without getting religiously specific, and I think the judges got that the dance was about something greater,” she says. “And if it’s good art, there isn’t any need for prior knowledge. Good art transcends explanation.”
While Ambegaokar’s second piece was accompanied by music from Anoushka Shankar, her first and third pieces were set to original compositions by her mother’s teacher, Guru Pandit Sundarlaljee Gangani, who lives in India. Ambegaokar is particularly excited because, a year and a half ago, she and her mother produced an album that included Gangani’s compositions. “It doesn’t get much richer or deeper or more authentic than [these compositions],” she says. “It also gives me an opportunity to give back to the kathak community and make the work mainstream. I didn’t have to pay for my classes, so it’s also a way to [give back financially] to the composers and owners of the work.”
Ambegaokar’s graceful navigation of traditions and cultures is, in many ways, changing the face of what is considered “American.” Ambegaokar asserts, “A few years ago, I told my mother that Indians will have the kind of impact on Hollywood that Latin actors were making. Now you have major films likeSlumdog Millionaire and artists like Kal Penn breaking boundaries on a large scale. It’s amazing how it’s unfolding before our eyes.”
As for herself, the down-to-earth LA native isn’t about to trade in humility and purpose for paparazzi flash bulbs. “Glitz and glam are only frosting on the cake,” Ambegaokar says. “I’m here for the work. The only track to stay on is the one that keeps you closest to your art, and your art is your truth.”
|Nirmala Nataraj is a critic, playwright, producer, poet, creative nonfiction writer, and erstwhile filmmaker. She has written for publications including Bitch: A Feminist Response to Popular Culture and ColorLines. She is also an active community arts organizer and a former board member/curatorial committee member of San Francisco’s Kearny Street Workshop.|