Project Title: Nrityagram Intensive Summer Workshop
Aim: develop technical, performance, teaching and choreographic skills in Odissi
Durations: 1 month (12th June to 9th July 2017)
- Lisa Ullman Travel Scholarship Fund £775
- Movin’Up – Gai Giovani Artisti Italiani €1500
- Kingston University, Dance Department £200
Thanks to the Lisa Ullman Travel Scholarship, and further funding received by Gai-Giovani Artisti Italiani and Kingston University, this summer I was able to undertake one of the most enriching experiences of my life as a dancer. I practice Odissi, an Indian classical dance form, which unlike bharatanatyam and kathak is not yet well known and widely practiced in the UK, despite the breadth and depth of its technical vocabulary and choreographic potential. I have carried out most of my training in India under gurus of international acclaim, but it has always been my ambition to study for an intensive period at Nrityagram, a dance village near Bangalore. Nrityagram was founded in 1990 in order to provide unique space where future generations of dancers could focus exclusively on their artistic practice and deepen their understanding of Indian philosophy and performance aesthetics.
Nrityagram is presently home to some of the finest odissi dancers in the world, who have electrified audiences both in India and abroad with their distinctive style and breathtaking choreographies, mainly created by artistic director Surupa Sen. Sen’s choreographic work is know for its contemporary aesthetics which is clearly visible in the use of space, time and dynamics, while holding on traditional themes and symbolism. The result feels simultaneously timeless and continuously fresh, setting Nrityagram Ensemble apart from any other odissi professional company, for their originality and aesthetic appeal.
In addition, and as a foundation to this choreographic practice, Bijayini Satpathy, the director of education at Nrityagram, has done extensive practical research on the traditional movement vocabulary, expanding it from within, by deconstructing and reconstructing material found in choreographies created by the revivalists of the style in the first stages of development of odissi as a classical dance form. Bijayini has integrated her study of movement with a thorough investigation of classical texts of the South Asian performing tradition, in particular the Natyasastra. In addition, she has also introduced exercises and principles of Indian martial arts, yoga and western body conditioning and movement techniques in dancers’ training. She has then come out with a pedagogical system, which is highly effective in expanding the potential of the odissi dancing body, in preventing injuries, in giving breath and texture to the movements, in allowing a more versatile ownership of the dance material and in nurturing creativity.
It was therefore essential to me to experience the work of these great artists and to bring it back to the UK where I work as a professional odissi dancer, equally committed to teaching and performing high quality dance. In particular, I was motivated to learn the Nrityagram pedagogical approach, as well as observing their choreographic practice. I wanted also to be exposed to the lifestyle of dancers who are fully dedicated to their art form. While this last point is not immediately translatable to our life as dancers in the West, where financial pressures and a different socio-economical system sometimes prevent us to go in total depth in what we are doing, nevertheless observing these artists at work has been extremely inspirational and has encouraged me to hold confidently on my artistic vision.
I will now briefly describe the content of the workshop and then I will discuss what are the key skills, knowledge and general understanding I have acquired. Also, I will mention how I aim to apply this material in my own artistic practice and my vision for the future of odissi in the UK and of myself as an artist, contributing to the professionalization of this dance form.
A standard day at Nrityagram starts at 6.00am with a tea and then a gentle jogging in the surrounding countryside, breathing fresh air and pumping oxygen in the body through the simple act of walking. Returning at 7am back to the village, we do our daily chores, such as sweeping common areas or making our own laundry. At 8am, we have our yoga and body-conditioning class, which lasts for an hour and a half. Then we have breakfast. The first dance class is from 10.30am to 12noon, after which we go to observe the Ensemble’s rehearsal. At 2pm, we have delicious vegetarian lunch and, after some rest and a tea, we get back to class from 4.30 to 6.30pm. We have then another hour for personal practice, which we normally use to consolidate what we have learned in class and dinner at 8pm. After that, we are allows to observe the artists teaching the traditional repertoire to residential students.
