interview with Parijat Desai
by Lalitha Venkat
you to get into dance?
Even though I started training
when I was young (5) and loved watching others perform, I actually didn't
feel excitement about dance until around 16. Then I really began to feel
the joy of moving to music and sharing that with others. By that time,
I was learning both Indian classical dance and jazz. I was old enough to
recognize that I loved movement, rhythm, and theater in a way that extended
beyond a particular technique or culture.
As a student of social sciences
and humanities in college, I began thinking about our histories of colonization
and immigration, of global demographic shifts, of ruptures and evolutions
in culture; and I felt strongly that dance had to reflect that reality.
Inspired by Black choreographers who had long been developing contemporary
dance tied to their own experiences and by Indian musicians who were also
experimenting, I felt I could (and should) find a way to integrate the
dance vocabularies I knew. The aim became to express through dance the
intersections that happen on a large scale and also in my own experience.
Of course choreography that draws
on multiple sources is nothing new; this is just how I began making dance.
you going in tough New York city?!
This question is an important
one, and is bigger than a romantic notion of a passionate artist struggling
in gritty New York City. In the US in general, it's difficult to sustain
professional artistic activity, both because of the dearth of arts funding
and because health care and health insurance are extremely expensive for
Among the so-called "developed
nations" the US is one that is least invested in supporting the arts and
people who practice them. And in terms of health coverage, nowadays (some
would say under the Bush administration), even Americans with full-time
jobs sometimes don't have coverage or have to pay tremendous amounts for
treatment. What all this means is that even successful artists must piece
together income in order to continue their work. And sometimes people must
go without timely medical care.
So what keeps me going? For income,
I work as a copy editor for a magazine publisher. It's great because four
of their magazines are about dance. (see lifestylemedia.com). But there
is still little time to rest, after performing with and managing a dance
The biggest motivators are of
course dance itself and working with the wonderful artists who live here.
Through some years of working together, my dancers and I have developed
a strong connection and mutual understanding; their presence in NY brought
me here and is what makes me stay. Besides my own company members, there
are artists working in music and theater whose work is very exciting. I
feel there will be many opportunities to work with such people here. On
a broader scale, New York is still the center of dance in the US; and within
the dance/arts community there are resources that artists themselves
and other nonprofit workers have created. All of these things make the
help a young Asian Indian dancer to know an Indian style of dance or not?
Does your training in Bharatanatyam give you an edge when you collaborate
with international dancers?
There are many skills that a
dancer gains training in Bharatanatyam, which she can apply to new situations.
Training in Indian classical dance forms seems to give dancers a strong
stage presence or charisma. They are also well-attuned to rhythm, and how
to position their limbs in a clear manner. In some forms, dancers learn
how to turn out their legs - which can be helpful when crossing over to
other dance forms - and often also obtain a strong aerobic capacity.
But to really answer your question,
it would be helpful to break down what kinds of artistic situations a dancer
might find herself in. One is where the movement vocabulary is strongly
based on Indian classical techniques, but where new concepts and/or structures
are being investigated. In that case, BN training would be very helpful.
In fact the stronger her training the better equipped she would be to experiment
as an artist or as a dancer working for another artist. At the same time,
it would be important that she have a mental readiness to try new things.
In a broader sense, I feel it is helpful for both the dancer and choreographer
to have an understanding of how their experimentation fits into a long
global history of dance innovation.
Another situation is one in which
the movement vocabulary is very strongly influenced by modern dance technique.
In that case, life would be hard for the person only trained in Bharatanatyam.
Indian classical dance alone does not prepare a dancer to do contemporary
or modern dance movements. These arenas of dance involve very different
approaches to the body and to movement. In general, a Bharatanatyam trained
dancer needs to acquire greater flexibility and needs to learn how move
more fluidly. Sometimes (often) that means going counter to what her first
technique demands and unlearning habits.
In one instance, I worked on a
project in with LA's JazzTap Ensemble for which director Lynn Daly wanted
me as Bharatanatyam dancer. No doubt the training distinguished me enough
to get selected. However, it was my training in modern and other forms
that allowed me to be versatile and move with the other dancers who were
trained in different forms.
