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Modern Dance Masala

Choreography by Parijat Desai blends the West's dynamic movements and India's sculptural precision.

Michael Broemer

RHYTHM SECTIONS: Traditional bharata natyam involves stomping in complex time with the music while paying equal attention to playing characters and acting narratives.

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By Laura Shin

Parijat Desai, '92, began classes in the South Indian dance form bharata natyam when she was 5. “I liked it, but I didn't feel I had any talent,” she says. She also thought her friends would think it was weird, so at age 13 when her family moved to Denver, she took up jazz dance instead. A few years later, when she saw her cousin dancing bharata natyam, “suddenly it hit me that this was an amazing tradition. . . . At the moment I really started enjoying dance, I was experiencing it both as an Indian and as an American. From the moment I felt engaged in dance, there was a question of hybridity and identity.”

It seems there could be no other creation story for a dancer/choreographer who blends classical Indian and contemporary Western dance traditions. Desai, who leads a six-member company that bears her name, has received the Lester Horton Dance Award, which honors dancers in Los Angeles, and the Durfee Foundation Artist Fellowship, for which she created a piece with taiko composer Kenny Endo. This winter, she is in residence at Stanford, where she realized she could pursue dance as a profession.

“When I got to Stanford, there was this extraordinary opportunity in the dance department—Katherine Dunham came, and she's a legend in modern dance. She had trained in Western dance and blended that with dances of the Caribbean,” Desai recalls at a café near her home in Brooklyn. Desai, an anthropology major, admired other dancers who combined traditions, too. “There were so many people coming to town, like Urban Bush Women and David Rousseve, and so it was like, 'Hello! You can do this!'”

After Stanford, Desai studied ballet, the Horton technique and modern dance, as well as bharata natyam and kuchipudi, and yoga and martial arts. She obtained an MFA in choreography in 1998 at UCLA. In 2000, she began performing with her dancers under a California state arts grant, but the company formed officially in 2005. One of its dancers is the cousin who reignited Desai's interest in bharata natyam, an ancient dance form from southern India.

“The music that bharata natyam is danced to involves complex rhythmic structures, and one aspect of the dance is dancing in space to those rhythms, and making sculptural lines with your body as your feet stomp out the rhythm,” she says. A second aspect of the dance is theatrical, involving “facial expression and hand gesture, playing characters and acting narratives.” Her choreography links both of these traditions with modern movement. “How can I overlap the sculptural lines of Indian dance with the dynamic, full-bodied movement of modern dance? How can I use aspects of modern dance theater, which originates in Europe and the U.S., and the [Indian] classical tradition of dance drama?”

Last year, during an international dance festival in New York, the Parijat Desai Dance Company performed Listening #5, a three-dancer study infused with bittersweet love and longing influenced by Hindu and Sufi devotional traditions. When Desai danced, she set her feet down as perfectly as a butler setting a table. Her hands mimicked nature: she cupped her palm, dropping it from side to side like a falling leaf; she gathered a pocket of air in her fingers and released it like dandelion dust in the breeze. At different times, the dancers' movements seem like contact improvisation, aikido, a Hindu play, a flowing Mark Morris performance. Toward the end, the three women gathered in a circle, and one woman's gestures—hands outstretched, palms open, the shake of a head—told the other two dancers a universal story: he left.

Desai works slowly—some pieces take years to complete—and accordingly there are only a handful of gigs a year. She supports herself as a part-time copy editor and dance teacher. “People say, 'You own a dance company?'” she says, in imitation of someone duly impressed. “No, it owns me.

LAURA SHIN, '97, is a freelance writer in New York.

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