As I sit to write to you, I realize that today is actually the first day of Spring. When someone says, "Spring Cleaning", they're usually referring to giving the house a good clean: sweeping under the rugs, dusting between each blind and vacuuming the dust bunnies out from those hard to reach corners. But what about the dust bunnies in our minds? What about the junk that accumulates, needlessly weighing us down? I think of myself as a fairly grounded person with a good head on my shoulders and a more-optimistic-than-most outlook on life. But lately, I've been consumed with this feeling that "I'm not doing enough". And that feeling seemed to show up in every facet of my life. At every turn, I wasn't checking all the things off on my "list", whether it was career (which is 4 lists on its own), or personal, or social-justice-save-the-planet stuff, the overwhelming feeling was that I was disappointing myself. I was not doing as much as I was doing in my 20's, I mean, between 18 and 28 holy bijolies...worlds opened up for me and I dove in! The list of jaw-dropping, identity-forming experiences was huge! Then, between 28 and 38, okay, a few less, but still some big changes and moves across the country a couple times, and then between 38 and today...where did all the mind-blowing stuff go? Am I just chugging along? Things don't seem to be CHANGING as quickly as they once did? Am I a "change junkie"? Is that it? Maybe. But basically, this state of mind was doing me no good. Being discontent feels awful, and I don't have a huge tolerance for it. Setting goals and checking them off is good, but is it everything? Does it make a life? HELL NO!!
Let it be known, that I am not perfect. I am striving and I am trying. Sometimes, I am accepting of all that is. Often I butt heads with reality. I like my dreams. I like renewal. I love having an idea, a picture, and living to see that picture appear again in front of me. I am happy inside. But sometimes, I feel restless or like I'm wearing clothes that I want to change out of. I like change. I should allow for it. I do. "Everything new" is a state of mind. I love Star Trek. It is familiar. I can't change anyone, so why try? What is my responsibility? It if is in my power to help another reach their full potential then by doing so, I am reaching my own.
I am lucky to have it. I am lucky to be loved, and I am lucky to have someone to love.
Love is being open, sincere. Love is caring. Love is a skipping heart. Love is my eyes welling up. Love is quiet moments shared. Love is sitting under a tree. Love is shared adventures. Love is teamwork. Love is helping each other. Love is loving. Love is patient and kind and humbles me every time. Love is infinite without boundaries. Love grows and grows. Love inspires and soars to new heights for Love. Love is in my backyard, on my front lawn, swinging on my porch. Love is in my bedroom and in the kitchen. Love lights the fire in my hearth and cools me in the heat of summer. Love is passionate and surprising, steady and comforting. Love is giving each other permission to be who you are, and to change. Love is big. Love is bigger than you and me.
Love is you and me.
Love you and me.
I don't want to get into it too much, but I will say this: It is every artists' duty, and I will go so far as to say that it is every human being's duty, to honor their integrity, because there are more factors than can be listed here that will conspire to tear that integrity down!
I just had a meeting with a very well known organization that wants to put my work for schools into the neat little "Indian culture" box. They want me to remove all elements in the show that are not "Indian". For example, I play mani rhythms on the calabash or dried gourd from Ghana, West Africa. This is what I do. It is what I know. When I play, I am honoring the place where this art comes from, I am honoring those that taught me and those who continue to play. This knowledge and experience has been with me for over 20 years. My experience, as a human being and as an artist, is not one-note. "Like a lot of people living here in America, I am influenced by several cultures." ( a line from the show, contextualizing the use of the calabash).
I love what we do as artists! I love that we reveal and affirm the beautiful multiplicity of the human race! In all my years of going into the classrooms and the auditoriums of urban schools, what I bring to and get from the experience is that young people identify with and understand, more intuitively than adults, that we are more than one thing - one culture, one way of dressing, one mood, one color...
Let's not dumb the world down to the young people of our generation. Show them our and their own complexity, and you show them their own beauty, and the truth.
I don't blame the person that gave us the feedback. I understand how the world operates, and that everybody is simply beholden to someone (or something) else. In this case, the gentleman who gave us the feedback must find the balance between two worlds, the artists with their integrity and the marketing needs of an organization, including the opinions of the P.T.A. Which is why each of us must be responsible for ourselves. We have no one to blame if we find our work and our selves walking a path that feels disingenuous.
In my 20 years of professional experience as an artist and entertainer, I have often found myself in a position to provide insight and leadership to companies, organizations and institutions that utilize a cross-cultural approach. I say this as if these companies appreciated my input, when in fact, it was usually the opposite. I am a headache, a thorn-in-their-side, a knock-on-the-door, an upset in the status quo. Usually, companies would rather that I just agree with their beliefs and how they run the machine, but if I don't, then I don't, and I let that be known.
