Tag Archives: dancer

Preeti Vasudevan Dances Stories of Ethnic Folklore to Yo-Yo Ma’s Cello

New York-based award-winning choreographer and performer Preeti Vasudevan is known for creating provocative contemporary works from Indian tradition. Founder and artistic director of the Thresh Performing Arts Collaborative, her mission is to create experimental productions that foster a provocative dialogue with identity, and our relationship with heritage cultures and contemporary life. 

Preeti has been recognized by a number of prestigious institutions in the US for her outstanding contribution to dance. Cultural diplomacy is key to her work through education. As an artist alum of the US Department of State, she leads groundbreaking educational initiatives encouraging self-expression and artistic risk through cross-cultural creative exchange among artists and the community.

Preeti partners her educational and creative leadership with world-impacting organizations, such as Silkroad founded by legendary musician Yo-Yo Ma and the National Dance Institute founded by celebrated dancer Jacques D’Amboise. Recently, she started The Red Curtain Project (RCP), a new initiative from Thresh dedicated to sharing stories from around the world. Born during the NYC Covid lockdowns, RCP’s innovative digital stories highlight universal tenets, inspiring children to see connection and unity between cultures, while also encouraging them to live by the principles featured.

In this exclusive interview, she talks among other things about her earliest influences, her new operatic musical theater production, and the process of presenting ancient, contemporary, and mythological digital stories through movement, theatrics, music, visual art, and a simple red curtain as a prop.

How did you get interested in Bharatnatyam, and who were your earliest influences?

I was always interested in dancing, any dance would motivate me. My mother always says that she saw me dancing even before walking! I had this high energy that would make me want to move all the time. As we are from the south of India, I think my mother wanted me to learn the culture from where we are. At that time, I was growing up in New Delhi. So, it was all the more reason not to lose the connection to one’s roots. 

My earliest influences were dances I saw through the cultural exchange programs between India and China and India and the USSR. Living in the capital, we were exposed to some of the most incredible dances, something I had never seen before. The dynamism and costumes all were mesmerizing. I grew up watching some of the Indian greats as well from Kelucharan Mohapatra to Birju Maharaj to the Jhaveri sisters, teachers from the Kalamandalam. 

My first proper influence was my own teacher, the late Shri U.S. Krishna Rao who made me see dance for its own beauty and didn’t make it over precious. He loved cricket and was a chemistry professor, so he put it all in perspective as something all humans must do – dance! My own gurus, the Dhananjayans, were like my second parents. I owe a lot to them beyond dancing. They taught me how to look at life and where movement can come from. These further opened my eyes to the world of human expression through movement.

How did your dance evolve with the influence of a western and eastern range of dance and theater forms while you were teaching in Japan?

Japan made me grow up! I was used to traveling by then, touring and performing a lot. But these were mostly in India or the west. The Far East was still a mystery to us in the 90s. When I got a cultural scholarship to go there, I was partly nervous and excited – I love adventures! Japanese dance, Nihon Buyo made me experience my own body differently. The kimono, which first confined my body, taught me how to use my spine to liberate myself from the inside; the fans held during dance taught me how to channel the energy of emotions through my fingers onto them as an extension of my body. Thus, when I did perform the Bharatanatyam, I felt all these changes from the inside and made my dancing more three-dimensional and alive than before. 

Prior to Japan, I was a cultural delegate at the India International Dance Festival where the American dance festival came to New Delhi for three weeks to teach Indian dancers modern dance. Almost everything was new for me – falling, lying down, and moving, touching another dancer…between giggles and shocks, I learned to open my eyes to see movement as one of the most amazing energies there is! After these two crucial influences, I felt it seamless to collaborate and continue investigating my own approach to dance. Over the years, I have cross-trained in various forms of movement, theater, and voice to keep searching for the next meaning.

Preeti Vasudevan Choreographing at the Joyce Lab.

What is the idea behind your company Thresh, and tell us about some of the work that you do with it?

Thresh is like the threshold – it is about the present – the now. We come with a past and we go into an unknown future. What’s important is how we see and experience the present. It’s the liminal zone. That’s how Thresh came about in 2005 after I completed my Master’s from the Laban Centre in London. It’s an experimental platform to bring international artists together to create a provocative dialogue on identity and our relationship between our contemporary lives and heritage cultures. It’s about finding the universal experience and truth from the diverse voices as a collective.

Tell our readers about the Red Curtain Project, your recent initiative of sharing stories from around the world that was born during the NYC Covid lockdowns.