Every single of these moments is an incredible opportunity for learning. Waking up early in the morning gives insights on the degree of daily discipline required in the life of a professional dancer. The yoga and body-conditioning class, far from being an ancillary training, becomes the core of solid and safe practice. In particular, I have learned several exercises that, combining the wisdom of different movement disciplines, are helping me connect with my body and especially with my breath at a deeper level, incredibly enhancing my performance experience and execution. I aim to introduce these exercises also in my teaching as I start my regular classes at The Place and at Kingston University in the next few days.
The dance classes were an experience of its own. Normally, odissi training is based on the practice of a few steps and then the study of traditional choreography. However, at Nrityagram, one learns and practices different variations of footwork, steps, including jumps, walks, spins, acquiring a rich palette of movements which can be easily combined and transformed for both teaching and choreographic purposes. This approach, which clearly enhances physical and mental versatility and nurtures creativity, is already a deep source of inspiration for me. I am sure this training methodology will profoundly change my own practice, and will benefiting future generation of dancers who will dance and learn with me. In fact, this approach is also feeding into the development of the odissi syllabus which will be approved by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance, and in which I am directly involved.
Equally inspiring was the observation of the Ensemble’s daily practice. The amount of work, and the degree of relentless search for perfection, uncompromising commitment and deeply rooted presence in the movement is simply inspirational. The observation of daily rehearsals has also allowed me to have an insight in the way the movement material is worked out and constantly transformed and improved by the choreographer and embodied by the dancers. I had the opportunity to observe the nuanced use of the sound in the footwork, sometimes stronger, sometimes more subtle, the shades in the use of movements, where dancers play with speed and size, and the mesmerizing use of space where the bodies cluster and spread in a constant state of compositional transformation. This understanding of the subtleties of the style will certainly feed into my own creative practice, which I am developing as part of the Odissi Ensemble, a leading performing group presently touring the work Of Gods and Mortals, produced by Kadam/Pulse.
Similarly inspiring was observing the teaching of the traditional repertoire. While I have learned many traditional pieces myself, observing the transmission from guru to disciple as an outsider really gave me insights on the degree of endurance and focus both teacher and learner need to have to produce excellence in dance. This awareness will certainly influence my teaching practice as I aim to train the professional dancers of the future.
Among the most important things I have learned in this workshop is the idea of finding breath in the movement, of not sparing anything but completing each movement, of finding a moment of rest and release in the stances inspired by temples sculptures, which Odissi is very famous for. I have also learned to constantly feed my imagination, to think about the meaning every single movement has for me and how can that be communicated and translated in its execution. I have learned to ‘wear my eyes’ in different parts of the body. I have certainly expanded my dance vocabulary and refined my performance skills. Finally, it was a unique opportunity to observe how the artists were choreographic short dance sequences on our bodies, combining material learned during the workshop.
I feel now much more embodied and grounded as a dancer as I am exploring the texture of each movement. And the feedback I have received on my performance upon my return show that Nritysgram experience is already working in my body. In a more programmatic sense, I want to set up in the months to come my own odissi dance academy to foster excellence in this art form, as well as in the study of ancillary skills and knowledge, such as music, philosophy and aesthetics. I am presently creating a website for this academy and I am looking at publishing it in the next couple of months. As a result of this experience at Nrityagram, I also hope to develop more creative practice, through the collaboration with other visual and sound artists and through choreographic experimentation with the Odissi Ensemble. This has in part already taken place as immediately after the workshop, I worked with a video-maker on a dance shooting in the natural and archaeological landscapes of Hampi, which was a great conclusion to my dance trip to India.
I am again very grateful to LUTS, to Movin’Up-Gai, to Kingston University and above all to Nrityagram artists to have made this experience possible at different levels. My goal is now to give what I have learned back to people in the UK, through performances, teachings and the active involvement in the shaping of the future of Odissi in this country.
What an intense and rich month May has been. As I look back at what I have done, at what I have learned, at the inspiring performances I have watched, I feel really grateful for the opportunities offered to me and rewarded by the efforts I have done so far. May is a curious month, as it marks the end of the academic year and the beginning of the Summer, with its emphasis on personal development and research. It is a month always packed with learning experiences for me, as I enjoy the flexibility given by the end of teaching activities.
