The University of Washington again brings Indian dance to Seattle. Following a performance featuring the Kathak tradition in October, now comes Shantala Shivalingappa, who will present the Kuchipudi tradition of classical Indian dance.
Previously in Seattle for three weeks in 2001 while touring “Hamlet” with the Peter Brook company, Shivalingappa returns with a sole focus on her own dance tradition.
Although Shivalingappa was trained in other forms of Indian dance, Kuchipudi is currently the only traditional style that she performs. “I think it is important to choose one main discipline, and delve deep into that one path,” she says.
For Shivalingappa, dance is a family tradition. “My mother, Savitry Nair, is a dancer herself,” Shivalingappa says. “She is trained in Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, two different styles of South Indian classical dance. As a child I often accompanied her to programs, workshops, classes.”
Beginning at age 15, she also shared a dance Master with her mother, attending Vempati Chinna Satyam’s school in Madras for many years with the aim of mastering Kuchipudi.
“The greatest challenge is to create the best quality in what one does,” she says. “I am lucky that I received such a refined and elegant art form from my Masters.”
But her goals also go far beyond the parameters of this discipline. “It is my challenge to forge a personal style, which is relevant today and ‘modern’ in its outreach, while retaining the authenticity and strength of the specific technique of Kuchipudi.”
Beyond making Kuchipudi accessible to modern audiences, Shivalingappa also seeks to disrupt stereotypes about Indian dance. “I am very particular about trying to shed the general notion that Indian classical dance is ‘ethnic dance’ or ‘world dance,’” she says. “It is important to make a place for it in mainstream dance events.”
She acknowledges that this goal requires the help of others. “In the United States, I am very lucky for the support of the presenters who have trusted me so far: Ella Baff of the Jacob’s Pillow festival, Fall for Dance in New York, the Spoleto festival, and now San Francisco Performances and Meany Hall in Seattle.”
She also credits her producer Pierre Barnier and her manager Ilter Ibrahimof with providing the support necessary to sharing Kuchipudi with audiences outside India. “They both see the beauty and grace of Kuchipudi as I do, and both understand and agree with the vision I have for it, and help me to achieve it.”
That vision has not been easy to realize. The challenges of lengthy training and of being a solo dancer of an Indian traditional style in Europe initially diminished the pleasure that Shivalingappa felt while dancing.
“It was quite lonely at times, having to create your own opportunities, and trying to make a place for Kuchipudi in the mainstream of dance events,” she says.
“It was quite a distressing moment, because I had always been passionate about Kuchipudi,” Shivalingappa says of this turning point early in her career. “I started to think that I should explore other professional activities.”
Her subsequent work in contemporary dance, mainly with the Pina bausch company, and in theatre, with Peter Brook, took her away from Kuchipudi. But ironically, this work also reinforced her original commitment to her native dance tradition.
“The joy was immense,” she says. “Each time, I was stunned by the force of the emotion and joy of dancing Kuchipudi, and I felt that all the other artistic experiences I had had in the meantime made the experience of Kuchipudi that much richer and stronger.”
And that step into new performance realms expanded her opportunities. “I was very lucky that working with such great artists as Bausch, Brook, and Bartabas gave me a certain prominence and visibility in the art world, which greatly helped to open doors for my Kuchipudi work.”
The doors in Seattle are now open, but Shivalingappa expects to do more than perform while in town. Already preparing to perform a new Kuchipudi solo at the Théâtre de la Ville-Abbesses in Paris in April, she plans to combine her enjoyment of the city with a rehearsal of her next step toward her signature style.
Shantala Shivalingappa performs on February 11, at Meany Hall for the Performing Arts, University of Washington, Seattle.