Every Dancer is Different – A Q&A with choreographer, performer, Viji Rao
Tighten your core to sustain a pose. Give attention to your body and though adavus must be done correctly, its possible to adjust your movements in subtle ways to suit your unique form.
These are just a few examples of helpful insights that I (Malini) remember from my training during my time in Philadelphia, PA with Viji Rao, an artist, choreographer and the Artistic Director of Three Aksha Dance Institute. Viji akka (as we called her) was unique from my other training experiences in that she gave more attention to using my body better in Bharatanatyam. By no means did I have the perfect form to be a Bharatanatyam dancer, but my sense was that she believes that regardless of your body structure, there are specific ways one can maximize their unique “form” to express dance movements in the best way possible. This was new and cool learning to me which is why we thought it would be neat to ask Viji Rao a few questions in this space.
Rao began her training at the age of five with her father and first dance teacher, Shiva Rao. She emerged as a choreographer and a regular performing artist incorporating Indian martial art forms like Chhau and Kalaripayattu into her physical conditioning regimen. She spent eleven years as a dancer and choreographer in the U.K. working with dance companies like – Chitralekha Dance Company, Shobana Jayasingh Dance Company, Sampradaya Dance Company and Arangham Dance Company. Since 2002, she has been based in Philadelphia where she founded the Three Aksha – a dance company and educational Institute. Recently, she received a grant to create “3X3 movement voices of a Bharatanatyam Dancer,” with Choreographers Prof. C.V.Chandrasekhar, Hari Krishnan and Santosh Nair on three incarnations of Goddess Devi. You can read more about Rao here.
Onto the questions…
You place a lot of importance on movement and postures according to each dancer’s unique body structure while maintaining the traditional foundations and purity of Bharatanatyam. This is distinct from the way that the dance form is often taught. What inspired you to teach and give attention in this way? Has this helped your own dancing?
I have been on the stage as a dancer, and also off as an audience member. It has been very evident that a choreographer expects his/her choreography immaterial of the dancer, who is depicting the art form, to be very precise to their ideas. Being a dancer to a choreographer is not as interesting to me anymore. Yet, those decades of experience as a dancer for several different choreographers, made me realize why each movement and posture needs to be body specific.
Most of my practice and teaching aims at producing a new wave of significant dance work. I am also committed to advancing my training, and mentoring the next generation of professional dancers with the experience that I obtain from my teaching, and it has been of great help so far. Every time I work with my dancers, it has increased stability of my work as a performer, and has produced new ways for me to approach audiences and community. Every single production has allowed me to do justice to the dance through fresh vocabulary to build a new bridge. I put in effort each time so that the audience members don’t just look at the dance, but look into the dance.
Can you give us some specific examples of the importance of using the body effectively in Bharatanatyam?
‘I like to challenge myself and also my dancers’. I have been dancing and choreographing pieces on dancers to fit their specific body structure in the classical idiom. But for me, looking into dance, the depth of choreography would involve body motion, physical characteristics, touching behavior, paralanguage, proxemics and environmental factors. All these, I can only produce as a choreographer, if the dancer who is executing the choreography uses their specific body effectively. Thus far, I have been challenged as a choreographer as my dancer’s body uses the choreography in new ways – moving and designing the movements, thus doing justice to the piece.
How does this principle apply to group choreography?
My experience as a group choreographer has enabled me to re-understand the structure, vocabulary, and form of
Bharatanatyam and its importance as a ‘movement system’. The system and its content express a certain world-view, a consistent and very unique interrogation of movement. The beginning of this understanding was, for me, an important insight and has formed the basis for my creative work as a dance professional. There is a certain coordination expected in a group choreography with three basics (again very specific to each individual dancer):
- Best of a dancer’s Araimandi;
- Keeping the sternum straight in line with the core; and
- Keeping the body weight mostly to the toes, and making sure expressive hand gestures have their elbows in the lifted positions.
The three basics mentioned above will allow the audience to see the dancers in synchronization without affecting the individual emotive capacity, or the structure. My dancers always have this in their mind during my choreography work.
What suggestions and insights do you have for Bharatanatyam dancers that want to use their bodies more effectively in communicating the art?
I insist that each and every dancer explore using their individual body structure to create the movement and expression specific to their body type. Each and every body has been created differently, and especially in a classical dance form like Bharatanatyam, where the movements look different on different structures. It is not easy to analyze the body structure, that itself involves years of work and re-work. But if the dancer puts an effort to realize the body, it will be an enormous impetus for their artistic growth, and, will help moving forward with individuality. They for sure will emerge as strong dancers.
Anything else you would like to share?
I have always used my classical training to create innovative, contemporary dance with wide, cross-cultural appeal. I have always been interested in not only performing and choreographing Bharatanatyam, but, in doing so, investigating new ways in which it could have a life and a force as an art form beyond the status of a cultural relic or mere educational tool. It was in the U.K. during my decade long stay where I discovered and defined why I was continuing my Bharatanatyam: in service to the form itself, to its future.
You can visit http://www.threeaksha.org if you are interested in learning more about Viji Rao and Three Aksha Institute.