A child of East and West, India-born, Paris-bred Shantala Shivalingappa performed Solo, a15- minute piece co-choreographed with Pina Bausch. While some dancers enjoy solitude, this particular night of July 1, 2012 saw Shivalingappa rather lonely at the Joyce Theater, New York, distant from both her Eastern and Western audiences.
Trained in traditional Indian Kuchipudi, Shivalingappa describes her desire to explore contemporary dance as “equally compelling”. Sadly her show turned out to be a stereotypical culture shock where an excellent Asian dancer falls short at Western dance because she is missing the almost instinctive judgment accumulated from a lifetime of exposure and comparisons. Granted, Shivalingappa is one of the few ‘mixed kids’ who do not have such an ‘excuse,’ but it only shows how important it is.
Dancing with Bausch, Shivalingappa learned to “feel and think about movement in a different way, from its conception to its execution: spontaneity, freedom and rigor, fluidity.” Bausch was Shivalingappa’s first encounter with a ‘different’ way of dancing - indeed so different that it proved too difficult. The freedom and fluidity preached by the German choreographer remained foreign to the Indian dancer.
Beneath a single overhead light, Shivalingappa emerged from the wings in Bausch‘s signature floor-caressing black silk dress. Starting with a wide squat and rippling arms, she went on to portray a variety of roles: a sentimental teenager weaving while thinking of her lover, a peacock looking around with sharp, expressive eyes, an exotic Hindu goddess speaking with eloquent fingers. None of these, however, exhibited the same level of energy exploding from the helpless falls and doomed embraces that proclaim, unmistakably, Bausch. The choreographer is a master of images of pain and imprisonment where dancers lash their bodies angrily against their lovers as if they have to hurt in order to feel. But Shivalingappa interpreting these images was energy-less, passion-less. If she had loved, her love was neither poignant nor splendid. Her low energy left plenty of ‘empty space’ on stage that became dead air just the way a dull background in a painting is little more than a blank canvas.
The Asian aesthetics of subtlety may be to blame. Unlike Western culture where freedom and openness thrive, Asians tend to subdue their emotions. Take sentiments such as “I love you” for example - a universal expression found in the arts - while Western ballet dancers mime the message by pointing at each other followed by crossing their hands over their hearts, Asians simply lower their head, cover their mouth with hands, and flash a loving glance; shyness is a virtue in women. So it’s only natural that Shivalingappa - like her veiled sisters - finds it hard to unchain the sassy Bausch girl within.
Inarticulate and unexpressive, her movements also lacked coherence and smoothness. They appeared stiff, almost contorting the body mechanically from one pose to another. The ‘machine’ was poorly lubricated just as the steps were not smoothly transitioned. When she shifted directions, the momentum crashed; when she gestured, it froze in midair while the music continued. As a member of the audience, I felt like choking as her body snagged on awkward transitions or got caught in clumsy shapes, her impetus dragged or became hyperactive.
Something was wrong with her phrasing. A phrase links up separate moves so that they form a logical, pleasing or expressive shape. A great dancer can spin steps into long, flowing, seamless skeins of dance where each action emerges as a natural and inevitable consequence of the previous. Such fluency would have flattered Shivalingappa immensely - and made Bausch smile.
Phrasing is intimately connected to the way dancers listen to music. Musicality determines a dancer’s basic ability for keeping time. Solo is set to a Bossa Nova-like ballad titled Paris. Romantic and abstract, the rhythm proved too ‘foreign’ for Shivalingappa who actually grew up in Paris, oddly enough. An indulgent face with closed eyes was betrayed by a nervous mind counting every beat. Is it because she, primarily trained in Kuchipudi, is more used to classical Indian music? In fact, most of her shows are accompanied by live bands that must easily accommodate her steps or provide more solid cues. This is a major let down, for a dancer with superb musicality should be able to bring the tunes to life as if they were singing through her veins and reaching out to the audience through her smiles, glances, and fingertips. Paradoxically her steps should also move ‘inside’ the music, pushing and pulling it into the shapes of the dance. But Shivalingappa to whom Paris sounded so ‘foreign’, was enable to evoke such beautiful illusions.
Poor musicality is one sin; bodily awareness is another that contributed to her lack of flowing grace; to be precise, her weak consciousness of the body as a whole. This may again be the result of Asian aesthetics.
First, her background in Kuchipudi. Unlike ballet’s high jumps and contemporary dance’s wild swings, Kuchipudi dance rarely strikes out into space. Movements are activated in the air immediately surrounding the body; the interest is focused on details in gestures, glances, and feet. These are miniature dances that would be lost if the body had to travel huge distances, which is usually the case in Bausch’s works. Shivalingappa, while excelling in Kuchipudi, turned out to be an outcast in the modern, Western choreographyof Solo. She struggles with the contrast between the taut and relaxed, active and passive, acceleration and delay.
Apart from Kuchipudi, many other Asian dances also focus on details performed by individual body parts. Fawn Thai for instance, concentrates the audience’s gaze on 6-inch brass fingernails and palms holding lit candles. The rest of the body either moves monotonously or remains still, i.e. kneeling. Likewise, Japanese Butoh specifically confines movements in the space of four tatami (the average Japanese home space). Its pursuit of convulsive beauty clearly contradicts with ‘flowing grace’.
Generally, dancers performing traditional Asian dances differ from those doing Russian, American, and European work in that their movements are smaller; they dance ‘within’ themselves rather than striking out; they are brilliant rather than bold. The devil is in the details. This stems from the cultural ideal of ‘femininity’ for women: reserved, timid, obedient. These qualities are both inherited and internalized in the black hair, brown eyes, and petite bodies. On the contrary, Western choreographers see the body as a whole, exemplified by such principles as ‘fall and recovery’ in Doris Humphrey’s work and ‘contract and release’ in Martha Graham’s work.
Indian and Parisian in one, Shivalingappa purports to blend her nature with nurture, and dazzle us with a cross-cultural extravaganza. But the “spontaneity, freedom, rigor, and fluidity” she learned from Bausch, where have they gone?
In the age of globalization, it is argued that only the national can go global. Shivalingappa is motivated by – and respected for, her strong desire to bring Kuchipudi to Western audiences. However, when it comes to contemporary dance, the cultivation of “kinesthetic sixth sense” owes much to cultural immersion. Shivalingappa must have had little, despite her residency in Paris, given her Kuchipudi training and a mother (dancer Savitry Nair) who, after rehearsals, goes to temples instead of bars.
Of course, it’s difficult for artists of one genre to develop an equally sophisticated taste in another. And cultural roots are usually deeper than we’re aware. Shivalingappa is one of the few young dancers ambitious enough to attempt at transcending borders. This alone is worth a “Bravo!” Indeed, more should muster up their courage to cross cultural barriers. By the same token, audiences can better appreciate exotic arts with an open mind and pristine eyes. Hands joined, hearts connected, boundaries blurred, soon enough, we will no longer be lost in translation.
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