As a creator and performer with Cirque du Soleil, I was hired to create a character, Oceane, by blending Indian classical dance with my own contemporary choreography. I was thrilled with the opportunity to create a character that was not about “being Indian”, but utilized the nuance of the form to give the character the essence of water. Unfortunately, the directors of the project found it easier to dress me up in faux Indian harem pants, a sequined belly-exposed crop top, a crown with a braid that descended down to my knees, and of course the ubiquitous dot in the middle of my forehead. I took it upon myself to force the issue until I was granted a meeting with the director of not only my show, Dralion, but the director of all of Cirque du Soleil. It was important for me to speak up for the way minority cultures were depicted on stage and to minimize, to the best of my ability, the degree to which the “other” was exotified. Specifically, I asked for a costume that was less “Indian” and more “Water”. In short, I was told by the director that he could care less (insert more colorful language). However, the costume designer paid attention to me. With my input and without approval from the director, he made the necessary changes. I will expand upon this full story in a later blog, because it's a good one!
To this day, Dralion continues to tour and has been seen by over 8 million people worldwide. The efforts I made 14 years ago to accurately represent my character’s image within a South Asian cultural context have stuck, and for as long as the show is in existence, there will be a role for South Asian contemporary dancers. When cultural stereotypes begin to limit the full potential of the artist, I feel a responsibility to dismantle them. I encourage others to boldly do the same, especially if they are in an environment that does not immediately recognize or reflect the culturally-sensitive values that they espouse. I believe that if given the opportunity, artists can and should bridge the gap between art and entertainment by infiltrating the “mainstream” with thoughtful, rigorous critical analysis. I believe that all of us, regardless what we do in life and what position we take in whatever company, owe it to ourselves and to everyone that will follow in our footsteps to stay true to our truth.
Just to go back to the issue of the calabash and the children's assembly show that incorporates it, I will say that I have no intention of removing that section from the show. I lived in Ghana for one year and have studied and participated in the dance, music and culture to a degree that surprised even local Ghanaian artists. We have intelligently and ethically woven it into our storytelling. And yes, the calabash is not from India. But, neither is the innovative use of modern/contemporary dance within our storytelling. My collaborator and I are both contemporary dancers trained in Modern, Ballet, Jazz, Tap, etc. Shall we remove all aspects of us from the show that are not from India? My collaborator is half-Indian. Perhaps I should remove her as well? You get where I'm going with this.
I have an American friend of Taiwanese descent whose practice is deeply rooted in the classical dance form Kathak from North India. I know a Japanese woman who became a master of Odissi dance from East India. Each of these artists is expanding beyond society's expectations and comfort with what is acceptable, culturally and otherwise. I say this to everyone who lives and dies by categories and neat little boxes: Leave the rest of us alone. Let us be as expansive as we wish. We didn't come here to fulfill your requirements.
How do you utilize expressive systems in the creation of your work?
The only way that I know how to begin answering this question is to look back at the work I’ve created over the past several years to see what through-lines appear. As a choreographer, the phase that I am in right now is so experimental with lines crossing and criss-crossing through me at an alarming rate; I’m not sure of anything. It’s like someone gave me apples – Braeburns, Granny Smiths, Fujis, Galas – and I tossed them all up in the air. I know and prefer the Fuji apple, low acidity, crunchy, always satisfying, so I’m hoping that I’ll catch that one. But, as they fall, in time, I think I’ll be able to catch a couple others and add them to my basket. For now, they’re all up in the air – all these choreographic tools – different ways to approach “meaning-making”. In these experiments, the big question for me has been,
“When am I giving too much information and when am I not giving enough?”
The information that I generally provide quite immediately is a sense of atmosphere. Atmosphere gives me a sense of being someplace, and this place in turn informs the beginnings of my dances. For example, a piece of music inspired me to choreograph a light-hearted dance about women…as chickens. In my mind, the women clucked and preened, gossiped and fought. They were in a smoky tavern, wearing all yellow with feathers everywhere. Each “chick” was a specific character. To begin creating Chicks, I needed a sense of place. Where were these women? They were in a smoky tavern cum chicken roost. Up stage right were chairs and a cocktail table with a lit candle; while up stage left were two bales of hay, a wheelbarrow and a rake. The music/soundscape and the set created an atmosphere and further influenced how the piece would develop. As an expressive system, it does what theater does by inviting an audience into an environment, giving them an immediate clue in how to read the dance. This is what I know, and I’m good at it. I just realized something quite profound. As soon as I find that I’m good at something, and that it comes easy to me, I don’t focus on developing it. Instead, I start climbing a new mountain, a new challenge, often grappling with what I don’t know rather than developing what I do know. Why do I do this? I’m ever curious, open to a fault, addicted to the challenge of stretching myself. I would not have expected that my first year as a graduate student would bring up so much information about my psychological tendencies, all drawn from analyzing my choreographic methods. It is sad that I don’t take more pride in what I have that is unique and special to me. It is sad that I try to be good at everything. It is especially bad that I am being so hard on myself, but it’s hard not to when you start to discover the parts of yourself that on the one hand have got you where you are, but on the other hand, are keeping you where you are.
Some of the other things that I value, with regard to how I make meaning in dances, have to do with the body as an organism that is informed and transformed by the essence of the character it is embodying. My movement invention is directly related to who that character is, where they are, what they want, etc. In a piece called Takers, inspired by my experiences and observations living in Irvine, Orange County – the epitome of a “Brave New World”, petri dish society – and by the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, the dance explores human society’s evolution and obsessive need for control.