I think there are number of movement
forms that can expand a dancer's capacity to move more fluidly or organically:
yoga, tai chi, ballet, Indonesian dance, even swimming. All these movement
forms teach you to connect one movement to the next smoothly. They also
require you to connect your breath to the movement. Another important factor
is learning to move with the full body, instead of thinking in terms of
individual body parts; yoga, martial art, ballet, and modern dance are
all helpful in this. If one has no access to classes like these, perhaps
a sport like tennis or badminton could help one learn to be agile with
the whole body.
(I'm saying all of this because
I myself began as a stiff bookworm and am still learning how to break out!).
In general, I find that studying multiple techniques helps expand my movement
capacity and facilitates the creative process.
your opinion about the current Bollywood style of dance that draws huge
audiences into theatres and encourages “live” shows by Indian film stars
around the world?
As we all know, regardless of
what I think about Bollywood, it is here to stay. So mostly I say, "Ahh,
c'est la vie!"
But since you asked, what I simply
cannot bring myself to feel comfortable with are 1) Bollywood's representation
of people and society; and 2) the fact that every movement (dance or otherwise)
on the screen is selected based on to trying to sell something - the story,
the emotion, the star, the film itself.
My friends will tell me, of course
all of this is problematic. Of course they always highlight the white-skinned
dancers and make all the central characters live in palatial homes and
enforce strict notions of femininity and have the big fair-skinned people
seem smarter and more "good" than darker or smaller people, etc, etc. "Hey,"
they say, "that's how it is! You just have to turn your brain off, relax
and enjoy it, yaar."
I don't know if it's because I
can't turn my brain off, because I am aware of how powerful any kind of
representation is in reinforcing our beliefs/views, or because of how absolutely
opposite my goals as an artist are to the goals of Bollywood dance. Whatever
the reason, I repeatedly cringe at the both the way stories are told by
Bollywood and how dances are made.
I'm excited, on the other hand,
to see how independent Indian film is developing. Indie indies?
briefly describe your creative process - what triggers ideas for a composition?
Is the choreography a team effort?
Ideas for choreography come from
music, from ideas or events, from text, and from questions about movement
I am always interested in exploring
new possibilities within dance techniques and ways to integrate different
forms. Coming across a music style or composition that moves me (Hindustani
thumris, for example) or that is investigating crossover (UK Asian electronica)
also triggers a great deal of choreographic excitement. Hearing that music,
I begin to see movement ideas and usually a movement language for a given
piece starts to emerge. I play around with it on my own and then bring
it to the other dancers, introducing through phrases or exercises. Later
this vocabulary grows into choreographed phrases.
Some of my investigations are
pure movement to music. Other times it feels important to take on the philosophical
or political questions (e.g., what does it mean to be a warrior?
What is the nature of archetypal Indian womanhood - is it beautiful or
oppressive?). Text may add layers to the idea exploration. I've used Indian
folklore, spiritual literature, lyrics, and political writings as part
of what shapes the choreography.
Re: team effort, now that I have
been working with dancers who are familiar with the vocabularies I'm drawing
on, it's much easier to involve them in the creative process. While I might
set the stage by putting forward a language of movement, they help develop
individual phrases, work through partnering sequences, or help solve problems
with transitions or counts. With thematic or theatrical issues, again,
though I might be the one with the starting vision, we discuss what is
being explored and how they think about it. Because the dancers are actually
inside the piece doing the movement or expressing a character, their views
should shape our choreographic decisions.
It's a constant balancing act
between directing the process according to an evolving vision, and facilitating
that creation in an inclusive way - knowing that when people can participate
and contribute, they feel more engaged and the choreography is that much
How do you
and your team feel about performing at The Park’s THE OTHER FESTIVAL 2004,
especially since you had to cancel last year due to surgery, etc?
We are all very excited to be
able to come all the way there, and to participate in such a cutting-edge
and multifaceted event. We feel doubly grateful that we were invited a
second time and that we were able to obtain travel funding again.
Performing in India can feel special,
like a homecoming; but it can also feel intimidating, because The Other
Festival is in Madras, a classical dance capital. But we know that we put
our hearts into this, and have hurdled many challenges. So ultimately we
look forward to sharing our work and learning from others.