Listen to the bass, rhythmic and humming in the body. A woman is singing low, and a woman is dancing — first in subtle movements, a turn of ankle. Her hands lock as though they’re bound, and she is drawn in taught, pushing against shame, holding herself with an internal tensile strength until her body lifts and she rises like a flight of butterflies …
Mythili Prakash, an internationally recognized dancer from Los Angeles, is performing in the South Indian Tradition of bharatanatyam.
A night after the solstice, she premiered an excerpt of a longer work she will open in New York this summer, in America(na) to Me, in the opening evening this summer at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
She is reliving a dance competition between Kali and Shiva, she told me from home on the west coast, and re-imagining a traditional dance centuries old. Kali joins the competition in a spirit of pleasure. She is laughing and lithe, stretching into movement and feeling exhilarated in her skill and grace — and sharing the energy with someone she loves, and letting it grow between them.
She is winning. And then he acts out of fear. Shiva performs a movement women were not allowed to perform, lifting one leg high. Kali has to choose between being seen as uncouth and unfeminine or stepping down, literally, withholding a movement she can easily perform and surrendering the competition. And in the traditional dance, one woman dances both roles, making Shiva’s movement and then retreating from it.
Prakash wants to challenge this narrative. As deeply as she respects the earlier legend, she said, she wanted to free Kali to move in her own body and express her own faith and passion and creative joy. She asked the audience at the Pillow that night — Can we rewrite this story?
America(na) to Me
In the minds of Jacob’s Pillow’s associate curators, Ali Rosa-Salas and Melanie George, this opening performance in the Pillow’s 90th summer, after three years of isolation in the pandemic, celebrates all that American dance and soul and strength can be.
The question returned all through the night in many forms, as internationally acclaimed American artists gathered together. Nelida Tirado turned from a cold city street to flamenco and salsa, and Jasmine Hearn danced with light in spoken word and rhythm.
Dormeshia, an international tap legend, honored a hundred years of her own artistic forebears in the music of Nina Simone. Sarah Mearns, a principal from New York City ballet, moved to Gershwin songs inflected by an awardwinning Broadway choreographer with a sense of humor …
It was a night a long time in the making, Prakash said, and the work grew through the year. The Pillow commissioned her new work, and when she and Rosa-Salas first talked, Rosa-Salas suggested she think about Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis and American Modern Dance. Shawn and St. Denis traveled in India and through South Asia and studied with performers along the way.
“I had never seen their Cosmic Dance of Shiva,” Prakash said, “or Ted’s Radha. My immediate response was to consider their Shiva and Radha from the point of view of someone deeply rooted in that culture.”
Classical Indian dance influenced Shawn and St. Denis, she said, and they brought elements of Indian dance into the Modern Dance movement they were instrumental in founding. In their performances, she traces a complex web of appropriation and appreciation. She can see misconceptions in their work, and at the same time she can see them leading the way for Classical Indian Dance in the U.S.; because of them, the Pillow makes a home for her tradition today.
And then she had a counter-thought, she said. As she asked the question, who represents authenticity, she considered answers within the tradition of bharatanatyam. In her eyes, the community of hereditary artists who have created and carried the form for centuries have been erased, by conservative elements in their own culture, forcibly by British colonialism, and in a way even by contemporary women who have fought to save the form, women she respects as teachers and artists.
Bharatanatyam is a classical form of dance in Southern India, she said. Traditionally, holy women in the temples, devadasis, performed and improvised to poetry and music. They were women betrothed to gods and divine figures — they sang and danced, and they had skill in words and art, sculpture and lovemaking. They held a deep role in worship, and they became a central force in art and culture.
They performed in a space both sacred and sensual, and they held both energies in their own bodies.
And she has seen them erased in two ways, she said. The British drove them down bluntly. They saw bharatanatyam dancers as immoral. In the past, patrons would support the temple and the art, and so in time the devadasis became dancers at the courts of kings in Tamil Nadu. By the 19th century, some saw them as courtesans. In 1910, the British banned bharatanatyam outright.
Through the years since then, upper-caste women in India and around the world have worked to revive the form. They see beauty in it, and they wanted to learn and teach, Prakash said. They were and are well-educated women, and she respects them and their work in preserving the tradition — she has learned from women in this lineage. And at the same time she recognizes that they are not the creative, passionate holy women who created and sustained the tradition for more than a thousand years.
Looking into her own tradition has led her to look closely at the stories embodied in her dances, she said. Not long ago she saw a dancer she loves and admires perform a dance taking on the divine characters of Shiva and his wife, Sati, and the changes in the dancer’s body language struck her with a new force.
“Shiva takes up so much space,” she said. “He moves with majesty and thrust. His shoulders are broad. When Sati’s alone, she has power — but when she’s next to him, she becomes sensual, gentle, with her eyes wide.”
Prakash looked at this characterization and thought, does it have to be so?
In Indian culture, myth is sacred, she said. Oral tradition passes down through dance and story and song, and bharatanatyam grows from improvisations. the poems and movements and music. The women who performed have always shaped and reshaped the stories as they told them. An oral tradition grows over time from many voices, and patterns in the songs suggest more than one person wrote many of the traditional verses.
The form has always evolved constantly, she said, as women carried the dance in their bodies and expressions. They were dancing their own lived experiences and contemporary lives, she said, as she wants to dance today — making the dance form contemporary and immediate and relevant in her own world.
In her performance, she blends the words of a 19th century poet, Papanasam Sivan, and a contemporary poet, Perumal Murugan, who writes in Tamil.
His pen name means one-part-woman, she said — alluding to a deity shown in a fused form of Shiva and Sati, male and female in one body. Even in this fluid space they are shown divided, Prakash said. Sati is a creator, and he is a destroyer. She wears flowers, and he wears ash. They form poles, she said, not a merged whole.
Murugan speaks for marginalized voices, she said, and for equity, and he is not upper-caste, a distinction she makes only to understand his perspective.
He writes about the illusion of magic Shiva creates to throw the competition with Kali — and so he reveals and breaks the illusion that he has power over her, as Prakash, embodying Kali, overcomes that illusion in the dance. Thinking of the strength in resistance and wholeness, she translates the Tamiizh into English …
“Lifting your leg is an illusion — pressing it down is an illusion, and making me your servant is an illusion, and taking away all I have is an illusion. … If we are part of each other, how can you defeat me?”