The dancers evolve along evolutionary lines, beginning in the “primordial soup”. They start by lying on the ground in various positions, slowly discovering, with eyes closed, different parts of their bodies: the head tips, the shoulder rolls, the leg lifts/floats off the ground.
They continue to move liquid-like, moving to all fours, eyes open now, and finally to standing. Next, they create a repetitive action that is their own, that individuates them but in its repetition gives a task-oriented feeling. Slowly, they all merge and join a collective movement that was started. The movement is repetitive with sharp angles. Furthermore, the movements are precise with an emphasis on gesture and shape. The hands become cups that begin to “carve” the space around them and simultaneously carve themselves into the space. The bodies are progressively moving like automatons, carving and shaping not only themselves, but also with increasing urgency, each other. This leads me to my third, and very important tool in making meaning in my dances and that is, the interaction between bodies.
When two or more bodies interact, the options in how meaning can be read significantly increases. I enjoy playing between these options by crafting subtle or dramatic shifts in how the bodies relate to each other, standing back, and then seeing how the “reading” of a particular moment is changed. Focus, facing, energy output, facial expression, quality of the movement, and movement choice are but a few of the elements that I can tweak inside of an interaction. I have to say, this is one place where the options do not overwhelm me. I have been known to not buy shampoo for a whole year because the sheer number of options on the drug store shelf has left me completely paralyzed. However, when working with dancers, I get truly jazzed in the moment of crafting interactions. I embrace the options and seem to be able to shuffle through a few and choose one without being overly precious about it. Why can I do this as a choreographer while working with dancers, but have such a hard time of it when working on my own? Why - in the instances of working on/with other bodies - do I feel a cathartic release of tension when committing to one option (knowing full well that several other options exist and may even be better), but am paralyzed when faced with making choices in the larger context of my life? Time has passed, and I have been thinking about the last question. I think the answer has something to do with my ability to have complete faith in spontaneous decisions that are made extemporaneously due to limits. Working in a studio for two hours with six dancers on a piece that goes up in three days has several limits that do not allow me the luxury of sorting through every option. In this case, I trust myself to try a few and go with one. I believe that limitations in many ways are the greatest seeds of creativity. Having too many options without limits creates complacency and confusion. These are big statements to make, but growing up as the daughter of immigrant parents, whose options were minimal compared to mine, I notice with some irony how much more difficult it is for me to make choices. The first question I asked remains unanswered and still perplexes me. Creating meaning on my own body by sorting through all the same options, and using all the same tools, does not leave me feeling as free and confident as I do when working on other bodies. Maybe it just takes practice, and faith in what I cannot see.
What is your kinetic signature?
Graduate school is so good for me. I say this like a mother telling her child to eat her asparagus. My tendency in life is to collect as much experience as I can in my body, my heart, my mind, and my soul. But the thought of poring over it all and placing it in identifiable boxes with labels is a task that I avoid whenever possible. I naturally see the big picture, but Graduate school is forcing me to pay attention to the details. Some people can’t see the forest for the trees. I have the opposite problem.
In the process of identifying what my kinetic signature is made of, I cannot help but to draw parallels between how my body moves and how I approach life. But before I expound upon the glories of the forest, let me examine each tree, from leaf to trunk to roots. I am grounded. My body enjoys bringing it’s center of gravity lower to the ground while remaining in an upright position. I make a point of clarifying the upright positioning to avoid confusion with floorwork, which I am not particularly inclined towards.
In the sequencing of how my body moves, I have noticed that rarely does my body move as a whole unit. More often, there will be an initiation point, and that point can be anywhere in the body from the hip to the knee to the wrist, foot or eye. There seems to be a call and response function that takes over. For example, if my eyes suddenly dart to the left, the entire body has an opportunity to respond in the moment. What part of the body moves first and why is still unclear to me. The extemporaneous quality of the moment avoids discernable patterns yet what is apparent is that an internal rhythm is set into motion. Going back to the eyes suddenly darting to the left, I “feel” a sound – an accent in my body – and that sound has a responding sound, like an “ahhhh”. If my eyes call “ka”, short and to the point, and the response is “ahhhh”, this might show up in my body by both shoulders rolling back, causing the torso to undulate. Next, I hear, “digee digee digee pa!” My right foot crawls quickly in towards my left, heel to toe – “digee digee digee” – my right knee juts up with a swat of my right hand in the air diagonally right of my body – “pa!” When I create movement, I naturally enjoy “hearing” what I’m making. These last seven months at UCLA, except for a couple studies, I have quite purposely avoided making pieces where I create movement partially influenced by internal rhythm. For this reason, I have also avoided using music but when I have, I tried to approach it the way I’ve noticed many post-modern choreographers doing – by creating the movement first and then just laying the music on top.
