Dancers often describe their inspiration or motivation behind a piece, but rarely does dance have the capability to tell a story explicitly. Shantala Shivalingappa, however, combines movement with narrative in her performance of Kuchipudi, a classic South Indian dance style. This weekend, she performed “Akasha,” her first show in Boston, at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Kuchipudi is characterized by its narrative style and accompanying music—an orchestra composed of vocals, flute, veena (a plucked string instrument), and percussion. The dance form has two components: pure dance (which is abstract) and expressive dance (which is focused on the story being told). Shivalingappa, who has trained extensively in Kuchipudi since childhood, also adds her own choreographic marks on the traditional dance form. “A classical form like Kuchipudi is alive today because it has the capacity to expand itself. It’s very porous to a lot of influences,” she says.
The performance at the ICA was entitled “Akasha,” meaning space. In general, Shivalingappa uses the titles of her shows as a starting point for composing the pieces; in particular, this collection of dances focused on finding a space that goes beyond what an individual experiences daily. “When the heart is really open, when your spirit is open—and dance and music can really do that—then you have a different experience of life and you can see a different kind of flow of energy,” she says. The performance featured five dances on topics ranging from a fight between Goddess Alamelu Manga and her husband God Venkateshwara to a story of the Supreme God Krishna as a child.
While advertised as a dance performance, “Akasha” was a fusion between dance and music. Focus shifted between the musicians and Shivalingappa. “The dance and the music are really inseparable,” she says. For example, each piece began with the stage in darkness and a spotlight on the musicians; these instrument-heavy performances would last for minutes before Shivalingappa appeared. Afterwards, the music acted as a background to the dancing. While the melodies of the different pieces were repetitive, the combination of dance and music provided constant entertainment throughout the show. “It’s like the dancer is making music with her body and the musicians are dancing with their music,” Shivalingappa says.
Shivalingappa’s dance was multifaceted; at any instant, her dress, facial expressions, hand motions, and movement across the stage contributed to the performance’s effect. One piece opened with just Shivalingappa’s hands illuminated in shadow; the movement of each finger was as absorbing as if she were dancing across the stage. Her facial expressions, which could convey anger, humor or elation, helped guide the plot of the dances. In one piece, she riveted the audience by dancing on top of a brass plate held in place between her toes. “We use body language, rhythm, hand gestures, and facial expressions to bring alive characters and stories,” Shivalgingappa says.
While Kuchipudi has existed for centuries and has a specific style, there are ways for experienced dancers to implement individuality into their pieces. And it is this potential for artistic liberty which ultimately characterizes this weekend’s performance of “Akasha.” “What’s amazing is that over time you realize and you experience that the deeper you go into that form and the more you master it, it gives you enormous freedom” Shivalingappa says.