Earlier this year, I had the chance to spend some time with the Kuchipudi dancer and choreographer Shantala Shivalingappa, first in Lausanne—where she and her mother were teaching a workshop— and then on Skype. In a series of long conversations, we talked about her upbringing in Paris, her studies of Indian dance, her “master” Vempati Chinna Satyam, her work with Peter Brooke and Pina Bausch, and the importance of both the erotic and the holy in Kuchipudi. My profile of Shivalingappa is in the current issue of The Nation.
I recently interviewed the dancer and choreographer Shantala Shivalingappa for Dance Magazine. Shivalingappa is one of the foremost interpreters of the Southern Indian classical form kuchipudi, a light, fluid dance that brings together storytelling, rhythmic footwork, silvery jumps, and refined, stylized gestures. Shivalingappa excels in all of these. The purity of her technique is startling. Watching her, one does not feel one is seeing a dance form one is unfamiliar with. It’s movement and storytelling, pure and simple.
Last week, I traveled up to the Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven to see her latest evening-length solo, Akasha. As she explained in our interview, “akasha” means “sky or space” in Sanskrit. “In Indian philosophy it is said that akasha arises from the vibration of sound,” she told me, “it’s akasha that gives rise to the whole of creation.” To illustrate this, she has developed particular vibrating of her fingers, which seems to communicate very precise bursts of energy, like a turbine. Her hands figure prominently figure prominently throughout the work, forming a variety of striking shapes, each with its own precise profile and meaning. This week, she will perform the solo at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
The evening is made up of five parts, each based on a lyric poem (sung by J. Ramesh), set to music. One could spend a lifetime listening to K.S. Jayaram spin sinuous tales with his flute, or following the witty repartée between Shivalingappa’s two percussionists (B.P. Haribabu and N. Ramakrishnan). At one point, the drummers engaged in a playful, sophisticated battle of one-upmanship, each elaborating on the previous phrase, but also toying with the sound of his instrument, striking it from different angles. But for all the musicians’ virtuosity, when Shivalingappa is onstage, she becomes the center of their universe.
As with all great Indian dancers, Shivalingappa draws us in through the keyhole of her imagination. In each separate solo, she transforms herself into a host of characters. At different points in Akasha, she becomes: Krishna as a naughty but irresistible child, eating dirt and laughing with delight; a young shepherdess, playing her flute; a betrayed lover, waiting for her faithless husband; and finally a fiery Bhairava, god of destruction. In this final section, she is like a human tornado. Her eyes flash and her limbs slice through the air with demonic force. This is a side of her I’ve never seen before.
In “Kirtanam,” based on a fourteenth century poem, she waits anxiously for her husband’s return, running to the window in reaction to every imagined sound. She wipes away tears of disappointment at her husband’s betrayal, and, when he does eventually make an appearance, pries his ingratiating fingers—her own fingers—from her arm. She is both the betrayer and the betrayed. In the last moments of the song, she begrudgingly acquiesces to his pleading; as the lights dims, she turns to him with eyes full of love. The afterimage of her eyes remains, glowing through the darkness. Then, In the passages of pure dance, she illustrates complex rhythms with her feet, her head, her fingers, her shoulders. Her entire body is an instrument.
Another pleasing element of her solo evenings is the simple elegance with which she sets the stage. (Shivalingappa lives in Paris, and has worked with Pina Bausch, and it shows.) With just a few simple elements—shades of light, small hovering baskets of flower petals, diaphanous fabric moved by a slight breeze—she sets a mood. The evening rises and falls. Each section contains a small revelation. Taken together, they form a complete arc, a world.