So, I have a grounded body that moves in response to an internal rhythm. Polyrhythm is the simultaneous sounding of two or more independent rhythms. Syncopation is the stressing of a normally unstressed beat in a bar of music or the failure to sound a tone on an accented beat. Both methods of phrasing and musicality are quite evident in my dancing and also in the dance forms that I have chosen to pursue. African dance, jazz dance, folk dances of India, kathak, Latin and Carribean dances and tap are all dance forms that are based on the musical styles that make heavy use of these rhythmic concepts, and are all forms that I am attracted to. As a modern/contemporary dancer, I am attracted to styles of moving that are in dialogue with a musical phrase, audible or not. I find myself getting frustrated in certain post-modern dance classes when the instructor gives a movement phrase with no consistency or attention placed on the phrasing of it. A skilled musician might be sitting in the corner, playing something quite wonderful, but the whole class is moving through space in different time zones without an air-traffic controller to guide the space. It is no wonder that there are more kicks in the mouth and head than ever before. I have no problem with approaching music from a place of individual interpretation, if that is truly what the instructor wants, but this is rarely specified, and usually the music is often ignored. If, truly, the goal is an individual interpretation of the body’s relationship to music, this is wonderful, but keep the groups smaller.
I digress. Regardless of my body’s close relationship to music, be it from an internal source or an external source, I have participated in plenty of projects that do not draw on music or phrasing as the motivator in creating movement. My body and my self are ever curious to explore new ways of expressing, and I learn best by allowing myself to move into territories that are uncomfortable and new. My belief is that I will come away with more. There is usually a period of adjustment and fear that I am “losing myself”, but soon I regain footing and have faith that what is at the core of my unique self is not and will not be threatened by the introduction of new information. The parallels that I found myself drawing between my philosophy of movement and my philosophy in life, are also reflected in the history of India as a country that has been repeatedly invaded for over four thousand years. Starting in around 2300 B.C. major migrations have pushed into India, from Vedic Aryans to Persian emperors to Alexander the Great. Muslim Turks ruled Northern India for over 300 years and direct British colonial rule dominated most of South Asia for almost 100 years. Each group of peoples penetrated India with their influence, often resulting in a strong cultural synthesis.
India’s traditions change, but they are not lost. They are adaptable and tolerant and this, I feel, is a key component in their ability to survive and flourish. Similarly, although I often feel pressured to define and commit myself to one way, one field of interest, one way of moving, (one man), I am most skilled at adapting and taking in diversiform experiences and paths in life. This adaptability certainly enables me with valuable survival skills, but brings up issues of minority co-opting, a term I never even heard of until I began my graduate studies. The questions that are raised by my adaptability do not have easy answers, and the very asking of them have touched some deep and painful spaces. The spaces are dark and abandoned, empty spaces that I am crawling into with a little more light.
What set of conventions and practices are you challenging in your work? What set of conventions and practices are you reifying?
In exploring this question it has become increasingly clear to me that my boundaries have always been quite porous. I take pleasure in discovering more about myself by stretching into value systems and aesthetics that are outside of my current understanding. This openness gives me the opportunity to approach my work as a performer and choreographer from many different angles. It also grants me diversity in the types of artistic projects that I can contribute to. This openness might be interpreted then as a free-flowing value system without attachments. I acknowledge that I have aesthetic preferences, but I was not aware how deeply they informed who I am and the traditions that I come from. I did not realize what values I would stand up and fight for until placed in an environment that consciously or unconsciously attempts to tear some of them down.
I understand that post-modern dance is in many ways a response, reaction, and even a resistance to some of the tenets of modern dance. I can appreciate new and innovative ways to tell stories and explore movement (or non-movement). What I reel against is the need to construct a binary - an assumption that the discovery of a "new" form or approach in expression renders the "old" form obsolete. In effect, throwing the baby out with the bathwater just leaves us with an empty tub. Also, when I think of the word “innovation” and the way it is loosely thrown around in the arts, I wonder if we realize that usually we are simply recycling old ideas in new ways. For example, in certain post-modern forms there is a reaction to the notion that the dancer is oblivious to her audience. Susan Foster often stands up while teaching her Theories of Performance class to enact the stereotypical modern dancer in this state. Her face contorts and her body writhes in a sincere (ish) depiction of the belief that just because the dancer is feeling something, so will we. So, post-modern dance comes along and acknowledges the audience, breaks the 4th wall, and celebrates a release from the confines of expressionism. In that way, post-modern dance is closely related to folk traditions in most cultures that always acknowledge and interact with the audience. This is not a new thing, but an extremely old value in performance. The approach may be different, but the innovation is hardly worthy of authorship, and certainly does not earn a right to set up a hierarchy between “high” art and “low” art, otherwise often known as, entertainment.
