Finding Your Voice as a Dancer in a Cross-Cultural Landscape
by Kiran Rajagopalan
In Fall 2014, I was taking a graduate course at New York University (NYU) on post-modern performance with one of the “founders” of Performance Studies, Dr. Richard Schechner. I was tasked with creating a piece which incorporates both Contact Improvisation and Bharatanatyam. I felt like the assignment was a deliberate setup for failure because these two movement techniques are kinetically and aesthetically opposed to each other. I had no experience in the former, and I had exclusively trained in the latter for decades. One focuses on literal contact between two or more bodies while spontaneously breaking and reshaping form. The other carves deliberate and specific geometric shapes on the solo dancing body and within individualized performance space.
My first instinct was to find a Contact Improvisation class, but I quickly discovered that one of my classmates was already trained in this technique. They graciously offered to help me with the assignment, and we tailored our rehearsals around specific ways to work with Bharatanatyam. With limited time, I could not create a whole new movement vocabulary which meaningfully blends both styles. I quickly came up with a practical solution – to use Contact Improvisation as a dramaturgical tool for a specific section of an existing dance piece. I chose Jayadeva’s 8th astapadi, “Nindati Candana,” and performed Contact Improvisation with my classmate briefly to show how the gentle, fragrant winds strike Radha like venom from poisonous snakes in her separation from Krishna. The piece was far from perfect and did not really push either style forward. But I finished the assignment on time!
This experience highlights a key component of cross-cultural collaboration – the importance of developing a clear artistic vision along with a keen understanding of each style’s kinetic nuances, aesthetics, and limitations. It is also reflective of how logistics and deadlines can greatly impact the depth and extent of collaboration in a work. Collaboration often begins within one’s peer group for practical and economic reasons especially in an institutional setting such as a university or a dance school. Moreover, it lays the foundation for developing your network of potential collaborators in the future. But what happens when you leave the comfort and structure of an institution to create your own work independently? This is where the journey as a creative artist is both thrilling and daunting!
I graduated from NYU Performance Studies realizing that the program was not a good fit for me. I was often at odds with the largely western-centric, psychodynamic, and post-modernistic theoretical foundations of Performance Studies. Rather than subsume my voice, I leaned further into my embodied practice and focused on choreographing my own repertoire of Bharatanatyam pieces. I also began to appreciate how much the program had taught me about the landscape of the visual and performing arts in New York City. That was instrumental for me in learning how to navigate New York’s wondrous but frustratingly complex arts ecosystem while retaining my identity as a Bharatanatyam dancer.
During the first few years after graduate school, I struggled to find my footing as a Bharatanatyam dancer since performing and employment opportunities were scarce. I found temporary employment as a maître d’ at a five-star hotel, and I eventually became a teaching artist and then an arts administrator to help pay the bills. I attended countless performances and art exhibitions in the city while continuing my fruitless search for funding and performing opportunities for my Bharatnatyam-based work. Eventually, I realized that I needed to start creating my own cross-cultural and multidisciplinary work to survive in this ecosystem.
At that time, there was a concerted effort among many of the city’s cultural institutions to support artistic works that reinforced multiculturalism while building awareness around social justice issues and identity politics. This was part of an overall push for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the art world. In large and diverse cities like New York, addressing some or all these issues was a key prerequisite for individual artists, dance companies, and non-profit arts organizations to gain opportunities to present work or to receive any meaningful monetary support from grant-giving institutions, foundations, and government agencies. How would the solo Bharatanatyam repertoire fit into this paradigm?
Thus, my journey in cross-cultural work began in 2017 with my first production, Twin Rivers, which celebrates Yoruba from West Africa and Hinduism from South Asia as distinct spiritual traditions with striking similarities in their devotional and aesthetic practices. What began as a spark of an idea with my fiancé, a mixed-media artist and an initiated Yoruba priest, quickly led to an artist residency and performance at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden in Staten Island. While ideating and creating Twin Rivers was deeply enriching, I would like to instead spotlight an unexpected experience during my residency that would have a major impact on my work later. The Sri Lankan Dance Academy of New York (SLDANY) used to conduct their weekly Kandyan dance classes in the studio next door to mine at Snug Harbor. I was immediately taken by the live drumming and powerful, abstract movements that characterize this dynamic style. I also learned that Staten Island has one of the largest Sri Lankan diasporic communities in the world!
Two years later, I was commissioned by Prakriti Dance to create a dance-theater work on Kubera, the pan-Asian deity of wealth, for their inaugural “Festival of Villains.” Kubera’s origins are Sri Lankan, and I immediately thought of incorporating Kandyan dance into the production, Vaisravaṇa. Recalling my Snug Harbor residency, I contacted SLDANY with the concept and then started taking Kandyan dance classes and working on the choreography with their lead instructor, Dilhan Pinnagoda. I had wanted to perform with live Kandyan drumming for the premiere of Vaiśravaṇa in Washington D.C., but logistics and funding had prevented me from doing so. Then the COVID-19 pandemic halted further opportunities to refine and present the work.
It is very rare in an artist’s journey when artistic vision, logistics, and institutional support all converge. And this finally occurred for me in 2021, during the height of the pandemic, with Ramapo College’s Berrie Center in New Jersey. It was unexpected as I had applied for another opportunity at Ramapo College but was not selected. The Berrie Center was interested in producing an excerpt of Vaiśravaṇa with live drumming for their online performance series, Made in New Jersey, based on a work sample I had submitted previously. They provided not only a generous honorarium for the performance but also access to their auditorium, a full stage and tech crew, two videographers, and a lighting designer for the recording. It was one of the very few times I had felt genuinely seen and supported as an artist and had my artistic vision fully realized with institutional backing.
Such beautiful moments of synergy can be few and far-for an artist working independently. But they can occur when an artist has a clear understanding of their artistic voice, the ecosystem in which they are creating work, and the right collaborators to help bring their vision to life. From my experiences with Twin Rivers and Vaiśravaṇa, the right collaborators may come from within our own social and artist networks or from a more concerted external search through personal recommendations, social media, or even the internet. It is also crucial to remain open-minded as expertise, mentorship, inspiration, and support may come from individuals working outside of their artistic discipline. Finally, an artist has to be strategic in deciding whether their work could flourish in their unique ecosystem with enough resources to sustain its development. What may work in New York may not necessarily work the same way in Chennai, London, St. Louis, Singapore, or Nagpur. Above all else, an artist must continue to invest in craft and deepen mastery of their chosen discipline(s) for embodied practice cannot be denied or taken away. Let it be the backbone of creative exploration and the “voice of reason” in collaboration!
Dancer, Choreographer, Educator, Arts Administrator, & Podcaster Co-founder & Artistic Director, Daya Arts Senior Program Director, Arts Horizons Co-founder & Podcaster, Off The Beat Productions.