The Red Curtain Project (RCP) was born due to Covid. When all performances shut down, we had to find out what we stood for and what we could do for the larger society. Digital storytelling came out of this. My husband, Bruno Kavanagh, does online learning and therefore, he jumped in to help Thresh develop this amazing online platform. We have created 14 stories to date including one of our highlights with the legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Through RCP, we have also done similar work for a Lebanese organization on stories from the war. Now, we are embarking on a new social impact venture called First Voices where we are working in partnership with the Indigenous people of Montana in the US to create a series on ancestral creation stories. This will lead into school workshops within the reservations to empower the youth with leadership skills through the arts.

Describe the process you use to present ancient, contemporary, and mythological digital stories through movement, theatrics, music, visual art, and a simple red curtain as a prop?

Thresh has a great network of artists globally who share a common mission of sharing a story. For RCP, we work with children’s book publishers to select stories based on chosen themes and then license them. We then seek composer and visual artists to work alongside me as I do the choreography. This year, I have been the sole dancer due to distancing and restrictions. But from next year, I will be seeking other dancers who can be a part of this incredible sharing. The Red Curtain is a metaphor – in theater, we reveal everything once we open the curtain and the color red has multiple symbolisms the world over. In my apartment in New York, we have a red curtain. I simply used it, and it became the indicator for our project!

What are you working on next?

As mentioned, we have created our project First Voices. On December 10th, we launched the first performance online. We welcome everyone to come to see this and be part of our new adventure. Apart from this, we are also in residence creating a new operatic musical theater production called L’Orient: Search for the Real Lakme. This is a 21st-century take on the 19th-century French opera, Lakme. It looks at gender and Orientalism, and plays with Bharatanatyam, ballet, opera, and Carnatic music. It hopes to be a really fun production with a lively cast of unusual performers. We have received a residency commission from Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum, NY.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul and Bombay Memory Box.

Lockdown Diary of an Indian Dance Teacher

Like other performance artists, dancers and dance instructors depend on human interaction to convey their artistry to their audience. COVID situation presents unique challenges for dance instructors. Most dance teachers have had to replace their studio-based classes with online sessions, in line with the “stay-at-home” state guidelines. As they move their classes online, they are finding innovative ways to keep their audience and students engaged. 

I am an Indian dance instructor based in the Greater Seattle area, teaching Bharatanatyam and Bollywood dance. As I have transitioned my classes to Zoom, it has been somewhat of a challenge due to various technical issues, as you can imagine.

Some funny moments arise from online classes:

Recently I have noticed a funny development…

My students were performing their mudras (hand motions) while chanting Sanskrit shlokas. As most of my younger students are US-born and lack fluency in their native tongues, I take time after each class to make them practice both the mudras and their accompanying shlokas. I teach my classes on a laptop connected to a large flat screen tv, with the sound ramped up. My daughters join me for some of the classes too and we perform together. 

My husband, who is an IT professional, sometimes sits and works in the adjacent kitchen area while I take classes. It seems that our shloka recitations have started affecting him too, as I can hear him repeating the mudras with us as we practice. During one of my online classes, I remember quizzing my students. “What is this mudra?”, I asked. “Kartarimukhaha” (a scissors shaped hand gesture), chipped my husband before the student could answer. The students and parents attending the call broke out laughing. He keeps humming these shlokas as he works around the house these days. I successfully implanted the Shloka bug in him finally after 16 years of our marriage during lockdown!

Pet dog “Sugar” was Aleyssa’s “horsey” during her online Indian classical dance class

In another incident, two adorable sisters, Aleyssa(8) and Ameyssa (5), were in the middle of their online Bharatanatyam class, working on a movement called “Araimandi” (a half-sitting posture where the dancer creates a typical diamond shape with her legs).  As Alyessa was practicing, her Labradoodle, Sugar, decided to run through her legs. She took it in stride and exclaimed that Sugar was her “Horsey!” So, in the middle of our class, there was my student, Aleyssa, riding atop her dog Sugar, like a princess on her horse! This ended when her 5-year-old sister, Ameyssa, came and held sugar’s ears and finally managed to stop her. Usually, an online session is very stressful for both teacher and student, but this incident made me laugh and brought in a much-needed bit of joy in this pandemic crazy homestay.

I am also inspired on a regular basis by my adult students. Most of them have kids at home and have to squeeze out time out of their daily schedules to attend classes. 

Pallabi tries to learn Indian classical dance online with her two active daughters running around her.

My student, Pallabi, has two active girls aged 4 and 7. Normally, when Pallabi would attend Bharatanatyam class, her daughters would play at the church nursery or at the park. After I moved the classes online, Pallabi decided to continue attending the online sessions. One day she was learning a complicated travel and sidestep, where she was trying to create a V shape on the ground with her feet, and as she danced, both her little girls were using that V-shape as a zig-zag path to run around. 