I briefly mentioned values that I would stand up and fight for, without describing what those values are. I think I’ve always hesitated to put hard lines around my values as an artist because I never wanted to be restricted by them. For example, I deeply value the relationship between music and dance, and I will go into where and how that value got strongly embedded in my methodology (I’m trying to be technical here, but really my relationship to music is no more methodological than my relationship to breathing). These last 6 months I have strayed so far from that value, less out of a true artistic curiosity to explore a non-musical relationship, but more out of the environment and value systems that exist in a post-modern dance department. In 8 months there has never been a study that was interested in the complexities of interpreting a musical score on the body. I am not talking about a simple “structure” study of A,B,B,A inspired by a piece of music and then disassociated from that original score. I am not talking about lines and squiggles in a score interpreted on the body moving or not moving in space. Let’s talk about music and sound and the body’s relationship to it at a very fundamental level. How does music make your body move? What choices are we making as choreographers, as movement makers, as storytellers, in specific response to sound? How can we be “innovators” within this structure, this seemingly “old-school” idea of the relationship between music and dance? I am happy to challenge my conventions, my default locations as a performer and a creator, but never under the assumption or value judgment that one is somehow more persuasive or compelling than the other.
If I trace back to the beginnings of my life, a younger Sheetal, I will see a little girl with thick glasses and pig tails rounding up all the kids at a dinner party and taking them upstairs to create stories – epics of love, loss, sacrifice, heroism and redemption – (of course), that would then be performed in the living room after the adults finished their dinner. My sense of drama could be inherited from a past-life, but less esoterically, I grew up reading Hindu mythology (epics of love, loss, sacrifice, heroism and redemption) in comic books called, Amar Chitra Katha. I also went to India every couple years for 4 months at a time and was swept away with the country’s love for what is now called “Bollywood” film. Most Westerners would tend to classify most Bollywood films as musicals, because few films are made without at least one song-and-dance number. Bollywood plots certainly lean toward the melodramatic with formulaic ingredients such as star-crossed lovers and angry parents, conniving villains, corrupt politicians, love triangles, long lost relatives and siblings separated by fate, dramatic reversals of fortune and convenient coincidences. It is my theory that Hindi films are a contemporary expression and extension of these ancient mythologies, and just as the stories are traditionally and classically told through a combination of music, dance, drama and song, so does Bollywood make use of the same elements. Just as the sacred mythologies strive toward telling the stories in such a way (the development of the Natya Shastra), in order to appeal to the masses rather than to a select few, so has the Indian film industry preferred films that appeal to all segments of the audience and has resisted making films that target narrow audiences. (Ganti, 2004)
In writing this paper, I am attempting to find the beginnings of my idiosyncracies and preferences as an artist, and as much as I am not a fan of most Bollywood musicals, I cannot deny the influence they must have had on my idea of how stories are told. The drama that is inherent in Hindu mythology and then continues in Hindi film has truly woven its richly colored threads through my dancing body. And what of my dancing body’s relationship to music? Growing up with Indian folk dance, the Garba and Raas were the first dance forms that I ever learned. In Garba, the body gracefully bends sideways, the arms coming together in sweeping gestures, up and down, left and right, each movement ending in a clap. In Raas, the sticks keep time against each other or in conversation with another dancer’s sticks, or against the floor. There is no separation between the music and the dance and as the music picks up in tempo, so does the dance increase in energy. There is a celebratory feeling in the dancing that is always connected with the marking of a rite-of-passage within a human life cycle. In my experience, the dances were always performed with live music at weddings and for Navratri, the 9 days before Diwali, the Festival of Light. I grew up dancing with dancers and non-dancers in local high-school gymnasiums. The circle would continue for hours with people taking breaks to eat or get some air. The sense of community was obvious with young kids, teenagers, parents and grandparents all participating in one way or another. Every year I looked forward to this time. I enjoyed dressing up in the traditional Garba/Raas costume with all the ornamentation, seeing my friends, flirting with the boys that hated to dance and usually went outside to play basketball. In the circle, my connection to dance as a community experience intrinsincally tied to music was strengthened.
And then I started to tap.
The first dance class I ever took was a tap class. I was eight years old. Since that time, and unrecognized by me as a part of my heritage until only very recently, I have continued to be drawn to and influenced by Black vernacular dances. When I was eleven, I refined my obsessive abilities through a single-minded fixation on Michael Jackson. I was popping with the other boys in 6th grade. Popping is a funk style based on the technique of quickly contracting and relaxing muscles to cause a jerk in the dancer's body, referred to as a pop or a hit. Even as I moved into Jazz and Modern dance, my mentors were all African-American men. When I was 16 years old, I was strongly influenced by a man named Reggie Savage who teaches and choreographs in Oakland, California. For two years I danced with him in a style that might be described as New York classical jazz choreographed to jazz music with training that is built on various backgrounds including Ballet, African dance, and Graham-based Modern. The dancing is highly physical and virtuosic with complex phrasing and accents that are played out in the body in response to or in communication with the music.
In college at U.C. Irvine, I met a man that would profoundly influence and encourage my natural talents. Donald McKayle is the single most influential mentor in my dancing life. He is African American, born in East Harlem in 1930 and started dancing in his senior year of high school inspired by a Pearl Primus performance that he snuck into. He made his professional debut in 1948 at The New Dance Group in New York City, choreographing his first pieces when he was 18 years old. He danced with Martha Graham, Anna Sokolow, Merce Cunningham among others. As a choreographer, McKayle was successful in the worlds of dance and theater, creating dances for concert stages, Broadway, theater and film. According to Kimberly Pittman, who wrote a biographical essay on him for PBS,
“McKayle’s sensibilities were formed by the theatrical dance of the 1950’s. A humanistic choreographer, he uses narratives and deals with potent emotion conveyed through dramatic characters. At times his stories are specific to the African-American experience, as in his protest dance “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder”, but his choreography is universal in its implications.”
