Across frontiers

A Dancing star

This is an era of confluence and churning at an intensity and speed never seen before. What does it do to an artiste’s vocabulary? Where does it leave the art’s identity? Does it leave art forms in conflict between individuality and integration? Is purity of the art form sacrosanct, or is integration enriching? Questions that invoke conflicting responses, perhaps as diverse as the artiste you consider.

Chennai-born and New York-based Preeti Vasudevan is one such intriguing artiste. An award-winning performer-choreographer-educator, Preeti’s journey began with bharatanatyam. She learned it under the charming and talented dancer-couple Shanta and V P Dhananjayan in Chennai. Even as a 14-year-old, she had become a solo performer of the Dhananjayans’ dance company, on stages in India and abroad.

She soon came across Western contemporary dance, and studied American Modern Dance with choreographer Don Redlich and former Jose Limon dancer Sarah Stackhouse. Later, when she went to the United States, she met the (late) ballerina Violette Verdy, whom she came to see as a mentor, though she didn’t actually learn under her. “She was a dear friend and a great mentor who always guided me to never leave dance even at the toughest times in life, for which I am eternally grateful to her,” says Preeti.

Art education

Preeti became a Certified Movement Analyst from the Laban Institute of Movement Studies, New York and also held a Master’s in Dance Studies from Laban Centre, London. An exposure to Japanese dance forms happened sometime in-between. As a Resident Fellow at the Center for Ballet and the Arts, NYU, in 2016, she began developing duets titled Etudes with New York City Ballet principal Amar Ramasar, exploring possibilities of redefining the classical vocabularies of these two art forms.

Among other things, she’s been working with musician-educator Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and dancer Jacques D’Amboise’s National Dance Institute (NY). Quite an eclectic experience, this.

How did these diverse dance formats, with their different premises and vocabulary, impact her work? “I have had a vast amount of cross-training over the years, from American Modern Dance to Japanese classical dance to theatre and voice training. Each of these have helped me sense my own Indian form deeper and with more clarity. My body has been exposed to various ways of interacting and moving, and thus I find I can express myself in ways that become my own voice” she reflects. She concludes, “It’s not a patchwork, but a deep integration through years of varied exposures. The journey so far has been to try to find my own voice, given that I have lived and studied in many countries.”

The dance firm she founded, Thresh, in New York City in 2005, is a performing arts collaborative. Thresh has performed at festivals in India, the UK and US, Portugal, and was in residence at the Centre National de la Danse in Paris in 2007 and 2010. In 2013, Thresh received seven nominations at the META (Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards) awards for its production Savitri. In 2009, Thresh won three META awards for its full-length production, The Absent Lover, which was also featured at the Birmingham International Dance Festival, UK. Several awards from US institutions came her way, too, including the 2018 Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists.

Her other major works include Veiled Moon for Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, in 2015; Boxed for National Dance Institute, NY, in 2014; Rain in 2013; and Drumming a Dream for The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, in 2009.

A landmark in her career is Stories by Hand (SBH). It is a solo combining language, music and dance, in collaboration with Paul Kaiser (literary dramaturge), Robert Wierzel (lighting designer), and Paul Jacob (composer). Rather than a production on legends or literature, it is an autobiographical one. A conversation with Paul Kaiser started it off. “He wanted to create a 3D film project using my hands and mudras to narrate personal stories. However, funding was not easy for a complicated technological project. In the meantime, I received a two-year residency at New York Live Arts under the leadership of choreographer Bill T Jones. They commissioned the work,” Preeti narrates.

The net goes far

Standing in a whirl of confluences, she may be. Nevertheless, she holds aloft bharatanatyam through her educational website on it, Dancing for the Gods, for the use of teachers, practitioners, and students from across the world to understand Indian cultural expression through dance. How has this initiative fared?

“Dancing for the Gods was my first baby! My now husband Bruno Kavanagh and I co-created this project in India in 2007/8. We spent two years working out how best to introduce the form and thus the culture. I wanted people to become curious about India through its arts and not view it the other way around (a more linear approach of historical data forming cultural experience). We worked with the Department of Education in NYC and have their Blueprint for Dance in the lesson plans,” she shares, adding, “Now, it’s been 10 years (since we started it), and we are keen to update the project to the latest technology and see how to move the content to a more interactive area in education. Hopefully, by 2020, we will have done this.”

Preeti informs that the website has had positive responses even from countries she least expected, such as Venezuela, Poland, Russia, etc. Dancing for the Gods is used in NYC Public Schools.

What next? Four projects — in varying stages of development.

“Continuing with Etudes, which will be a combination of live performance and films. SBH in a virtual reality (VR) version, developing new stories and creating movement for VR; further work on Drumming a Dream for New Victory Theater in NYC that specialises in children’s theatre. And my most ambitious project to date, Heritage Project, a documentary film focusing on endangered communities (beginning in India), and the narrative of their shifting lives through their art form (dance, music, theatre and storytelling). It’s a way by which the world should see and hear people telling their own stories, rather than through the subjective eyes of the filmmaker.”

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