The month kicked off with two Odissi workshops at Southbank Centre, which I co-led with my dance colleague Katie Ryan. The workshops, which were part of the Alchemy festival, took place on the 1st and 8th and aimed at introducing Odissi to a completely new audience. Teaching Odissi to people who have never been exposed to it, or in general to Indian classical dance, is always exciting but also quite challenging. The first task is offering a session that, while being true to the form and its complexity, is also exciting and able to engage participants in the learning process. Then, the other big task is breaking down all those ‘basic’ skills that can be very difficult for the complete beginner.
May has also concluded the Odissi Ensemble Spring Tour as we presented Gods and Mortals at the Hat Factory, Luton, on the 7th and in Sunderland Minster on the 12th. Both performances were extremely successful and we even got a standing ovation. Dancing in Sunderland Minster was particularly magic. I believe sacred places as churches and temples, or even nature itself, provide the most appropriate and fulfilling context to dance Odissi.
I also led four Spring Workshops on Odissi Basics in Brixton, which were an opportunity for me to share some of the elements of technique I have learned during my training in Delhi, in particular, khandi, bhramaris, charis and utplavanas. It was lovely to have a small but very dedicated group of students in the studio.
And at the end of the month I also gave a Workshop for Toddlers at Southbank Centre, always as part of Alchemy. The workshop was absolute fun as we explored the gaits and movements of Sacred Animals of India!
In terms of my own learning, I attended Ileana Citaristi’s workshop, during which she taught a rare composition by guruji, dedicated to Lord Vishnu. I particularly liked the lyrics and the melody of this piece of choreography! I also watched Ileana’s performance at Nerhu Centre and attended her lecture demonstration on the Navarasas at King’s College. Ileana is such an inspiring person and a model of life achievement.
On the 26th, I watched the flawless and spectacular performance of Nrityagram at the Royal Festival Hall, which was a true feast for the eyes. What I found inspiring in Nrityagram’s choreography was particularly the excellent use of time, space, dynamics and the enormous physical training that surfaces in every and each of their movements. I can’t wait to be there in a week or so, to imbibe part of their artistry.
On the 29th, I attended Choreogata showcase, where again I left incredibly satisfied and inspired. I particularly liked Seeta Patel’s reinterpretation of dance classics, such as the Swan Lake or the Rite of Spring. Equally, the other choreographic scratches left me with fun, nostalgia and sorrow, as they tackled very contrasting issues, such as gender, homelessness, refugee crisis, or life in an Indian urban street.
The month ended with the excellent performative lecture of Priya Srinivasan, based on her book Sweating Saris, which is seriously one of the best academic books I have ever read and that I highly recommend as it discusses issues of cultural appropriation and Indian classical dancers as labourer, rather than cultural bearer or nationalist symbols.
Well, now I cannot but look forward to my time at Nrityagram Summer Workshop, which I envisage will be a great learning curve for me. I can’t wait to be there and breathe dance morning and night, train, observe, reflect, write, try new things and expand my dance horizons.
Watch out for blogs on this amazing experience, made possible by funding coming from different sources (Lisa Ullman Travel Grant, Movin’Up-Giovani Artisti Italian and Staff Development Fund, Kingston University).
I had a very intense month and the last couple of weeks have been pretty insane so much that I'm still trying to keep up with job.. I found myself prioritising my students for their success but this has taken so much of my energies and time. It's quite hard and a fine balance between giving and holding. The more we give the less we r left with. And this is in terms of time and energy. I have been stealing hours here and there for my own practice for my meditative relaxation for looking at the trees blossoming in the season. I had a lot of poems I wanted to write but that got crushed by the rush of time and a life that is like a constant flood. I don't think this is the life I wanted and even imagined. There is so much beauty and satisfaction in my life but little to indulge in the taste of it. Like drinking a good wine in a rush.. just getting drunk not feeling the taste of the grapes and the soul hidden into it.
