Interview: Shantala Shivalingappa Q&A

Friday 13 November 2009

Shantala Shivalingappa Shantala Shivalingappa was born in Madras, India and brought up in Paris. From an early age she studied Bharatha Natyam before discovering another classical Indian dance form, Kuchipudi and falling in love with its mix of pure abstract movement and expressive story telling.

Living in Paris she has also been immersed in Western contemporary dance and theatre and worked with choreographer Maurice Bejart, theatre director Peter Brook and most significantly, Pina Bausch. In Svapnagata there’s a chance to see both sides of her work – in her kuchipudi solo Shiva Ganga and in Play – a work in progess with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

But Kuchipudi, the dance form named after a tiny village in South India will always be her first love. She tells us why…

What first sparked your interest in dance? **I just remember that I started dancing when I was really little, five or six. My mother Savitry Nair is a dancer and teacher, and I remember being in her classes or workshops, and first trying to copy the students, and later starting to train with her.

How/where did you train? **I trained with my mother in Paris, where I grew up, for about 10 years in Bharatha Natyam. And when I was 16, I fell in love with Kuchipudi! I went to train in Madras with Master Vempati Chinna Satyam, who was my mother’s master, and then became mine.

How do you categorise yourself as a dancer? **What can I say? I am a dancer, trained in Kuchipudi, and also exposed to contemporary dance, exploring movement in all the ways I find inspiring, expressive, meaningful…but I must say that Kuchipudi remains my first love, the thrill and intense emotion of dancing it never ceases to strike me with wonder.

What are the main characteristics of Kuchipudi? **I love Kuchipudi for its combination of force and grace. It is extremely rhythmic and strong in the legs and feet, and full of sway and undulation in the torso movements. It’s also very airy, but deeply rooted in the ground. It comes from a tradition of dance-theatre, so it’s also very much oriented towards story-telling. It’s a lot about getting into the skin of different characters, expressing emotions, describing scenes etc. The intimate relation between dance and music/dancer and musicians is also a fundamental trait of Kuchipudi.

You’re performing in two different shows in Svapnagata. Shiva Ganga is in the main house at Sadler’s Wells…
Shiva Ganga is a Kuchipudi solo with different pieces in it, some choreographed by my Master, some by myself. It starts with some traditional-type pieces: a prayer to the Sun God, a description of Dancing Ganesha, a light, joyful dance about Radha and Krishna. It then moves on to a purely rhythmic piece, which showcases the specific technique of Kuchipudi.

The second part of the program is woven around the dual energies of Lasya, the feminine and graceful, and Tandava, the masculine and forceful, through the story of the descent of the sacred river Ganges on Earth.

And Play, which will be in the Lilian Baylis Studio?
Play is a work – in-progress, It’s a duet with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and we’re accompanied by two Italian musicians – Patrizia Bovi and Gabriele Miracle. As the title indicates, the piece revolves around the idea of “playing”, whether it be games, or different roles and characters, the idea of being pawns…or not, of manipulating and being manipulated, of being part of the game or not…Playing also as in ‘having fun’!

What’s it been like working with Sidi Larbi – is it something very different for you? **I love the richness that Larbi brings into his work. Whether it be his ideas and sensitivities, or all the different worlds which he has touched throughout his working life. Working with him is being in contact with all of that, and it’s extremely stimulating. I love his curiosity and openness. I also like his approach to movement, and to how a story can be told. It’s definitely different from anything I’ve done so far, firstly because I’ve always worked either as a soloist, or as an interpreter for a choreographer’s vision. So co-creating with one other person is very new to me, and it’s very challenging because Larbi and I are different in many ways. But finding the things that link us and bring us together, like singing for example, and finding common ground in what we want to say and do, and how we want to say and do it, is quite fascinating.

And what do you think he’s gained from you? **Larbi is someone who observes deeply and learns quickly, and he’s definitely been interested in getting an insight into the Kuchipudi technique, and Indian singing. I’m equally hungry to taste some of the ways of moving, singing and imagining that he is used to.

