Posted by: trailerpilot | 09:26::2009

Interview: Hema Rajagopalan

Natya Dance Theatre. Photo by Eileen Ryan.

Natya Dance Theatre. Photo by Eileen Ryan.

Founder and Artistic Director of Natya Dance Theatre Hema Rajagopalan is a Bharata Natyam dancer, teacher, and choreographer of international repute. She began studying dance at age six with Padmashree K.N. Dandayudapani Pillai and Padma Bhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan, both amongst the foremost figures in Bharata Natyam. National recognition of her artistic and educational work includes seven awards for choreography from the National Endowment for the Arts. Ms. Rajagopalan has also received the Vishva Kala Bharati Award from India’s Bharat Kalachar Festival. Her choreography constituted an integral part of the Emmy Award-winning PBS production World Stage Chicago. I talked with her by phone Wednesday about her company’s 35th anniversary season, which continues with performances October 3 at 7:30pm and 4 at 2:00pm at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. A Dance for the Whole Family event, for children 6 and older, will be held Saturday at 2:00pm. Tickets are available by calling the Ruth Page Center for the Arts Box Office at (312) 337-6543 or online at


So you’ve got a big season coming up that’s just kicking off.

Yes, it’s a lot, there are so many events right now.

Generally speaking, how do you feel about where you are after 35 years?

After 35 years I feel, for one, like we have wonderfully-developed dancers — some have been studying with me for 15 or 20 years, maybe even longer than that. The other thing is that we have enough performances to keep appearing in the city — people are getting into the art and wanting to learn more about other cultures, which is very good. Many, many years ago it used to take me a lot of effort to make an audience come to our performances — they were perhaps difficult for a lot of people to understand. Of course now our presentations are catered to more diverse audiences — we too are understanding how to present this work. But people in general are much more culturally aware, now, which is wonderful. The dance scene as a whole has improved in that way, what with the Dance Center’s performances, The Other Dance Festival at Hamlin Park and performances at other small venues. I am comparing Chicago to New York, here, and to other cities around the country.

What about the kinds of people that are coming to Natya’s shows? Do you feel like the audience itself has undergone a transition?

I do see a broad variety of audience members, depending on the venue. For example, when we were at the Dance Center in 2007, we were sold out but the audience that came was more of a dance audience, “dance people” who attend many dance events. But when we performed recently at the Harold Washington Library, it was not just dancegoers but an audience that was more diverse, people who had not perhaps had seen so much dance in general, but were more intrigued just seeing what Indian dance was like and wanting to know more about the culture. It’s slowly improving, but I think it still needs to be brought out much more. I’m not just talking about Indian dance — global dance, world dance, needs to be highlighted much more, reviewed, previewed and so on and so forth. In this way Chicago is not like New York, you know? There you do have a bigger and more appreciative audience because the city has cultivated that. I feel we in Chicago are still not yet there. So that has been my aim and mission and striving component in what I’m doing — I’m trying to drive that as much as I can.

Is the work that you’re showing at the Ruth Page Center, Margam: The Sacred Path, a work that you could’ve made at any time, or is it directly related to the fact that you’re celebrating this anniversary and passing a milestone in the company’s history?

One is that, is of course that after 35 years I’m celebrating a journey for me — the title of the show means “a sacred journey.” It includes previous works, from about five years ago, but three of the choreographies are absolutely new in which I am exploring a new, well, path, in communicating Indian dance. Where it would typically be a solo performance, there are four dancers that are doing this piece of choreography, which is a different kind of presentation.

Are there any dancers in your company that have been involved since the beginning?

No, not since the beginning, but some have been dancing with me for about twenty years. That’s quite a long time.

It is! But so then it’s your presence and directorship that has been the constant.

Absolutely. We’ve performed in India and in New York quite a lot and we feel that this particular way that we’re presenting is going to be very important for us in how the audience appreciates what we’re doing and how we have tried to reach out to them. The music is very traditional, classical music, and the dance is going to be as well, but then there will be voiceovers and demonstrations during the performance that will relate to what’s happening on the stage, such that the audience can better understand it. For the audience, it may well be the very first time they see this kind of dance and are able to really understand every single bit of it. The dancers’ technique is of course very strong as well — they have a lot of experience in performing for, I would say, critical audiences.

