As a member of a Cirque Du Soleil production you get to experience first hand the infinite diversity and beauty of the modern world. You listen to music that, simultaneously, has its roots everywhere and nowhere, see dance sequences that are brilliant collages of many different styles, and interact with cast members from countries you have only read of in your geography book. But, becoming part of this community is not easy. You have to be talented, self-confident and prepared to face tough competition.
Amrapali Ambegaokar had what it takes. Earlier this year, she auditioned for, and got, a lead dancing role in Cirque Du Soleil latest production Drallion.
Daughter and student of well-known kathak artist Anjani Ambegaokar, 23-year old Amrapali admits she was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with Cirque Du Soleil. It is also a challenge. “Melding with the group with my own particular training is an ongoing process,” she admits. “I am primarily a kathak dancer and even though we don’t use kathak per se in my role, it gives me a better understanding of the dance form as a whole.” Drallion, which means dragon in French, is based on the Four Elements and, like all Cirque Du Soleil productions, combines dance, music, circus acts, and drama to create a magical fantasy for the audience. Dancing the role of Oceana (water), Amrapali shares the stage with dancers from different traditions and with a troupe of highly-trained Chinese acrobats.
Choreographing her dances was challenging, to say the least. The choreographer for the production had done an excellent job but there were rough patches that needed to be smoothed over. And this is where Amrapali’s mother came in. While visiting her daughter in New York for the opening ofDrallion, Anjani suggested a few modifications to Amrapali’s moves in a certain scene. “As Oceana, she is supposed to depict the nature of water, its movement, its sound,” Anjani states. “I felt that she could improve her performance by incorporating more kathak moves … maybe some bells on her feet, some bols, etc. I began suggesting some moves, but cautiously, since I was there as mom and not in a professional capacity.” The artistic Director Sylvie Galarneau was charmed at the outcome. She invited Anjani to join the production as a choreographer.
“I worked for five days with their choreographers and in the end I think I brought in more of an Indian element to Amrapali’s role in Drallion.” Like her daughter, Anjani feels that the process is ongoing. “Water has more dimensions when interpreted in Indian dancing.”
Amrapali has a three-year contract with Cirque Du Soleil. She says the life is hectic but loves being on the road for eight months in the year. The cast is given accommodation in corporate apartments and she puts in long days. A typical day is taken up with rehearsals, press conferences, and morning shows. “We will perform in several cities and before the year is out we will have performedDrallion about 360 times.” While at New York, Amrapali also managed to teach a seven-week workshop on kathak at the prestigious Broadway Dance Center.
When asked where she finds the time to do so many things, Amrapali explains, “I think it’s really quite simple. If you really want something, go out and get it.” A B.A. in World Arts and Culture from UCLA, she has been performing in Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India Company since she was a child. And for her, the stage is not an intimidating place to be. However, a chance of doing something as innovative as taking your art and reinterpreting it for a broader audience does not fall into one’s lap everyday. “I consider myself very lucky to be where I am at the moment,” affirms Amrapali.
Both mother and daughter are well known in classical dance circles. Anjani’s school, Sundar Kala Kendra, has trained hundreds of students in the art of kathak in Southern California. She herself has won recognition for her choreographic work through grants from the National Endowments for the Arts, the California Arts Council and the City of Los Angeles. Among other things, Amrapali has worked as a dancer in the Sabrina Teenage Witch television sitcom and danced a solo kathak-tap-flamenco collaboration entitled “Sole to Soul” at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. Last year, at the Dance Research Conference in Aridia, Greece, Anjani presented a paper on “Analyzing Sole to Soul” which was much appreciated and was to lead to an extraordinary opportunity for her. In May this year, Anjani was invited to be a judge at the International Competition for Choreographers that is sponsored by the Russian Cultural Foundation every year. Eleven judges from different parts of the world judged 200 dance entries in four categories: classical, modern, folk and children.
The competition was held in Novosibirsk in Siberia. “I never thought I would ever go to Siberia in Russia,” laughs Anjani. “But it was worth every moment. Not only did I get to see a lot of very creative work, but I also came away with a healthy respect for the Russians, who are totally into music and dance. The government spends a lot of money on the arts. The Novosibirsk Opera Theater is so gorgeous…better than most of our auditoriums here.”
It was a week-long opportunity of networking with very interesting artists says Anjani. The seeds of many interesting collaborations were formed at the competition and she herself came back with her creative juices flowing. She points out that though the present level of participation by Indian dancers and choreographers in this competition is negligible there is a lot of scope for their work to shine in the international arena in the future.
Anjani already has her next project in sight—a dramatic rendition of the Indian mythological story Shakuntala. She will not reveal much about the project just yet. Suffice it to say, it will be a very original variation on the oft-told tale.