I now pause. I can hear the birds and the melodious silence. I'll be rehearsing with the odissi ensemble in the evening and want to bring light and the fresh sensation of spring water in the studio. I'm so lucky and blessed so much that I sometimes doubt I deserve it. I'm also suffering for what I perceive as lack of freedom. I feel like a bird in a cage. I fly only within the limits of my prison when what I need is the sky. It's ok. I tell myself. It's a phase of life. Perhaps one day soon all the effort you are making will consolidate in a bigger clear plan. No crumbles of satisfaction here and there but a sense of accomplishment. That all was good and for a reason. The sky will keep existing whether I fly in it or not.
Preparing for the Odissi Ensemble Tour. This is one of my dreams coming true, to dance and work with other artists, to share my love for this dance with audiences, to be supported in this by people who believe in me and in what I do.
It is incredible how if you really want something and you relentlessly work towards that goal, without too much eagerness either, but with purity of heart and mind, and you do not sit and wait, but stand up and sweat, things slowly start to take place. One after the other, like magic.
Anything I am and I do nowadays is the fruit of love and labour, the fruit of untouchable faith and trust in life. Nothing of what I am and I do nowadays is the result of pure chance and fortune.
If I look behind, I can easily see another story written down for me, perhaps an easier one, a granted one, a simple one. It is not easy to write your own story. It requires you to clash with others' people beliefs on what you should do and be, it pulls out tears and sweat from the body, moments of unwanted or pursued solitude and moments of confusion and delusion.
Every single of my little, perhaps insignificant achievements, is not the end of an era, but the beginning of a new journey, the starting point of my next dream.
At times, I doubts having goals or dream is necessary a good thing, but I cannot float in the ocean of life without needing to think beyond the horizon there is a shore I can dock at, before taking the rocking road of the waves once again.
Duet with Soul/Blouse/Dance sister Maryam Shakiba.
Oltre la mia finestra. Un passero seduto sulla cima di un pino triste, come guardiano di un cielo sereno. Ascolta il silenzio dei pensieri che passano. Come auto in corsa che non esistono. Sordo è il tuo domandare. Cieco il tuo sguardo mentre indaga le stanze interiori della mia follia. Solo come ogni essere umano con la sua pena. Il tuo becco mi ricorda il pungente dolore di parole dolci che non voglio ascoltare. Il tuo orizzonte. La tua illusione di comandare. E guardi. Intorno. Come ci fosse qualcosa da guardare. Povero passero sordo e cieco, come ogni essere umano di fronte alla pena di un altro. Vorrei aprire questa finestra per lasciarti entrare. Ma è bloccata.
Cosa resta di me.
Brioche Dorée. Al tavolo di una caffetteria. Mi siedo vicino alla gente come per ascoltare le loro storie. Li osservo come se stessi studiandoli. Ma senza importanza. Non so esattamente dove sono e dove posso andare partendo da qui. Fuori dalla caffetteria un vento che ricorda raffiche di tramontana. Questo posto ha qualcosa di familiare. Come le città mediterranee una domenica mattina.
Una signora dal berretto buffo e le spalle al mondo. Due gentiluomini e una valigetta di cuoio. Ieri sera pensavo ai miei sogni. Ero stanca e mi sono addormentata presto. Ma prima ho sognato. Speravo di trovare il mare. Il mare. Il vento è sempre lí eppure il mare non c’é.
Non ho nulla da dire per questo scrivo. Ho capito tutto o forse niente. È questo istante, l’inizio oppure la fine? Non so scrivere storie, so solo leggerle. Se ora mi alzo da questa sedia e vado via, cosa sarà rimasto di me in questo piccolo angolo di mondo? Una tazza grande, che in Inghilterra sarebbe piccola. Un tovagliolo pieno di briciole. L’impronta del mio rossetto e qualche goccia di caffè a sporcare il bordo della tazza.
Questo è quello che resta di me. Guardo l’orologio. Mi sento come una investigatrice in un film giallo. La gente comincia ad entrare e i due tipi di fronte a me sono sempre più ubriachi. Sono le 10 del mattino.
Mi chiedo dove andrò ora che il sole è uscito, ma il vento non si è fermato.
Il mio volto in fiamme
by Elena Catalano
Rosso come la pelle di un papavero fresco di rugiada
Come quell’ occhio, nascosto, che porti tra i capelli
Blu come la profondità del tuo ventre
e il mare e il temporale e la voragine delle tue paure.