How she learned that complicated step amidst all the chaos that was going on at her home, is beyond me. This is funny as well motivating too, as it shows that if we are resolute in our focus, no chaos can be considered as an excuse.

I have also started teaching Bollywood dance lessons. I am currently teaching a sequence of Warrior queens from Period Bollywood musicals. For these lessons, students need to use props as swords. We were about to order these props and distribute them to the students but the lockdown came about before I could hand them over. However, the energy and positivity of my senior students came to the rescue. They decided to meet online and finish learning that sequence. For the prop swords, they turned to whatever they could get their hands upon in their respective homes. One took a rolling pin from the kitchen, another picked up her husband’s cricket game stick. Someone else picked up her kid’s toy arrow from a bow and arrow set, and another person grabbed a Jedi’s sword from her son’s desk.

Different dance props are chosen from around the home.

I am blessed to have these passionate people in my life. When I moved my classes online, I offered a discounted fee structure. However, all my students waived off these discounts and they pay the full fee amounts as they all think that more labor and prep time is involved in teaching online classes. I decided to contribute some of these earnings to other artistic communities, as a way of giving back.

Theatres, auditoriums, and other dance studios shut down across the country in response to COVID-19. Many studios are quickly exploring the option of teaching classes online. Many non-profit studios are asking for donations to help them stay afloat. Being a freelance Indian dance instructor with a decent IT job, I decided to donate online dance earnings to a dance studio named “Da Vinci”, which always provided space to people like us to continue our passion.

As the world continues an uncertain battle against the invisible COVID-19 virus, performing art communities worldwide have been among the first to be affected due to restrictions on public gatherings and concerts. The virtual world is flooded today with free offerings of all kinds of art, movies, museum tours, music festivals, dance concerts, music festivals, to keep up the morale of the world as it copes with the lockdown and the cultural climate. As a society, we need to help the arts survive as it helps with inner healing.

Piyali Biswas De is an accomplished Bharatnatyam and Non-classical dance exponent, guru, and well-known choreographer in the Greater Seattle region. When she is not dancing, Piyali works as an IT professional in Seattle and spends time with two beautiful daughters who seem eager to follow in her footsteps. 

“I Don’t Remember a Time When I Was Not Dancing”: Aditi Mangaldas

She is a leading dancer and choreographer in the classical Indian dance form of Kathak. Regarded as one of the leading dancers in both the traditional and contemporary idiom, Aditi Mangaldas has performed traditional and contemporary Kathak across the world. She is also the artistic director and principal dancer of the Delhi-based dance company, The Drishtikon Dance Foundation. Neha Kirpal spoke to Aditi Mangaldas about how dance became such a big part of her life, the contemporary vocabulary/movement language she has devised as well as her upcoming activities, performances and tours.  

Unlike most classical dancers, you do not belong to a family of dancers. How did you decide on a career in Kathak?

This is a story that my parents remind me of—I honestly don’t have any memory of it. My family has been industrialists on one side, and academicians on the other. My paternal grandmother used to live with us in Ahmedabad. It’s a very large family, so every evening the entire Mangaldas family would come to our home to meet my grandmother. I have been told that there was this little table on which I would promptly jump up and somehow try to attract their attention and tell little stories and do other things, mostly using movement. 

WITHIN : Contemporary dance performance by Aditi Mangaldas & troup at Jamshedji Bhabha Theatre,NCPA on 23/03/2014.Photos By : NARENDRA DANGIYA

 

My parents were both very liberal. They encouraged both my brother and Ito explore our maximum. Within their possibilities, they tried to expose us to different cultures, music, dance, art and sculpture. Further, there was a community science centre that I went to as a young child where I became really interested in mathematics, and went on to graduate in the subject later. Gradually, all the classes fell off, and dance seemed to be my calling. 

I don’t remember any particular moment when I decided to become a professional. I don’t remember a time when I was not dancing. My earliest memories are of me in class with my gurus. They did put me in a Bharatnatyam class to start with because Mrinalini Sarabhai was a family friend, but my best friend was in a Kathak class. When I went there, I fell in love and it was magic to see the class of my guru Shrimati Kumudini Lakhia. So, I implored my parents to move me and they did. Thereon, started my lifelong immersion, passion and dedication with Kathak. That’s how the first steps were taken in Kathak. 

Also, I went to a very liberal school called Shreyas that encouraged music and dance along with mathematics, languages and the rest. Being in such an environment, with my parents and my guru, where art can prosper, helped. Later on, I left Ahmedabad and came to Delhi and joined my second guru, Pandit Birju Maharaj. I was with him for many years, and then decided that I need to find my own language. For me, life has been the greatest guru, because you find that strength within you to relearn everything and forge your own path. So, dance just became a part of my existence.  