I danced in many of Mr. McKayles pieces including the classic “Games” (1951), “Sombra y Sol” (1991) and “West Side Story”, of which he was a part of the original Broadway cast. Mr. McKayle encouraged my love of rhythm, my penchant for character driven work and continued to challenge my technical and expressive abilities as a dancer, and later as a choreographer. Our paths have crossed many times since, both professionally and as friends. He is an inspiration and someone I hold dear in my heart. In the beginning of my choreographic life, I think I wanted to make work that was “like” his work. I am no longer in that space. Recently I saw a new piece that he was working on and I realized that I have outgrown that style and although we come from a shared value system , my approach in expressing these values has changed and is continuing to change. Nothing is static. Yet I honor him as a part of my dance heritage, the lineage that I come from. I was recently sent a copy of “Games”, choreographed in 1951 and set on a group of dancers including myself in 1992. The piece speaks to me now with as much resonance as it did then. Maybe that’s why they call it a classic.
This paper is begging to be as long as my lineage, but I know that I’m running out of time (and patience on the part of my reader). I would like to trace my conventions, traditions and values with respect to Black vernacular dance and aesthetics all the way back to Africa where I finally went to live, study and dance in 1993 for a year. But, the point in all of this is that as open as I am in experimenting and challenging the traditions that I come from, namely the relationship of music to dance and narrative structures/dramatic characters, I am also sensitive in preserving these traditions and upholding them against an elitist hierarchy that relegates these values as somehow lower than theirs. Every innovation builds on old ideas, and I completely agree that as responsible artists and human beings, we could do well to check our arrogance at the door and enter softly, in barefeet, eyes open, skin open, and curious as ever to share.
I started writing this speech a day before the final outcome of the 2012 Presidential election in America was known.
I, along with so many Americans and people around the world, have been tense in the wait. What direction will we move in? Are there enough of us to stand up, make a difference, and continue the march toward compassion, tolerance, and real equality? Well, I’m tremendously happy to say that yes, there are enough of us.
I woke up on Wednesday morning in Amsterdam and turned on my computer and in my email inbox was a letter from President Obama saying, “I want you to know that this wasn’t fate, and it wasn’t an accident. You made it happen. And when it wasn’t easy, you pressed forward.” And then I watched his speech on YouTube, and these words stuck with me, “I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us - so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting."
When I think of the Black Magic Woman Festival, this is what I think of. I think of hope, and the courage to back up that hope with action. How do we do it? We come together. We organize. We strive and we struggle and we fail, and we pick ourselves up and we strive and we struggle again. And along the way, we pick up more and more support and momentum. We take our struggle and we transmute it into personal and artistic expression. And we keep going and going and going until we are so caught up in the pleasure of our cause, that we call it a festival.
The Black Magic Woman Festival.
For me, this festival represents the opportunity to truly celebrate what is unique about a community, a culture, a race, a gender, an individual. It is a chance to experience the strengths that come from our differences, and that by owning our differences, by mining and probing the depths of our individual experiences, we come to certain home truths about what it means to be human. And these basic home truths, are shared by everyone. Black, White, Gay, Straight, Rich, Poor, Man, Woman. The only way to cut through the ignorance, fear, hate, oppression, and mistaken belief that the differences make peace untenable, is to BE YOU. Be yourself, everyone else is already taken. These words of Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer and poet, are a reminder that the greatest gift you can offer to yourself and to anyone else is to be you.
But this isn’t as easy as it sounds, or as it should be. Unfortunately, it is easy to get lost in the expectations and judgments of others - to value ourselves based on what we think our society values. And in this mirroring, where we see ourselves as a reflection of how someone else sees us, it is easy to spend your whole life trying to fit into a mold that may not serve you or your unique strengths. When we can easily do something, we often assume that it is also easy for everybody else to do. And vice-versa, when something is easy and effortless for someone else, we assume that it should also be easy for us. I spent the greater part of my life as a performing artist, as a dancer, working very hard to achieve the level of technique and proficiency of the other professional dancers that I trained with. I aspired to to get my leg up here, to have a great turn-out and be flexible and that was all fine and good, but I never could be the best - I could never be MY best - when those were the standards that I judged myself against.