Giallo e arancio come le pesche e la tua ingordigia di vita
e le passioni… alcune insane, altre abbastanza normali.
Dove guardi riflesso lo smeraldo dei tuoi occhi.
E una spazzola d’argento
Per prenderti cura di tutti i tuoi pensieri.
E le tue mani
La curva inaspettata dei tuoi seni.
e la tua schiena come un fuso.
E i piedi.
Le tue radici su un marmo freddo che brucia.
E poi sabbia, per riempirti le osse
fragili, come castelli.
Lasciatemi respirare come un passero morto
caduto dall’albero dei suoi desideri.
Lasciatemi tornare nel grembo della mia pelle.
Sebbene gelida come la terra soffocata di neve.
O arida come le zolle dei miei pensieri.
Lasciatemi tornare alle interminabili ore delle mie lune anarchiche
Al singhiozzo della mia infanzia…
A quegli odori che non riesco a descrivere,
ma me li porto addosso come unghie nella carne.
Non cercare di capirmi.
Tutto ciò che dico non ha senso.
e se ce l’ha… non voglio neppure saperlo.
… e poi che importa. Se siedo, oppure vago. Se cerco tra le pieghe dei tuoi vestiti, come formica tra le screpolature della pelle. Delle tue labbra belle. Che importa se tra le mie dita restano avvinghiati i tuoi capelli, come alghe. Nere.
Che importa se scrivo come fossi in punto di morte… per ricordarmi. Nel caso mi colga un vuoto di memoria.
E resto. Bevendo da una tazza che non mi appartiene. In una casa che non mi appartiene. In una terra che non mi appartiene. Da una vita che non mi appartiene.
Eppure amo. Osservo le intricate venature dell’esistenza della gente con cui parlo. Cerco nei loro occhi, il riflesso del mio sguardo. Nel caso sia niente altro che un fantasma.
E sogno. Come fossi un essere un umano.
A day in the park
The more I go into the practice of Odissi the more I find it difficult to answer 'why' I dance in a rational way. I feel that Odissi is the best way life has offered me to connect with my deeper self and deliver my being to the world. I never found this dance, I found myself in this dance. It is challenging. And this challenge reminds me not to fall in the opaque pleasure of comfort. It pokes my physical and mental boundaries. I can feel the universe in me and me in the universe. It is about beauty, unrealistic beauty, not to neglect real worldly beauty, but to be able to abstract the beauty of life within the unfortunate misery of its appearance. And yet my journey is not complete. What can be wings at some point in time, may turn into cage at another. Odissi as my ground. Roots and Water. From the centre I grow. Like a tree.
Why should one learn Odissi nowadays? What is the relevance of such deep and demanding art form in a world that is dictated by time efficiency and product oriented logic? Is there a future for this dance and what will this future be? Is there a place for the subtle aesthetic search of psychological unfolding that abhinaya creates, in a world that has lost its desire to imagine the non literal, to decode the symbolic, to accept the uncertain? And the geometrical unnatural beauty of this form, while should one embody it? while should one feel uncomfortable in a world which privileges tedious comfort? We dance this dance as a form of rebellion against the misery of our hectic lives, as a desperate appeal to the deeply transformative power of poetry, as a quest for beauty in a world of horrors.
Odissi performance for the opening of Sarah Lawton's drawing exhibition on Odissi dance. Saturday 2nd May 2015, 7.30pm
Watch the video of my performance in Cuttack.
What most unusual way of ending the year than dancing for the demon king, Kamsa Raja, the supreme enemy of God? Kamsa Raja who heard a divine voice from the sky announcing his death at the hands of Lord Krishna. Kamsa Raja who imprisoned the divine parents Devaki and Vasudeva, after killing six of their sons, to prohibit the birth of his final executioner. Kamsa Raja who sent the ogress Putana to feed with poised breast the little Krishna in the house of his adoptive mother Yasoda.
What most unusual thing to know that in Odisha, the land of Jagannatha and one of the main centres of development of Vaishnavism, Kamsa Raja is celebrated and the name of Vishnu is strictly forbidden during the famous festival Dhanu Yatra? What most unusual thing to perform Odissi, a dance that praises Hindu Gods and denigrates the anti-gods, just for Kamsa Raja's delight?
