Mythili Prakash, known nationwide as the Indian dancer on NBC Superstars of Dance and in classical Rasika circles as perhaps the only American dancer who has made her mark in Bharatanatyam, will be performing in Palo Alto for the IDIA- I Dance, hence I Am- festival of BharataNatyam.
Indeed,Mythili has her own brand of dancing, one that is traditional while at the same time infused with timeless energy and emotion. She is continuously deconstructing Bharatanatyam while at the same time raising the bar on technical mastery. Her dream is to form a dance company so trained dancers can have a platform to pursue dance as full-time professionals. She believes that Bharatanatyam is so rich, complex, and nuanced that sometimes it becomes overwhelming for an uninitiated audience, and has (to some extent) become restricted to a niche audience. Her goal is to create work that retains the depth and aesthetic of the classical form, while having a universal connection. Her solo and ensemble work is proof of this- Watch Prakash’s “Jwala” here.
Mythili speaks candidly about her approach, working with family, and being an NRI dancer here:
What are you working on, currently?
For IDIA, I will be presenting a traditional “Margam” at the request of the organizers. Though the pieces and my choreography of them are driven by structure and composition, I have selected pieces that I feel a personal connection with.
I’m working on two other solo pieces that are extremely challenging, and because of that – stimulating and exciting. The first piece is on the dichotomy of “femininity” specifically between the worship and glorification of the Goddess, and the treatment and degradation of women in our culture(s). The second piece that I’m working on is about Time – that time is illusion. The creation process has involved a lot of creating structures and then deconstructing them completely, as linearity is totally contradictory to the concept. The piece also reflects the constant struggle to be in the present. I’m incredibly lucky to be working on this piece under the mentorship of Akram Khan (the internationally acclaimed Kathak and contemporary dance master).
Are you ever in conflict, being an NRI in India and “Indian” dancer in the US?
Not conflict as such. Dance has always been such a part of my identity, and because it has been in my life since I was born (Mythili is well-known dancer Viji Prakash’s daughter), there is a natural sense of ownership and belonging. So even though I may technically qualify as an “NRI” in India, I have always felt that I belong. I do sometimes feel a bit marginalized as an “Indian” dancer in the US. There are more schools and (Bharatanatyam) dance students in the US than there are professional dancers, and that reflects in the overall standard of performance. The standard of a “company” in genres such as contemporary dance are far different from a “company” in Bharatanatyam, which usually consists of well-trained students from a dance school, but not full-time professional dancers.
You’ve said that much of choreography depends on where you are as a person at that time…where would you say you were when “Mara,” your production, came to be?
Meditation became a very active and integral part of my life starting in 2009. Since then, there has been a transformation in the way I view and interpret my artistic content. The esoteric became (and continues to be) a fascination. My brother Aditya was going through something similar. In 2012, we had both read a book by Deepak Chopra, called The Buddha. The character Mara, as delineated by Chopra, immediately became apparent to both of us as a representation of our own mind. As meditators, the mind becomes a point of focus and observation; As artists, the mind became an interesting point of creative exploration. (Watch glimpses of Mara here.)
What were some of the discoveries you’ve made in your own choreographic journey?
Recently, the topics and pieces I am moving towards are things that require me to be a bit more inventive with my knowledge and use of the Bharatanatyam vocabulary. In “Sanctuaries” for example, exploring an elephant character was not as much a challenge as exploring the “Scientist.” Also, when something is an allegory, how does one find the balance between specificity and universality? What does my scientist represent and how can I bring that out through abstraction, while also using a gestural language that is universally recognizable as associated with a scientist, but also within the aesthetics of the form. These are some of the challenges.
Why did you choose the pieces you did for NBC Superstars?
My choices were dictated largely by time restriction. We had 2 mins in the first round (from what I remember), and 1.5 mins in the second round. It’s virtually impossible to do anything of substance that represents the depth of the form within that short time frame. I chose nritta for the first round to keep things simple. For the second round, I chose Shiva as the subject because I feel He is one of the most important symbols in terms of the cosmic and spiritual aspects of the form. (Watch it here.)
Was your experience of growing up similar to what many other kids experience? – Public school, school orchestra? Participation in sports?
Yes, I went to public school. I learned modern dance in High School and was in my school’s Dance Company. In high school, I got progressively more obsessed with doing well academically (until the second semester of senior year!). It was a pressure that was completely self-imposed, I’m not sure why. I’d wake up, study or do homework, go to school, stay for dance company practice after, come home and either practice or be rehearsing for something, and then stay up late doing more homework.
What was your first time on stage like?
At three years old, sort of an accident though! I was quite insistent on dancing with my idol who was my mother’s student, Anjali Tata. To keep me quiet, my mom allowed me to dance behind Anjali during all the rehearsals for an upcoming show. Long story short, I was tricked into believing that I was truly in the show, but I was locked in a dressing room during the show itself so that I could not come out. I cried (tantrum-cried) myself to sleep, and woke up, broke out of the dressing room and made an entrance on stage! It was quite a memorable experience for all!
Your brother, Aditya singing for you – was that always the plan?
It was never really a plan for him to sing for me. He has a lot going on with his own career. The working together just sort-of happened naturally. I like having him compose music for me because I like his blend of classicism and out-of-the-box ideas. But getting him to do it is sometimes a bit like pulling teeth! We are close, though you may never be able to tell by the way we act. (More on Aditya Prakash here.)
How has the relationship with your mother changed over the years?
She was my first role model. I idolized her and wanted to be a dancer just like her. It’s actually really sweet because I see my 3-year-old daughter saying the same thing. She was a strict teacher and tough on me. And because I was her daughter, I took liberties that any other student wouldn’t, so we fought a lot. I’m glad for her firm and rigorous teaching style though, it has shaped me so that I am never complacent but always looking to be better. As I have grown as a dancer and choreographer, my style has developed and continues to. We are very different in our approach to the dance and you can see that reflected in our choreography. Very often there is a (spirited!) difference of opinion, but she is my teacher and I look to her for her critical eye.
What is your guiding philosophy for yourself as a person and as a dancer?
As a dancer and as a person, I want to continue to grow, to find depth, to move inward. Learning and discovery inspire and excite me tremendously!
(Mythili Prakash will be performing at IDIA, festival of BharataNatyam: August 19 2018, Cubberly Auditorium, Palo Alto, CA. Tickets here.)
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.