Dancing An Homage: Shantala Shivalingappa Honors Her Mentors with Namasya

By Claire F. Meyler


Shantala Shivalingappa is a truly gifted dancer, so graceful and precise that she seems to move as one with the music. Her leaps are effortless, airy, with the spring of a startled bird and the confidence of a cat. Her long, slender limbs create clean shapes, and her lithe body switches tempo with ease. Shivalingappa’s inborn talent is clear, but her unique background is what makes her performances so rich with flavor.

Photo by Laurent Philippe
Photo by Laurent Philippe

An international artist with rare clarity of movement, Shivalingappa straddles eastern and western worlds with true grace. Born in Chennai (then known as Madras), and raised in Paris, Shivalingappa grew up in a world of dance and music. As a young child, she traveled extensively with her dancer/teacher mother, Savitry Nair, and began training alongside her at age five. As a teenager, Shivalingappa fell in love with the power and fluidity of Kuchipudi—a classical dance form of Southern India—and trained intensely under Master Vempati Chinna Satyam. Recognized early as a gifted performer, Shivalingappa has since had the honor of working with a diverse range of renowned artists: Maurice Béjart, Peter Brook, Bartabas, Pina Bausch and Ushio Amagatsu. Through it all, she sees herself first and foremost as an Indian dancer. Though her home is in Paris, she returns to India each year to re-connect with the music and cultural resources of her birthplace. This April, West Coast audiences will get a taste of her rich experience with the hour-long solo program, Namasya, presented by SF Performances.

Translating to “Homage,” Namasya does exactly that: she pays tribute to the diverse influences and master artists that have colored her career. Given that framework, it is only appropriate that one of the four dance pieces was choreographed by the late Pina Bausch, who first sparked Shivalingappa’s interest in contemporary dance. Though she grew up surrounded by various dance styles, she was at first reticent to try contemporary dance. But when Bausch, a long-time friend and co-worker of her mother, asked Shivalingappa to join her company as a guest dancer, the new genre opened the young performer to a more spontaneous, freer way of moving. Gaining mastery of a new form, she describes as, “unsettling and refreshing, to be like a beginner again.”

More than a decade later, Shivalingappa is clearly no beginner, but her early experiences inform this new work. Bausch’s composition, simply titled “Solo,” has several elements now familiar from previous Bausch/Shivalingappa collaborations: sensual movements and quick energetic leaps performed in a long evening dress. However, this work—created by Bausch to honor her close friend, now dead, who had been Shivalingappa’s earliest promoter—is infused with hints of South Asian gesture. Explains Shivalingappa,“Each dance form enriches the other construction. Whatever you do adds flavors and colors the other, makes it more interesting.”

In another piece, Shivalingappa asked to work with Butoh Master Ushio Amagastu, longtime director of the all-male company, Sankai Juku. She was drawn to the strong aesthetic experience and deeply emotional resonance of his work. She says, “I always wanted to be a part of it [Amagatsu’s Butoh], not just from the outside, not just watching it.” The resonance was so strong, she explains, “I wanted to touch it to try it, to see myself in it. It felt surprisingly familiar.” When putting together a new program, Amagatsu was on the top of her list. Luckily, the feeling was mutual. When she asked him to create a new piece, Amagatsu agreed to work with her because he had been impressed with her Kuchipudi performances. Says Shivalingappa, “It’s not always possible for him to work with different forms of dance, but we found common ground in the approach to movement, in the imagery.”

The finished product, “Ibuki” (Vital Breath), is a slow meditative movement through images of a day, from dawn to dusk. The work has no narrative. Yet, as it evokes images and emotions, it is “extremely detailed, like a musical partition.” Shantala Shivalingappa explains, “It is an internal journey, described to me as a series of images and dance movements going through these different landscapes.” Each movement comes from a precise trigger, whether it’s an image, an emotional sensation, or a memory. In its subtle depiction of sunrise, water, flowers, sunset, she describes it as “an abstract  work with a richly detailed interior.”

To round out the program, mother and daughter created a contemporary piece together while they were teaching in Maurice Béjart’s school in Switzerland. Created in the few short weeks before Béjart passed away and before the premier of Namasya, this selection speaks to an intensity of emotion. Says Shivalingappa, “We had worked very closely with him.” For her contribution, mother Savitra Nair chose music that she had performed to in one of Béjart’s ballets, a classical North Indian composition. Of the mother-daughter collaboration, Shivalingappa says, “It was absolutely lovely to work with her.”

Shivalingappa’s own contribution to the evening, “Shift,” is appropriately named, changing music as the dance shifts in style. Here again, one sees her varied influences enriching her performance. As one of her first attempts at contemporary self-choreography, Shivalingappa has developed this work over several performances. It premiered in 2007 in Paris, inspired by the Indian martial arts form Kalari Payat. She found these movements earthy, grounded, and admired the elements taken from the natural world, such as the animal sequences of the serpent and the monkey. As she returned to fine-tune the piece, Shivalingappa added new elements, inspired by her work with Amagatsu. In particular, she found herself meditating on “the slowness of movement, and the relation of weight to gravity.”

In an evening of loving tributes to dancer-choreographers from Shivalingappa’s well-rounded career, it is no surprise that she includes an homage to Kuchipudi, her primary passion, and to her guru Vempati Chinna Satyam. Filmed by Alexandre Castres, a French dancer-turned-videographer, the film offers a close-up view of Shivalingappa’s hands, face, and feet as she silently dances in full Indian regalia. Artfully shot, the film offers a rare chance to see the beauty of her hand gestures—mudras—up close, scaling up details not always visible to a dance audience. More importantly, this short interlude reinforces the links between her Eastern heritage and her Western training.

A full evening of solo work can be intense, but for Shantala Shivalingappa, that intensity is part of the attraction. She enjoys taking the audience with her on a personal journey, allowing them to touch something else in that experience. Also, the solo form is central to Indian dance. In the codified world of classical Indian dance, she explains, “Either you do big dramatic mythical episodes with characters and musicians, or you do solo work.” Of the two basic forms, Shivalingappa is clearly drawn to solo work. “Once you’ve tasted it, then the format of solo performance is very powerful”, she says. “It takes a lot, but it gives a lot as well. Once you start practicing, it’s very hard to give up.” With a talent this enchanting, one could hardly blame her.

Namasya will be presented on Tue, Apr 16 at the Herbst Theatre, additional information available at sfperformances.org.

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of In Dance.

Claire F. Meyler is an artist and arts administrator working, writing, and painting out of Oakland, CA.