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Dancing from Diaspora to Disney - An artist's Margam
- Ulka Simone Mohanty

March 8, 2019 

When we think of dance in mainstream corporate entertainment, specifically in North America, we rarely expect to see representation of Indian classical dance forms. Certainly, Bollywood styles have now become very prevalent and en vogue, but the mainstream awareness of the classical forms is still relegated to a niche, and somewhat exotified specialization.

As a South Asian classically trained dance artist and choreographer growing up in the Canadian diaspora, similar to that of the United States where "classical dance" meant only 'ballet,' there was always a struggle of having to clarify what Bharatanatyam was, and how, no, it wasn't the same as 'bellydance.' There was a certain self-consciousness and self-worth associated with continually having to validate and explain the many years of dedicated rigour required of one's art form and I would often find myself wishing I had trained in ballet instead. Because at least then there would be an unquestioned validation.

In North America, there are so many excellently trained dance artists, but so many of them rely on other careers to sustain themselves and cannot necessarily be full time artists, as the career opportunities are not common. I certainly could not see how I could make a true full-time career as a South Asian dance artist; there was no discernible foothold for my art form in mainstream entertainment.

In the mid-2000's, when I began to experiment with other dance forms and artists I began to see Bharatanatyam from a new perspective. My explorations included improvisational Bharatanatyam performances to non-Carnatic music, and collaborating with Canadian dance artists such Reena Almoneda-Chang who was herself exploring the intermix of her various trainings in ballet, butoh, tai chi and afro-contemporary dance. Where were the similarities, the cross-over points? Where were the differences? The points of compatibility and incompatibility? Still, these forays were relegated to smaller, more niche audiences and venues, and I found it difficult to get Bharatanatyam to mesh and "play fair" with other forms.

It was not until I was invited to take part in a multi-diasporic choreo-lab, DanceIntense, the brain-child of Sampad's Piali Ray in Birmingham, UK, that my perspective was fully expanded to re-appreciate my many years of training. DanceIntense was conceived specifically for professional dance artists and choreographers with South Asian classical training. It was geared towards helping these artists to find a contemporary foothold for their talents in the global dance world, as well as establishing a professional international peer network, which many of us still maintain to this day.

Rivers of  Light 

I returned to North America with renewed vigour and confidence in my dance heritage, much more at ease in trusting my trained body and mind to create movement that was both authentic and meaningful instead of trying to impose assumed structures and rules I once felt were necessary. It became easier, more unfettered to create contemporary and collaborative works, and at the same time to derive greater joy in creating new purely classical works or in performing items from a traditional Bharatanatyam margam.

Moving to Los Angeles, I helped co-found DesiJam, a small choreography-dance collective of South Asian classical and contemporary trained performers and scholars, many of whom were DanceIntense alumni, providing a much needed peer base for each other's solo and collaborative work. I also joined the Los Angeles based performing troupe Dancing Storytellers created by two of DesiJam's members Shyamala Moorty and Sheetal Gandhi, and dedicated to children's dance-theatre education by performing Indian mythological stories depicted through Bharatanatyam, Kathak, bhangra and theatre.

This led to being scouted by Imagineer and producer Raakhi Sinha Kapur of Walt Disney Imagineering, for an incredible artistic opportunity. Kapur has been diligently lobbying for more and deeper representation of South Asian classical art forms on the mainstream commercial stage. Disney is at its core an entertainment company rooted in storytelling, and so what better and enriching way to tell such stories than through Indian classical dance? And as Disney's Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World has an entire portion of the popular park dedicated to India, it provided an ideal home for the South Asian arts.

I was brought on as choreographer for a new nighttime spectacular live show and was thrilled that they specifically wanted an Indian classically trained choreographer. One is so used to demands for Bollywood, or work merely "spiced up" with "Indian-ness," this was something different, and so I was excited to accept. A main challenge was that they needed someone to choreograph contrasting movement on both female and male bodies. In creating authentic storytelling movement vocabulary for the characters: two male and two female, I decided on a base of Bharatanatyam for both, mixed with Odissi for the females and Chhau for the males. A further challenge was to choreograph this all on moving boats, which were chock full of obstacles and with ever changing vantage points, so the "front of stage" was never the same.

This was a first for Disney and certainly the first time I had done anything in mainstream commercial entertainment and on such an immense scale, at that. With this immense corporate backing, under the brilliant direction of creative director Mark Renfrow, and conceived by creative executive Michael Jung and the park's main founder and Imagineer, Joe Rohde, Rivers of Light came into being.

Up! A Great Bird Adventure

This led to another permanent show in the park: Up! A Great Bird Adventure, a Disney-Pixar collaborative live bird show with a South Asian storytelling host, and which also now has a Diwali holiday version, creating cultural awareness and appreciation of the festival of lights in a fun and globally relatable way.

The reception of these shows has been overwhelmingly positive and the acknowledgement of the power of Indian classical dance forms has taken flight with Disney, creating an important avenue for South Asian trained performers in mainstream entertainment. I hope to continue doing my part to strengthen this impact, while enriching the North American cultural landscape, and to help further the career opportunities and representation for South Asian artists in the performing arts.

Originally, from Montreal, Canada, Ulka Simone Mohanty trained with Vasantha Krishnan in the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam, and has received additional training in Mohiniyattam, Odissi, Chhau and Kathak as well as in theatre, film and voice-over. She also has a strong martial arts background and possesses advanced belts in Shaolin White Crane Kung Fu and Judo. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California, where she is furthering her career in the performing arts.

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