Curious to know and see more about this singular tradition, I accepted Sujata’s invitation to perform with her and other students in front of the supreme asura Kamsa Raja in Darbar, where he meets his guests on the New Year Eve. The only deal was that the name of Lord Vishnu and all his forms would not be mentioned, not even by mistake.
We left Bhubaneswar at 6.30am on the 31st of December. The journey was long and the train was buzzing with our voices. We spent half of the time discussing what item would have been appropriate to perform. This was not easy to chose considering that most Odissi items mention Vishnu in some of his forms, whether as Krishna, or Rama or Jagannatha. We opted for items dedicated to Ganesha and Shiva and a few pallavi. Sitting in small groups we did mental rehearsal listening to the music on our ipods and following it with our hands, feeling the rest of the movement in our bodies.
It is quite incredible how dancers have to train their mind alongside their bodies and how much work they can still do in order to excel in their art just by sitting and purposefully thinking and methodically concentrating on it! I would actually say that the best way to know if you are totally in control of a piece of choreography is to be able to go through it with absolute precision in your mind and by feeling it in the body. If you have a gap in your memory you will immediately realise and know you are not ready yet to perform that item.
That said, we reached Bargah Road at around 2pm. Our hosts met us at the station and brought us to their house where we had lunch and full rehearsal with our musicians, Ekalabya and Pradeep. Although we had less than an hour left to our performance and a dim and dull light to make up, we ended up looking absolutely gorgeous in our blue costumes and silver jewellery.
We performed on two stages, one for the main Minister of the King and the other for the Great Kamsa Raja himself, with his huge nose and resonating laugh. The most exciting thing was that the king could walk among us while we were dancing. Kamsa Raja was surrounded by his court, which comprised various ministers and a couple of girls fanning his majesty. Both him and his ministers asked us questions, which I did not understand, but in one of this Sujata by mistake mentioned the name of Jagannatha to the immediate reaction of the King who cried loud against the name of the Lord.
By looking at these funny characters on stage I thought about the most kitsch Indian TV serials but also about the way we portray demons in our Odissi repertoire, with long and greasy moustache, loud voice, big red eyes, a wrestler body and a harsh attitude. I also thought about previous local forms of rule, which were then incorporated into mythological tales and represented as demonic by the incoming political power.
For me the most exciting aspect of all this experience was to dance for someone we normally portray as the supreme enemy of Lord Krishna but also to have the honour to share the stage with my guru Sujata and hearing from her the story of how the evil Kamsa Raja repeatedly attempted, with no effect, to go against his destiny of being killed at the hands of God.
I was born in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, in a dry land, which stretches out in waters that glitter like diamonds.
I was raised looking at the horizon, driving towards the shades of unforgettable sunsets, breathing the surrounding sea.
I was born rooted in the ground as centuries-old olive trees, and yet mobile as wind, sometimes hitting like a hunting melody, sometimes like a whip.
I was born stubborn as coastal rocks and the foamy weaves in unlucky days, fluid and salty water, contained and yet uncontainable, like the Sea.
I grew up dancing to the exotic tunes and percussions of Indian, Middle-Eastern, African, Jamaican and folk music. During my childhood I trained in gymnastics, during my adolescence in theatre and folk dance, finding in movement a natural attraction and visceral need.
I have always been travelling in unfamiliar countries, hearing unfamiliar voices, stepping on unfamiliar paths. When I was hardly 9 years old, I read The Diary of Anna Frank and travelled in the contested land of Jerusalem, where I saw the marks of human violence.
Dance and anthropology have been my way of understanding myself, Nature and other human beings, their values and their beliefs. Through dance and anthropology I questioned my habits and my assumptions, becoming a stranger to myself, embodying diversity, experiencing the sense of being something or somebody else, although only for the fleeting moment of a movement. Through dance and anthropology I have encountered diversity in peace.
Odissi has given me the opportunity to be sound and gesture, to be demon and god, to be square or circle, to be feeling and thought. Natural in its unnatural form, Odissi has been the shape of my soul.