Dance Preview: Compagnie Shantala Shivalingappa at the ICA

The Boston debut of internationally-acclaimed classical Indian dance performer Shantala Shivalingappa.

Photo: Elian Bachini

Shantala Shivalingappa in a scene from “Akasha.” Photo: Elian Bachini.

By Merli V. Guerra

Hailing from France, Shantala Shivalingappa is a professional dancer whose training has been two-fold: in addition to exploring classical Indian dance, she’s spent years working with many of the greats in modern dance. Akasha, Shivalingappa’s upcoming performance on February 27 and 28 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston is an evening rooted in her love of traditional Indian music and dance in the Kuchipudi style.

As a professional dancer in both modern technique and classical Indian dance, I find performers who navigate the waters of both these disciplines particularly inspiring. One moment they are free-flowing,  spiraling down to the floor, rolling, bounding with modern leaps,  gesticulating  via the smallest gestures. The next moment they dedicate the very same energy, precision, and shifts of weight to a very different style of performance — a style based in a classical technique, a tradition rooted in the sculptural poses depicted in ancient Indian art and architecture.

My first question for Shivalingappa was inevitable: Do these two disciplines crossover in your work?

“Everything you do,” she replied, “it’s through your one body that you have, because [these disciplines] all communicate with each other. In a way,” she adds, “you don’t really keep things separate, because it’s your body and it moves in many different ways that always enrich each other enormously.”

Shivalingappa was born in Madras, India, though she spent her childhood in Paris, France. From a young age she loved the arts, reserving a particular passion for dance and music. Encouragement from her mother and admiration for Master Vempati Chinna Satyam led her to concentrate her training in the art form of Kuchipudi traditional dance, which led her to founding Compagnie Shantala Shivalingappa.

But that’s not all. As a young teenager, the young Kuchipudi dancer expanded her creative scope, working with a variety of notable artists in the field of dance. She was given opportunities  that most modern dancers would covet: roles in the works of Maurice Béjart (1789…et nous), Peter Brook (Miranda in The Tempest and Ophelia in Hamlet), Bartabas (Chimère), Pina Bausch (O Dido, Néfès, Bamboo Blues), and Amagatsu (Ibuki).

Still, despite her work with modern choreographers, Shivalingappa says that her inspiration as a performer always comes back to her work in Kuchipudi. “I’ve always felt that each different style is beautiful and pure and strong as it is,” she explains, “and that specificity is really important.” “[That being said, each style] is very porous and can absorb a lot of innovation. I think each style [of dance] is very flexible.” “But,” she counters, “it all depends on your approach.”

Kuchipudi is one of the eight classical Indian dance styles, each varying in costuming, posture, demeanor, and skill sets. Most Boston audiences have been exposed to classical Indian through the form of Bharatanatyam. The Bharatanatyam style is heavier and squarer than Kuchipudi, with sharp, angular movements and considerably stiffer posture. Kuchipudi is known for its quicksilver footwork, its speed and jumps, and its division between a grounded base and a graceful, fluid upper body. As Shivalingappa points out, when performing Kuchipudi the spine is actually moving in waves, undulating in a manner that makes Kuchipudi distinctive. “Once you’re able to [understand the sensitivity of the dance style],” insists Shivalingappa, “then you can experiment, and you will find that each [style] offers great space for innovation and exploration within its own identity and character.”

Photo: Christopher Duggan

Shantala Shivalingappa in a scene from “Akasha.” Photo: Christopher Duggan.

A typical example of Kuchipudi, Akasha combines a complex storyline and expressive characters with vibrant, ever-changing musical rhythms, racing tempos, and fluttering footwork. “You can approach the performance from both sides,” Shivalingappa says. “It’s about storytelling, it’s about gods and goddesses and mythology, and it’s very much an expression of Hindu feeling and energy. But it’s also just pure movement, and pure music and rhythm and melody, which can be appreciated in an abstract way. You don’t need to know or fully understand the story to appreciate the energy that is flowing out of the dance and music.”

Shivalingappa describes her studies in traditional Kuchipudi and performance as “a solo journey.” Yet she remains interested in the collaborative work that is prevalent in creating modern dance pieces. The integration of Indian dance into other approaches depends, she explains, “on the shared goals we’re trying to achieve. There are no rules. It depends on what happens in the moment, and [ultimately] what we’re trying to play around with.”

Compagnie Shantala Shivalingappa’s mission is to bring South India’s dance and music to Western audiences, and so far it has lived up to its goal. The troupe has toured internationally and performed at a number of prestigious venues, in the process earning its namesake choreographer the coveted “Bessie” dance award.  Shivalingappa advises Boston audiences  to come to the performance in a receptive spirit : “Open your hearts and spirits, and let the flow of dance and music enter into you. That’s all we need to do—every moment in our lives—to allow ourselves to receive these things that are coming to us, fully.”

Merli V. Guerra is a professional dancer with a background in ballet, modern, and classical Indian dance in the Odissi style, and an award-winning interdisciplinary artist with talents in choreography, filmmaking, writing, and graphic design. She is co-founder and artistic director of Luminarium Dance Company, production manager of Art New England magazine in Boston, and selects The Arts Fuse’s weekly coming attractions for dance.

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