From an early age you worked with some very high profile choreographers and directors. How did you come to work with choreographer Maurice Béjart ? **My mother collaborated with Maurice Béjart on several projects and also taught his company and school. I met him as a small child. When I was 13, he asked me to dance an Indian solo in his work on the French revolution: “1789…and us”. I was mesmerised by him. His fascinating blue eyes, his passion for dance, his incredible energy, the way he directed rehearsals, his knowledge of arts, history, philosophy, music…
I was equally mesmerised by his dancers. I would observe them all the time, in their ballet class, on stage. I would go home and put the same music and try to dance just like them.

And you also worked with theatre director Peter Brook… **I played Miranda in his French version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest when I was 14 and 10 years later I played Ophelia in Hamlet. It was quite thrilling to work with a group of actors coming from different countries, many of whom had been working with Peter for many years. We would sing and dance and do martial arts or play percussions and do all sorts of exercises and improvisations together. It opened me to a very wide world of possibility and I was truly amazed to discover such a “brave new world”!

Peter often spoke to me in terms of dance. He would direct me or explain certain things from the point of view of movement, or how a dancer gets into character in Indian dance. I have rarely met someone who uses words with such clarity and precision and simplicity. The most important thing I learnt was maybe the need for a certain, very refined, quality of absolute attention – and the great value of simplicity.

Akram Khan also worked with Peter Brook at a young age – were you in the company at the same time? **No we were not. Although the first time we met was during Peter Brook’s shooting of a film version of Hamlet, in which Akram took the role of one of the Players.

And how did you come to work with Pina Bausch? **Again, I met Pina Bausch, at a young age, through my mother. They were close friends. When I did my first Kuchipudi tour in Europe with my Master, Pina invited us to perform in Wuppertal. Then she saw me perform with Bartabas’ Zingaro company in_ Chimère. When I was 22, she invited me to join her new production, it was the first piece I did with her company: _*Odido*. And since then I’ve danced in *Néfès, *Bamboo Blues and Sacre du Printemps.

What was the first show of hers you saw – and what impression did it make on you? **I saw “Nelken” as a young teenager in Paris. I remember thinking: but isn’t this supposed to be a dance performance? Why aren’t they dancing? I was amazed at what was happening on stage. I couldn’t imagine that dancers were doing so many things on stage that was not dancing! I remember laughing a lot, and I remember having a knot in my throat and wanting to cry, and also feeling a little uncomfortable sitting there and watching all that, like I wasn’t supposed to be watching it, for some strange reason.

What do you like about coming to London? What will you be doing when you’re not performing? **I’ve been to London many times, and I really love the city, but so far I’ve never had a chance to present my Kuchipudi work in London, so I’m really thrilled about that. And it feels really nice to perform at Sadler’s Wells because I love the kind of work they present. And to be part of Svapnagata, because it’s about dreaming and about India, because it’s an invitation from Akram, and I’ll be there with Larbi, so it’s being among friends. I hope I can see some of the other shows of the festival, and meet some of my London friends.

Who/what have been the greatest influences on you artistically? **My Master – Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam, Pina Bausch, Ushio Amagatsu. I’m also greatly influenced by Nature, its artistry, grace, beauty, and energy.

Your favourite film? Music? Book? **Can’t name a single favorite but here’s what comes to my mind right now:
Film: Babel
*_Books:* the _His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, The End of Suffering-Buddha in the World by Pankaj Mishra
Music: Indian classical, Flamenco, Tango…

Shantala Shivalingappa What comes next for you? **I’m working on a new Kuchipudi solo which will be premiered at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris next spring.

See Shantala Shivalingappa in Svapnagata ***_Shiva Ganga_ – kuchipudi solo*
23 Nov, Sadler’s Wells
“Special ticket offer – best available for £10”:**

***Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui & Shantala Shivalingappa in* **
Play (working title) ***24 & 25 Nov, Lilian Baylis Studio*
“more details/online booking”:

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