Natya Dance Theatre in "Shakti Chakra." Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Natya Dance Theatre in "Shakti Chakra." Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

To that point, are the dancers that perform with Natya all artists you have trained and introduced to this style? Have any of your dancers been trained in these forms outside of Natya and come into the company as professionals?

No, they have been trained solely by me, usually from the age of five or six years old. They’re all American-born, and there is one who isn’t Indian-American — she’s a modern dancer who has been training for the past eight years with me and performs with a modern dance company as well.

Emma Draves, from Mordine & Co. Dance Theater, correct?

Yes. But she’s the only one, I would say, who is dancing with me who I started working with later in her life. Everyone else has been working with me since they were kids.

And you’re going to be working with kids at the Dance for the Whole Family event as well. Back to your upcoming mixed-bill, though — how are those works related?

Well, as opposed to something like Shakti Chakra, which we will perform this weekend [September 26] and is more of an evening-length work, what we’re presenting for October 3rd and 4th are shorter works that are related thematically but don’t create a “dance drama,” per se.

What about for the rest of your season — are you staying in Chicago?

Margam will be our last performances in Chicago, but we’re performing in Conneticut, actually — our principal dancer Krithika Rajagopalan is performing there on the 2nd of October and then we do Shakti Chakra in Washington before going to Austin in November. Our season will conclude with performances in India in December through the first week of January.

That great! I’m interested in the fact that there are two realms in which the company presents work, the mixed-bill of shorter works you’re showing in Margam and productions like Shakti Chakra, which is more of, say, a dance-theater blend.

No, it’s not a blend! Bharata Natyam is traditionally a solo presentation — usually dancers present a solo performance for about two hours and that is called a Margam — it’s a journey of the human soul. It deals with many emotions and values and mythological references from Indian epics, mythology, folktales and so on and so forth. It may have shorter rhythmic passages in between but each piece begins with an invocation of a particular deity, basically like a welcoming performance to the audience and very short — usually about five or ten minutes. Then it goes on to a longer piece, thirty-minutes or so, and then back to shorter pieces, ten minutes each. They all deal with different emotions that that are very universal — jealousy, anger, humor, those kinds of episodes. It ends with a finale, which is called a Tillana, which is a very fast-paced, purely-rhythmic footwork- and movement-oriented piece. The very last section is to a very slow accompaniment that doesn’t have any rhythmic quality to it, that has a calming kind of effect. That all is what is called a Margam — it takes the audience on a journey. For example, when you enter a sacred space, you enter through a doorway — you are introduced to that sacred space at the doorway, and the invocation dance would be your “lobby” or your “foyer,” if you will. From there you go on to a “living room” and a “family room” before entering where you find your peace, where you realize the unity of the entire universe, at the central core. It is exactly how the Hindu temples are organized, architecturally — a performance of Bharata Natyam is tailored in exactly the same way. So when you’re comparing the intimacy of the short works in Margam to Shakti Chakra, for example, neither is a “blend” but [Shakti Chakra] tells many, many stories in one production.

That’s interesting, because I was going to ask about how these internal sections mirror the divine acts of the Upanishads — whether they’re a kind of literal, narrative representation or abstracted in some way, and here you’re describing it in terms of architecture.

