Elizabeth Horton, our Senior Communications and Marketing Manager, asked choreographer Seeta Patel a few questions about her new work, The Rite of Spring, which she re-imagined through the South Indian classical style of dance Bharatanatyam. We look forward to her London performances at The Place this weekend. Full dates for the tour can be found here.
Elizabeth Horton: Can you explain for those who may not be aware, how you would characterise Bharatanatyam?
Seeta Patel: A little bit of history about Bharatanatyam. It comes from the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. It has a very interesting socio-political history. It started life in the court and in the temple and progressed into a proscenium art form. I won’t go too much into the history of it but the form has specific things that identify it. For example, the turned-out knees what some people in ballet would call a demi plie, there is a lot of footwork that happens in that position. There are geometric lines and dynamics which change direction very quickly. It is really full bodied actually and there are lots of similarities to ballet in terms of carriage of the body. There are elements in all classical arts that give it this groundedness, this line and finesse, which is really beautiful to watch.
Of course, there are hand gestures and facial expressions. I am choosing to not go too much into the facial expressions and instead try to convey some of the evocative narrative through the ensemble and their bodies, rather than their faces. I wanted to try something different. Hopefully, those things come together with this score that will highlight some of the aspects of Bharatanatyam that are just really exciting!
EH: Why did you pick The Rite of Spring as the music for this piece?
SP: I am not really sure I picked it, it was more an experiment to start with. I listened to several different pieces and I worked on some research and development in 2017 where I took excerpts of other traditional ensemble dance pieces like Swan Lake. The Rite of Spring was one of them because it has been re-imagined by so many contemporary and ballet choreographers. It was a good way for me to see how those forms have interpreted it and how then I could interpret it with an ensemble of Bharatanatyam dancers. Even just making the first eight minutes of the music, it just called to be made in its entirety. I was surprised that no one has done it before with Bharatanatyam because the two forms are just heightened together. For me, the complex rhythms of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring are accented and highlighted through the footwork and the power of Bharatanatyam so it is almost like you are seeing the accents visually in front of you and they go together so well.
EH: The Rite of Spring itself has been described as going back to nature and being quite primitive and raw. I can see definitely in the way you are executing it, the visuals, the aesthetics, you are really trying to achieve this and bring it out.
SP: There are very wild moments in the score, it is very earthy and having seen other versions of it, there has always been that element. It is interesting because Bharatanatyam is very clean with its line but the footwork gives it this much deeper, earthy quality and that along with some of the aesthetic choices and the costumes, where the designer has used vegetable dye so the prints have this very natural quality to them, nothing too geometric and the lighting will reflect that. There are these sways and sweeps and it is almost like sunlight dappling through trees. There is this real sense of nature that I am trying to bring out through the aesthetic.
EH: What are you hoping the audience will get from watching this?
SP: On a very surface level, it is just this really joyous piece of dance and music which is taking you on a journey because it is so relentless and exhausts you at the end, but in a great way and in a very satisfied way. But on a deeper level for me as a South Asian artist in the diaspora, I have always championed not wanting to be othered and what I hope this shows is that there is a place for Bharatanatyam on a bigger stage, on more main-stream levels and is not just more accessible because it is something different but because it is really powerful in the same way that any contemporary or ballet company has the possibility to be seen on those stages. I really want Bharatanatyam to be elevated where it can be appreciated in that way.
EH: How has the early support of the Bagri Foundation helped in the production itself?
SP: The support of Bagri [Foundation] has been completely invaluable because just to have six dancers and myself rehearsing, day in, day out is costly, even at the minimum rates of pay. We are still six people who are committing our time and energies and that costs money because our skills and training have that value. We have put in many, many years of our life and so it has been invaluable to support this professional company structure for Bharatanatyam ensemble repertoire. I have been working with younger dancers who I hope at some point can feed into work like this and the support of Bagri [Foundation] has really reached me as an artist and the work that I am doing at a really exciting and important point where it can transition to the next level and to take Bharatanatyam on to the level that I wish to take it to. I just hope that the relationship continues because it really is something worth championing and Bagri [Foundation] have seen that, which I am really grateful for.