San Francisco International Arts Festival Features Ushanjali Dance in the World Premiere of ‘Divine Conversations’

by Charles Kruger

Naina Shatri, lead dancer with Ushanjali Dance, strikes a dramatic pose. Photo Credit: Ushanjali Dance.
This author of this feature article is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Bharatanatyam is the oldest performance art in India. In Indian tradition, the performing arts were not divided into theatre, music, and dance but experienced as a single art form. Nor was their separation between secular and religious performance. Thus Bharatanatyam is not only a dance tradition, but a musical, theatrical, and spiritual tradition as well.

With modernization, troupes have multiplied, and each represents different aspects of the tradition as well as contemporary variations.

The founder, choreographer, and chief dancer of Ushanjali Dance, Naina Shatri, is from Mysore, Bangalore, a city known for its distinctive artistic traditions, where she studied for many years.

In anticipation of the upcoming performance by Ushanjali Dance at the San Francisco International Arts Festival (“Divine Conversations”), I recently interviewed Naina about the company, their work, and “Divine Conversations.”

Charles: How would you describe your work?

Naina: The type of Bharatanyatam that I have learned and teach is the Mysore style. Long ago, Mysore was a Kingdom, but since independence it is only one city in Southern India, and that is where I am from. This emphasizes grace and simplicity, with a much less complex presentation than some other styles. And there is a great deal of improvisation. The basis of my training was improvisational, and that backbground allows me to explore other types of dance than just Indian classical dance. We incorporate both Indian contemporary and folk traditions as well as elements of western contemporary dance styles and movements. We try to expand the tradition to include many dance forms.

So our presentations are very different from traditional Bharatanatyam. We incorporate a lot of naturalistic movement that is less typical and constrained than what is usually seen. We even use contemporary Indian dress at times, rather than traditional costumes. We also bring in contemporary narration and poetry.

Our musicians play compositions from all over India, whereas in traditional Bharatanatyam music is limited to the Carnatic style of Southern India.

Charles: What are some of your influences?

Naina: My first interests were pretty much what I saw at home in India. Mysore is a small town, very orthodox and traditional. Then, after studying dance as a child and teenager, I pursued a graduate degree in biotechnology. When I moved to the United States after graduate school, I worked as an industrial scientist and a researcher. Then, when I became a mother, I had to take some time off to give attention to my daughter who struggled with some health issues.

I realized I needed some sort of artistic/spiritual expression to help me deal with these matters. Since, back in India, I had achieved a professional level of training in classical dance, I decided to take up teaching. That led to performance and soon I found I did not want to be a scientist anymore. I wanted to be an artist. As my daughter’s health improved, I found I had reinvented my life. I’ve never looked backed. Today, teaching and dancing is at the center of what I do. I don’t miss science at all.

When I returned to dancing, I was exposed to western dance and all kinds of new ideas and literature. Not only that, but even the traditional dance had evolved during my break. So, I’m influenced by western literature. And not just Western literature. For example, I’ve been deeply influenced by Rumi, and by modern dance, and modern American life. But I want to keep my traditional roots alive, too. I like to connect the East and the West and to modernize, but I am always looking for parallels between where I’ve been and where I am. Relevance is important: I am influenced by the news of today, not just mythology and gods and goddesses!

Charles: How would you describe your daily artistic practice?

Naina: Once the kids go off to school, I turn to my correspondence and look for opportunities for my students. There is a lot of organizing and administrative work for a teacher. Then I spend time looking for ideas to inspire new dances. This requires coming up with an outline, researching stories, compositions, literature, anything that will help me understand the story I’m trying to tell. I reach out to collaborators. Later, I might practice my dancing. I practice yoga a few times a week. I prepare lessons for my students and in the evening I have classes to teach. And then there’s individual coaching! I also participate in the wider Indian dance community as an examiner and a teacher. I am very, very busy. It makes me very happy!

Charles: . How does the performance you plan for SFIAF relate to the theme of “Down By The Riverside: 50 Years Honoring the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Naina: One thing is that we bring in the actual text of Dr. King’s inspiring speech at Riverside Church in April of 1967. We call the piece “Divine Conversations” because we also include musical and poetic compositions from mystics and saints from all over India—lots of different cultures! Most of these compositions grew out of the “bhakti” movement in India, which sought to break away from traditional castes and social structure that segregated people from one another. They tried to make finding God and the experience of prayer easily available to all people, equally. They taught that everyone has God in themselves. This emphasis on individual human dignity relates directly to Dr. King’s message, as reflected in the “Riverside” speech. Love is essential, and leads us to our better selves.

Charles: What would you say to someone who wants to do what you do?

Naina: First of all, it is important to get good training. Start with a tradition and do it properly. Even though you may move away from tradition eventually, it is important to have discipline and structure. Find a good teacher and establish a strong base. Be patient and stick with it.  Learn to love your practice, not just your performance. But performance is important, and you should perform as often as possible because you need a lot of experience before you are comfortable as a performer. Only then can you fully express yourself.

To be an artist, remember you need to be broadminded, and expose yourself to as many different art forms as possible: visual art, dance, music, everything. You must be open to receive. Art is collaborative and evolving. So: collaborate and evolve! Don’t get stuck!

Ushanjali Dance will perform “Divine Conversations” at The Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture on Sunday, June 3rd (2 p.m.).

Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) hosts this performances as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which runs from May 24, 2018 to June 3, 2018. The Festival features more than 60 performances by close to 40 different artists, ensembles, and companies. Get discounts on tickets to see multiple shows at the Festival by buying a Festival pass. More details HERE.

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