I’ll give you an example: usually what would happen in the main, thirty-minute piece, they would talk about a particular state you’re in, just as in Indian poetry. Usually the human soul is symbolized as a kind of lovelorn heroine, and God becomes her lover; the union of the human soul with her beloved, the yearning, how the human mind and psyche goes through all this lamenting and wanting to be one with God and shun this material world, all of the different shades she goes through of expression, this is its palette. The poetry is just so rich and beautiful and it’s exactly the same way here, also. The dancer picks a particular piece of Vedic poetry, in one particular language, and the lines might just say that “I am withering away with the desire to be united with you.” But it’s the dancer who goes on to paint many more beautiful pictures of that same ascent. The dancing is like writing poetry on a poem, you know what I mean? The main line is expressed by the singer, and the dancer expresses the same line in many, many different ways. So, this example of “I am withering away for you” — I could show the flowers blooming and the bee coming forth, but the but the bee doesn’t sit and suck the nectar from the flower — it flies away and the flower withers. Or the creature is trying to climb the tree but the tree is not there so the creature withers away and dies. Or the lotuses in the pond close when there is no more sun available. So there are metaphors and things like that that the dancer communicates to the audience — that would be a traditional way of rendering the tale, and then the singer goes on and the process repeats. This would be the solo, essentially, which is interspersed with all kinds of pure-dance pieces that aren’t there to communicate anything, really, but are just rhythmic passages that are beautiful to watch, the dancer and drummer reveling in the moment. Most of the time we’re with a live orchestra.

Can you talk a little bit about that, your collaboration with the Natya Orchestra?

Yes, the Natya Orchestra has been coming every year since 1980 and they’ve been here twice a year — it’s the same set of musicians. Two have been coming since 1980 and there’s one musician who is going to be 80 next year, who will be here until October 8th but unfortunately isn’t performing because my singer has to go back beforehand so it doesn’t work, schedule-wise. But every year they come, and we compose music and create, and we look at and absorb what is happening around us. The kinds of influences that we get from the fact that we are living in Chicago, that we are living in this day and age, and then modify, naturally within the parameters of the classical system. And that goes for our collaborations as well — for example, we’ve collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma and his orchestra, which is an experience in and of itself. We’ve been in collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra twice. Those are all different kinds of experiences, where we have a conversation with other kinds of classical musicians and, well, music. Doug Lofstrom, too, who is a jazz musician with experience in world music — he composed some music for us. Given all these situations I would say it’s always evolving.

Natya Dance Theatre in "Shakti Chakra." Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Natya Dance Theatre in "Shakti Chakra." Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Does the variety of your musical collaborations change your perception of and usage of these traditional dance techniques?

It’s a traditional dance technique but it’s continuously evolving and the expressive part is always improvised. What one would see on Margam, when the dancers are performing their expressive elements — again talking about this poetry they’re presenting — it’s all improvised on the spot, on that day. So it’s entirely fresh; there’s nothing that occurs previously. It depends on the artist, on the audience, on how the artist comes out on that day. The pure-dance pieces are choreographed, yes, but not the expressive dance numbers. And “tradition” does not mean that what I did ten years ago or what I learned from my gurus forty or fifty years ago is what I continue to do in the same way. It’s not a work choreographed in the past, it is always changing, but it has particular parameters and characteristics. That’s what is important to understand, this idea that it is always new, as opposed to a folk dance, for example. An Indian folk dance would always be done in a particular way, like the dance for a harvest. It’s not like that, it’s not a ritualistic dance in that sense of the word. It’s a universal dance form, but one that can communicate any message. It’s a means of communication.

So the goal is a fluency with the vocabulary that allows you to speak to the present moment itself.

Exactly. So the movement vocabulary can be used to portray anything! It can be used to present contemporary themes, like what is happening today in today’s world, you know? Or it could be used to communicate what happened in a particular Hindu epic. Someone’s husband comes back after many months and she tells him how it had felt when he was away. It doesn’t have to deal with anything mythological, or even Indian for that matter. It’s a very universal thing.

Congratulations to the company for its 35 years, it’s incredible.

It’s hard to have survived for that long!

And in the U.S., when you had founded Natya it was unlike anything else in the country.

Yes, that’s true.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

You’re welcome, and thank you.



  1. […] 19 April 2012 10:10am – Images « Eileen Bakes Game of Life Birthday Cake Eileen Ryan Eileen on Myspace » […]

  2. […] This interview with Hema Rajagopalan was published on the eve of Natya Dance Theatre’s 35th anniversary. September 26, 2009 […]

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