Tell us a little about your extensive training under the leading gurus of Kathak, Shrimati Kumudini Lakhia and Pandit Birju Maharaj.

I was really lucky to have these two stalwarts as my gurus. If I see it in a broader sense as to what my learning and education has been from them: from Kumudini ji, I learnt the relationship of this tiny body in terms of the vast space around us—a horizontal understanding, a connection with not only the space, but with lights, music and text. Similarly, with Pandit Birju Maharaj, I learnt to see this body itself as the centre of the universe. What is the central part of the body that reaches out to the edges? I also learnt how this body is self-sufficient on its own and the intricacies of movement within the body. 

Kumudini ji also always told us never to wear blinkers; to observe and be open to whatever is happening around us. That really helped me to constantly question. My family also always encouraged questioning, discussions, debates and arguments—not to take anything written in stone. So what if something is written 2,000 or 5,000 years ago? You are free to question it and find your own relevance with it. Maharaj ji, on the other hand, expected us to go deeper and deeper into the style. So, you shed all the externals and constantly did sadhana or dedicated practice—got immersed in the dance. Eventually, I always consider my family and life my two ultimate gurus. The experience of learning from life is something quite different. 

Tell us about the contemporary vocabulary/movement language that you have devised. 

There are two streams under which my work can be categorized—classical Kathak and contemporary dance based on Kathak. There is one stream of thought according to which what we call khula naach is one in which one comes and recites the bols and communicates with the audience, and it’s not a structured performance. I prefer to structure my performances in a way that a certain concept is woven through it, and the pieces that I dance to, are like little gems that are strung on the piece. I do a lot of solos and also choreograph many group works. All of this is about 80 percent of my work. 

Dance Umbrella 2016, Inter_rupted, Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, Barbican

 

 

At the same time, I found that there are many things that I want to communicate. As Kathakars, we are storytellers, and sometimes the stories we want to communicate, cannot be best communicated through the medium of classical Kathak. For example, when I wanted to communicate claustrophobia, I found it impossible to do so within the broader parameters of classical Kathak. So, I had to find a movement vocabulary that allows me to communicate it. As an artist, I have a desire to communicate things, and I should not stop myself from doing so. So, I asked myself how to go about it. How do I develop a vocabulary that is informed by our history and geography, but not bogged down by it? How does this new exploration start? I don’t believe in fusion—it’s like cutting a branch of an apple tree and grafting it on a mango tree. 

My attempt, however, is to sow the seed of Kathak and water it with contemporary sensibilities, movement, thought, music and inspirations from life. So, the fruits are firmly entrenched in Kathak, and yet the tree that grows out is very different from my Kathak tree. This contemporary dance based on Kathak tree is totally rooted in Kathak. No one can do it who is not a Kathak dancer. Classical Kathak has a kind of external boundary, though one that is constantly expanding. Whereas in this case, it’s like absorption—not fusion, or deconstructing the form. 

You will turn 60 next year. What are some of your upcoming performances, tours, and other activities of the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company – The Drishtikon Dance Foundation that you head.

There are many exciting things coming up in the future. We have a whole set of performances happening in India, many of which are my solos. We just performed as a group at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai for their 50th anniversary and I’m also dancing a classical solo for them. I’m also performing in Chennai for a festival. We are performing all over India this year. We are also going to Russia and Turkey. We have also just returned from an extensive tour of Germany with 11 performances of our work which is within classical and contemporary dance based on Kathak. We are also scheduled to be going to the Middle East. In April 2020, I will be performing Immersed at the “Dancing the Gods Festival” in New York. 

Since last year, under Dance Drishtikon, we have also started sponsoring young dancers and giving them an opportunity to completely make their own work—from the concept to the choreography, etc. That happened in May this year, and now we are going to present another young dancer and four young choreographers. Among all these, the most exciting is the work I’ve started on three new productions, one of which is a contemporary solo. All our collaborators are from England. It’s about why society is scared of female fantasy. Some of the top names in light design, dramaturgy, costume design and set design are my collaborators. We will premiere it in November 2020. The other group work—both classical and contemporary—is also going to be premiered sometime in 2020 or early 2021. I’m also talking to Shubha Mudgal for the music composition, and working on another fully classical solo. 

Another series we have started is the baithak, to give young dancers and musicians an opportunity to perform in an intimate atmosphere. Since last year, we have had eight baithaks—five in our own home studio and three at other  venues, like the Oddbird Theatre or the Serendipity Foundation. My only involvement is that I curate the piece. Another series that I have started are the workshops in which I teach myself. We are also planning to start a series called Saturdays with Aditi, which will be a very intensive training in the classical form of Kathak for three hours over many Saturdays. 

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com