Shantala Shivalingappa to perform “Akasha” tonight

by Haley Gordon | 1/6/15 6:01pm

Fast and slow. Sharp and flowing. Codified and improvised. The art of Kuchipudi, an Indian classical dance, is all about balancing contrasts in order to tell a story through movement. Students at the College will have the opportunity to experience Kuchipudi when professional dancer and choreographer Shantala Shivalingappa performs “Akasha” at the Hopkins Center of Art Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m.

“It has pure dance in it, rhythmic dance as well as narrative dance,” Shivalingappa said. “There is a great contrast between the footwork, which is very anchored in the earth, very strong, and the upper body, which is all about grace.”

In “Akasha,” Shivalingappa, who was described as one of Kuchipudi’s “greatest current practitioners” by The New York Times, will tell stories about Hindu deities like Krishna and Shiva through her dance. The dance numbers will range in tempo and tone, but they all relate back to the main theme of “Akasha,” the idea of infinite space and “being beyond what we can perceive with our senses,” she said.Shivalingappa said that the idea of reaching that divine space through dance was her inspiration for the piece and that each section of the performance is connected to that idea.

“Akasha” is a complex, physically demanding piece, she said. Shivalingappa performs solo, accompanied on stage only by stationary musicians. Together, they create the rhythm of the dance, based in sound from instruments and her movements. Shivalingappa uses her own body to set the tone of the dance through the use of bangles and stamping, which complement and accentuate the rhythms created by the accompanying musicians.

Shivalingappa, who was born in Chennai, India, and raised in Paris, began studying Kuchipudi dance at a young age, receiving instruction from her mother. She later learned from Vempati Chinna Satyam, the father of modern Kuchipudi and Shivalingappa’s mother’s instructor.Kuchipudi, like all forms of Indian classical dance, is rooted in ancient storytelling, and the dancer must convey traditional stories through meticulous and controlled movements. Dancers of Kuchipudi are trained to convey emotions and play characters, so a performer’s expressiveness is valued as much as their technical skills.

Shivalingappa said she feels that her body serves the same purpose as a musical instrument when she dances, as integral to the song as the drum or flute.

“The musicality of the movement is so important,” she said. “Dancing is music but visual. You can see the music in movement.”

Arati Gangadharan ’18, a member of Dartmouth Indian dance group Raaz, said that she is excited to see Shivalingappa’s performance because of its cultural significance.

“Growing up as a second-generational kid you’re trying to connect back to a culture that your parents have grown up in as well as connecting to a culture here,” Gangadharan said. “When you go to learn dance, you pick up on very interesting stories that are culturally based but still timeless, so they apply to current scenarios without having to modify the meaning of the story. That’s why I fell in love with dance.”

Gangadharan said that just being able to experience an aspect of her culture that is less accessible at the College is important to her.

“Coming here I haven’t really been exposed to many cultural events, and I found this as a way for me to connect back to something that was very important to me a couple months ago, and is very important to me now but harder to practice,” she said. “Seeing someone perform Indian classical dance, even if you’re just watching, is an enlivening experience for me.”

On Tuesday night, Shivalingappa led a master class on classical South Indian dance. The class, held in the Hopkins Center, was open to all intermediate dancers. Participants spent the session learning about the intricacies of Kuchipudi’s footwork, hand gestures and body language.

Assistant director of admissions Angela Dunnham, who attended the master class, said that she found the experience engaging and dynamic and appreciated Shivalingappa’s willingness to share her culture with the class’s attendees.

“She brought everything that she showed us alive and really allowed us to internalize what we were doing, not only in terms of the dance but in terms of what she was sharing about her own personal story,” Dunnham said.

In addition to her performances and master class, Shivalingappa and the musicians that accompany her piece also spoke at the music class “Oral Tradition Musicianship” on Tuesday in a discussion moderated by music professor and director of the World Music Percussion Ensemble Hafiz Shabazz.

In the class, the performers explained and demonstrated the scales and rhythms used in traditional South Indian dance and music and answered questions about their performances. The class was provided the opportunity to ask these professionals questions about their artistic approaches.

David Koffa Jr. ’15 said that he came away from the discussion with new knowledge about the style and framework of South Indian music.“I really have a bigger appreciation [for the music] after going to this,” he said. “It’s amazing how complex they are and how beautiful the music sounds. It involves both the spirituality and their skill and their practice.”

Shivalingappa said that her goal during any performance is to share the beauty of Kuchipudi with a greater audience. She said she feels its emotion and energy can serve as a catalyst that “[propels] you into a different level of being and consciousness” and shows the potential to add something new to an older art form.

“It’s about trying to show all those amazing elements of the dance,” Shivalingappa said. “It’s a classical art form that is quite ancient, but it survives until today because there’s a lot of room for creativity. It has the depth and incredible power coming from [its history] but it also has tremendous space for innovation.”

Shivalingappa will perform “Akasha” tonight and Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Moore Theater. She will also hold a discussion following her performances. Before Thursday’s performance, religion professor Reiko Ohnuma will hold a free discussion on the poetics and religious themes in “Akasha.”

Shivalingappa was previously featured in the Hopkins Center’s video installation “Slow Dancing” in 2008.