What shifted for me as an artist and as a creator - I’m a director, choreographer and performer - is that a few years ago, I endeavored to make a solo. First of all, I had never created a solo on myself, for performance. I know that many choreographers find it the easiest way to start – start with yourself, with your own body, because you know that best. However, for me, Self was always a product of how Self “adapted”. I can perform an Indian folk dance and be as at home in that experience as I am rolling on the floor in a sleeping exercise inspired by Butoh. I can relate with the culture of academia, Broadway actors, my Indian and Indian-American society, circus life, Chinese acrobats, and the particular preferences of each, with the same amount of ease and dis-ease. The parallels that I find myself drawing between how I make work and how I live my life are also reflected in the history of India – a country that has been repeatedly invaded for over two millennia. Each group of peoples penetrated India with their influence, resulting in a strong cultural synthesis. As India, (as I) move forward, embracing that which is new, her traditions change, but they are not lost. They (I) are adaptable and tolerant and this, I feel, is a key component in their (my) ability to survive.
My understanding of Self, in many ways represented Self, reflected off of Other. For this reason, I always felt it was too difficult for me to make a solo, because I felt like I needed to work with other bodies, where I could be inspired by something outside of myself. At the same time, for many years, I have wanted to create a one-woman show because it seemed the best way to finally be able to roll all the aspects of me into one place. I’m a singer, I’m a dancer, I’m an actor and a percussionist, and in my heart a cultural anthropologist. As an artist and entertainer, I have always felt split. I belonged everywhere, and because of that, I belonged nowhere. Someone, once said to me: “Sheetal, I wonder if you just put yourself in a room for a long time, with no one else to bounce off of, what would come out of you?” I wanted to find out. It was the thing that was hardest for me. There was definitely the fear of failing, but I decided to tackle the thing that I feared and simultaneously desired the most. The process of creating a solo, of being both subjective and objective at the same time has taught me a great deal about Self, and about being with myself, and what remains, when I take everything and everyone else out. It also allowed me to realize that the skills I took for granted in myself actually have value in the world. I always thought that virtuosity meant mastering what was difficult for me, but it actually means developing what my strengths already are. It means finding a way to tell my stories using all of my skills. By using all of me. Tomorrow night, here at the Black Magic Woman Festival, I will perform this solo. In Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife), as the title implies I play a parade of characters, discovering myself in each one.
I came to the Netherlands a few weeks ago on a Cultural Exchange International grant which is the product of a partnership between the City of Los Angeles, and SICA here in Holland. While here, I’ve been working with people of Indian origin, and through a series of workshops we’ve been exploring and finding ways to express the complexities of living between two cultures, the Dutch and the Hindustani, and the particular intergenerational issues that come up between parents and kids. I’ve also been having conversations with other artists that I meet, here in Holland, who all seem to be expressing a similar dread toward the impending arts and culture budget cuts that Holland is going to be experiencing very soon. Living and working as an artist in the U.S., for a long time, we look at Europe, at YOU - at the Netherlands and Belgium and France as the places to go if you want to actually make a living being an artist. We constantly bemoan our fate and compare our reality with yours. But what I’ve noticed, which gives me a little sense-of-pride, is that because we in the U.S. have to work so hard to make the art, to produce the art, to market the art, to make sure someone comes to see the art, we don’t take it for granted. We can’t. In a word, we hustle. We’re our own publicists, our own web designers, our own fundraisers, we write our own grants. We’re like the cactus in the desert, and somehow, with very little water, we find a way to survive. Or like the runner, practicing for the marathon at higher elevations, so when she gets back down to sea level, she can fly like the wind. It isn’t ideal, but as an optimist, it gives me hope that by learning to make do with less, when more comes, we won’t take it for granted, and...we’ll fly like the wind.
So artists, programmers and supporters of the arts in Holland, in lieu of the impending subsidy cuts, I ask you to challenge yourself with the question of, “what role does art play in my life?” How committed can I be to it, when life makes it harder and harder for me to do it easily? What am I willing to do - how far will I go to promote or defend - my ability to grow as an artist? The questions aren’t easy, but the process of answering them may lead you closer to your core, to the essential mechanics of what makes you tick, both as an artist and the way you make your art, and as a human being, and the way you live your life.
Two years ago, at the Black Magic Woman Festival, you decided that you’re “here to stay”. Last year, you found that it’s better to “share your identity”, to honor your strengths, and share what is positive about each of your cultures. Now, you know, that to do any of that you have to BE YOU and commit yourself to the process of figuring out what that is. I wish you a safe and happy journey, without shame or apology to recognize your unique specialness in the world, and then, inspire others to find theirs.
In 1993, I lived in Ghana, West Africa for a year, studying and performing the traditional music and dance of the region. I was there as an exchange student during my college years. During my first couple months there, school was on strike, so the other American students and I took advantage of the time to get to know the nightlife of Accra, the capital of Ghana.
One evening we had a fabulous time dancing at a night club called Picadilly. After the night's revelries, another student named Kim and I, started to make our way to the taxi stand so that we could get back to campus - the University of Ghana, Legon. It was late, and it might take a long time to find a taxi. Oh well...the consequences of a late night. As we were walking to the stand, a taxi pulled up along side us and asked where we were going. "Legon" I exclaimed. "You?" "Hop in", he replied. Wow! Great luck! If a taxi saw you before you got to the taxi stand, he could get your business before you gave it to anyone else. So, even though we felt lucky, this was pretty standard.
