Born in Madras, India, and raised in Paris, Shantala Shivalingappa is a classical Indian dancer in the style of kuchipudi, which comes from a region in South India. It’s an ancient form, based on tenets set out in Sanskrit texts that are thousands of years old, that takes years of intense dedication to learn. We asked Shivalingappa about what it’s like being a kuchipudi dancer.

City Paper: Could you tell me a bit about kuchipudi?

Shantala Shivalingappa: Kuchipudi is one of the styles of classical Indian dance. Like all classical Indian dance styles, it uses the elements of rhythm, footwork, body language, hand gestures, and facial expressions closely in relation with the music and musicians — that is, percussion, flute, and voice. All these elements come together to tell stories. The dancer incarnates different characters and depicts different stories, mythological stories, like a description of a god or an act of god happening between two different characters. So storytelling is definitely an integral part of the dance form, because it comes from a very theatrical form. The other side of it is just the energy and beauty of pure dance. It is a moment of joyful entertainment through dance and music, and more essentially it is also a moment of prayer to the divine. Of trying to be in contact with an energy that is higher than us and that floats through everything that connects us, but that is bigger than each one of us.

CP: Would you say it approaches a religious experience?

SS: I think religious is always a difficult word to use nowadays because it is understood by different people in many different ways. But I would like to say that it is definitely an experience of mind, body, and spirit, and not just a physical experience … What we are aiming at is going beyond thought so that your mind is really empty so that something can take over. It happens sometimes, not always, but it happens sometimes that you go beyond the awareness of the physical moment and it is just a pure energy of dance and music. It creates a very intense moment.

CP: When did you begin dancing?

SS: I started dancing with my mother. She was a dancer and choreographer, so as a very young child I would accompany her to her workshops. I started in this dance [kuchipudi] when I was five or six and trained many years with my mother. But I really wanted to become a dancer when I was about 16 or 17, and I started training with her master, who became my master, in south India in Madras.

It’s an extremely precise and rigorous technique, so it takes many years to master. It’s something you continue to learn all your life. I had the chance to learn under such a great master and imbibe from him his very unique style, which is very vigorous, but also very graceful and full of beauty. So I’m continuing my journey in the line that he has drawn out for all his students to follow, and that’s trying to maintain the highest quality while at the same time [develop] a personal expression of the dance — making the classical and traditional styles alive today through your own perception, skills, and creativity. There is a lot of space for innovation within the classical, though it’s very precise and structured and codified.

CP: How do you find space for personal expression within something that has such a strict form?

SS: Well, it’s something that you continue doing all the time. You learn something that is very precise and codified — that has a very strong technique — but as you go deeper and deeper within it, you start feeling it in your own self in a very intimate way. So you know it very well and you’re able to find places where you can make your own expression. That’s what my master did. He incorporated many influences that he thought were wonderful and he somehow made them find their way into his kuchipudi. That’s what all traditional arts have in them. They come from a very long time ago, but they continue to be alive because they’re permeable to a lot of influences. It’s important first for many years to do only the style without anything else, and then once you reach a certain level of mastery within that style you can start infusing it with a lot of different influences. Whatever you find beautiful, sensitive, meaningful, and that has a resonance within the style itself. It’s something that happens on an intuitive level, and not so much a thought-out or intellectual level. They can be very subtle differences. But it still colors the style you do and makes it your own.

CP: Tell me more about the storytelling element — how does the audience follow what’s happening?

SS: There are certain symbolic gestures for particular gods, like Lord Shiva for example. He would have certain gestures that are attributed to him so that we would recognize him. But the characters also have certain energies. They have attributes which we know and that we can find in scriptures, or if we go to some people who have this knowledge. So supposing I choose to do a dance on Lord Shiva in a specific text or song that I choose, I can go to someone who has this knowledge, a Sanskrit scholar, and ask him, this text, to what does it pertain, what kind of energies are there. And then from that I will develop the dance according to the kind of wording and descriptions that are used in the words and the kind of energy that it depicts.

CP: Does the show you’ll be presenting at Spoleto feature new choreography?

SS: It’s a brand new creation we just premiered [in April]. So all the choreographies are new and they’ve just been done. It’s traditional music and classical dance — it’s as if you would go to see a ballet performance but the choreography has been made now. And the music has been composed now. So some of the music that we are using are ancient pieces, like from the 15th century, but some of them were composed especially for this, so also very recently.

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