Two Americans dance here with India in their hearts.
Born and raised outside of Detroit, one took up a technique, nearly lost, from the region where her family has its roots. Another is European by heritage but grew up on an ashram outside New York City. Both were invited by Kalapriya director Pranita Jain to perform Friday 30 and Saturday 1 in “Flights,” a two-day festival of classical and contemporary Indian dance. “Everyone involved is very comfortable with moving between genres—there’s no confusion, like, ‘Am I this, or am I that?’” Jain says. “When you can see the ground, it’s easy to fly.” With a chuckle, she adds, “And you know where to land.”
Keeping the language alive
Sonali Mishra claims no one forced her into it. “If anything,” she laughs, “they’re saying, ‘What are you doing with your life?’” Orissi dance, the classical form she practices, isn’t as well-known as Bharatanatyam or kathak; in fact, it spent centuries during the British colonial period almost unseen. Orissi was danced by women as part of a daily prayer ritual and was brought out of the temples of Orissa at first only by gotipua, boys who would perform the dances dressed as the opposite sex. In the ’40s, she explains, a group of gurus, scholars, musicians and people from theater backgrounds got together “and began a 20-year process of reconstructing it from whatever evidence they could find. In the ’70s and ’80s it became established as a repertoire, and just now we’re seeing a second generation take it on.” Mishra, now based in New York City, took Bharatanatyam classes as a child in southeast Michigan but, when she first saw Orissi dance around the age of 13, she says she was “spellbound,” guessing family ties to Cuttack, the former capital of Orissa state, made connecting with it easy.
“A lot of second-generation South Asians who were born in America have taken on more interdisciplinary things. I think I represent a small but growing group of artists who work within a traditional style, but my goal as an artist is to show that the traditional grammar isn’t something that got stuck 50 years ago,” Mishra says. “It can still thrive, and using it can be like writing a story. That’s really exciting for me.”
It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at
“My mother is of Hungarian heritage,” says Bhavani Lee. “She’s a singer who comes from a very traditional Gypsy family. And my father is Jewish of Eastern European descent.” Lee was raised on the Ananda Ashram in Orange County, about an hour north of Manhattan. In the early ’80s, Pandit Satya Narayana Charka’s East-West School of Dance was a small academy on the spiritual retreat’s 100-acre grounds, where Lee took her first classes at the age of four or five. When asked how her parents ended up at Ananda, Lee says “it was their own ‘questioning life’ kind of thing.… My mother sings kirtan, now, that’s her spiritual practice, but they haven’t disqualified anything. I mean, we even celebrate Christmas, you know, for fun,” she laughs.
Lee’s work is rooted in kathak but includes elements of contemporary and flamenco dance. In response to the theme of flight that Kalapriya has chosen for the festival, she reworked an existing solo called Beats of the Heart that premiered in 2006 at New York alternative performance space La MaMa E.T.C. She says her interpretation of the theme is admittedly abstract. “Beats of the Heart is based on the rhythms and footwork of kathak dance, and in it I build this crescendo of footwork that takes off in a way, to fly.” Whether in the intimacy of that solo, or the one she helped to create as part of Cirque du Soleil’s long-running, top-grossing show Dralion until its January finale in Mexico City, “Whatever it is, I like to say I’ve choreographed something ‘through kathak eyes.’”
Lee and Cindy Brandle Dance Company perform Friday 30, and Mishra and Kalapriya Saturday 1 at Harold Washington Library’s Cindy Pritzker Auditorium.