So I hopped in with Kim. We sat in the back seat, and were a little surprised to see two other women in the taxi already. One was seated in the front, and the other in the back with us. Again, it's late at night, so the driver could be driving his friends or family at the same time. Again, pretty standard.Then, I started looking around. This was a nice taxi! Definitely the nicest taxi I had been in to date. It was really souped up with lots of bling hanging everywhere, extra interior lights. "What's your name?" said the driver, eyeing me from his rearview mirror. "I'm Sheetal", I responded. "And this is Kim". Now my eyes started to adjust a bit to the interior of the taxi, and I let my eyes roam. Why are these women wearing such tight black dresses?
Not exactly standard.
The taxi driver began his introductions: "This here is Candy", he said pointing to the woman seated next to him in the passenger seat. "And this is Sweety", he said pointing to the woman seated next to us in the back seat.
Ok, so you need to know that in Ghana, people have names like "Mercy", "Patience" - Christian names that they use alongside their Ghanaian names. So the warning bells didn't go off right away...And then, he pointed to himself. "And I'm Dreamboy".
OH DEAR GOD, I'M IN THE CAR OF A PIMP!!!
Suddenly it all made sense. The bling, the tight black dresses. Ok, so what's going to happen? Remain calm. I could already feel my friend Kim getting visibly nervous. Dreamboy started to ask me more questions.
"Where are you from?"
"The U.S.", I answered. "California". (This was the safe answer).
"Noooo..." he said, shaking his head. He could tell, I was "from" somewhere else.
"No, where are you FROM?"
That was the answer he wanted. It was the answer that most Ghanaians were interested in. Because you see, Bollywood heroines precede me. Bollywood movies have a firm foothold in the minds and the fantasies of many a culture, including those of many African countries. Once he knew I was Indian, the match was lit.
"Oh, I looove Indian women. I love YOU. I will marry you. You don't think that can happen? You know, I can take you anywhere I want...I don't have to take you back to Legon".
Ok. This is where Kim loses it. And this is where I give her a stern look, because we are getting out of this situation, calmly. I did not come all the way to Ghana for something terrible and traumatic to happen.
I just kept him talking. Kept the tension low, even though I was nervous. I responded,
"Oh, that's great you want to marry me. Of course I believe you. Of course you can do anything you want with me, but I have to get back to Legon because I have classes tomorrow".
Kim is freaking out. The other ladies try to calm her down.
"Oh honey, Dreamboy's just joking. Don't worry, I'm sure he'll take you home."
"Shut up!", says Dreamboy, giving Candy a warning look.
Suddenly, we have to pull over. Apparently, there is a police check point that randomly stops cars to check their trunks (for drugs? weapons? dead bodies?) My imagination runs wild. I look at Kim and whisper, "when the car stops and the driver is out of the car, we run". Sweety hears me, and tries to dissuade me. As soon as Dreamboy is out, Kim and I unlock the doors and make a run for it. We have no idea where we are, but we run towards the light (a lamp post), and then eventually a taxi stand. A real taxi stand, with a real taxi.
In the end, I don't think anything bad would have happened. Ghana is safe. Very safe. Safer than most places in the U.S. But of course, it was an adventure and out of it is a story to tell!
In 1998 I auditioned for the musical "Hair". I was to prepare 16 bars of music to sing. I did just that, but as I was in line for my turn to "wow" them with my 16 bars, the casting directors were running out of time, so they changed it to 8 bars. 8 bars!!! That's like, "happy Birthday to you...Happy Birthday to you..." Done. 10 seconds max to prove that you're right for the part. Of course, I wasn't singing Happy Birthday. Anyway, I digress.
The pianist messed up my song, and it didn't go well, and the look on their faces showed me that they weren't blown away. I was given the polite "Thank you", which means, "Thank you, but no". So, I gathered my stuff together, and left. I got a cup of tea at the corner deli, and took my first step down toward the subway, and suddenly, I turned around and started to walk back to the audition. What was I doing? Something in me told me that it wasn't right. I know that I'm right for this part, and more importantly, I know that they didn't "see" me. As I'm walking back, I'm realizing that this is CRAZY. No one does this! What was I doing?
When I got back to the room, they were almost through with everyone. I told the monitor that I needed them to see me again. He looked at me funny and said, "We don't usually do that". I assured him that I wasn't crazy and that I meant what I said. He went into the room and came out with a very serious look on his face. "They'll see you again. You better make it GOOD!". The pressure was on. I sang the whole 16 bars. Their eyebrows were raised. They asked for another song. So I sang something else.
They whispered to each other. "Can you come back this afternoon for the dance call-back?". I made it! I was called-back! Such sweet words to any pounding-the-pavement artist's ears! The rest of the afternoon I showed them my best, and a few days later, I got the call. "We'd like to offer you a part in Hair. And we'd also like to tell you that you are one of our favorite audition experiences! You were the underdog, but by the end of the day, we couldn't imagine the show without you".
Listen to your intuition, not convention.
Sheetal Gandhi is dramatic, wry, Indian, American, dancer, percussionist, abstract, chameleon, precise, impulsive, singer and storyteller.