Dance the Gap: An Interview with Choreographer Parijat Desai


Dance, in its very essence of live movement, can never keep still. As performers on stage shift their bodies, using them to fill visual and musical spaces that most never even realized were empty, we audience members evolve along with them.

The opposite of dance is stasis, atrophy, the crippling that comes when one cannot or will not move, because it's safer to keep still rather than risk breaking free or connecting with another. But in that safety also creeps loneliness, because dialogue thrives on conversational motion.

It's with this conversational motion, in the body's various twists, turns, leaps, stretches, that Brooklyn-based choreographer Parijat Desai uses "an organic and kinetic blend of Indian classical and Western contemporary dance" to bridge the cliched gaps of two seemingly opposite old and new worlds that are really more alike than they are different.

It's a bridge that her audiences love to cross, whether they are in the United States, Canada and India. In 2000, she created her own dance company in Los Angeles, where her work was seen at the Getty Center, Skirball Cultural Center, Highways Performance Space and Grand Performances. Since moving her company to Brooklyn in 2004, her choreographies have been presented at P.S. 122, Danspace Project, La Mama ETC, Asia Society and the Queens Museum of Art. She has also been an artist-in-residence at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in 2009, as well as a teaching/artist fellow with the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University.

For Desai, choreography is more than what looks good on stage; it's the driving force of dialogue between music and dance. Aslan Media arts and music editor Safa Samiezade'-Yazd had a chance to talk over the phone one evening with Desai about choreography, her creative process, using dance to challenge the fear of the other and the power of recognizing herself and her cultural heritage as part of the greater fabric of American culture.

Aslan Media: How did you get into dance?

Parijat Desai: Literally, my mother kind of put me in classes at a young age, but I really got more deeply involved in it and interested in dance in high school. The high school I went to offered jazz dance, which I resisted, by my mother encouraged me, and exposure to this American form- I felt a different kind of excitement with jazz and the rhythms we were dancing to and kind of connected to dance a bit more viscerally instead of, “this is what I have to do.” That experience then led me to look back at Indian classical dance and see what was actually in it, which was stories, body posture and rhythms and line.

At Stanford, where I went to college, I was exposed to work by various African American choreographers, including the legendary Katherine Dunham, who came and taught us, and Jawole Willa Jo Zoller, who was the director of Urban Bush Women. Understanding how modern dance then could be a framework for different types of expression, including cultural idioms, sort of a framework to explore different themes or conceptual approaches … it was the 80’s, there was also a multi-culturalist movement, so there was also this idea forming in my head that the dance form I wanted to do reflected my experience and my communities. And I was involved in student activism and changing the curriculum at Stanford.

All of that together made me think I want to do choreography out of the forms that I knew to reflect my immigrant diaspora experience, and it was from years and years of learning these different forms and finding ways to overlap them.

AM: Describe your creative process.

PD: I’d say that each piece thus far has really come out of a two-prong conception. One is that I have really been motivated by music and love of a certain kind of music, then along with that, I develop a theme, or a theme comes to mind in relationship with that music.

For example, for many years I’ve been very interested in Hindustani classical music, vocal music in particular. In and of itself in that music, the melodies are haunting and evoke longing – longing for God, longing for the lover – it calls for, in me, a certain kind of movement that I would blend Indian classical with modern to respond to. But then theatrically, it also opens up an area of expression- how do we explore the content of these lyrics that have to do with its spiritual themes and relationships? And then if we look deeper, this music is also a blend of Hindu and Muslim culture, being that it was fostered in large part by the Moguls. So I’m interested in the historical context of this music. All of that leads to, how can I use the contemporary framework and the vocabularies at my disposal to respond to or evoke any aspects of this music? There’s also the other layer of music itself, and how does that motivate movement? The rhythmic structure of this music is really complex. So how can I use footwork, for example, in response, but a new kind of footwork? So I feel like I’m working on three levels: the music, the movement and dramatically. It kind of happens all at once.

AM: How has the immigrant diaspora, East-meets-West background fed into your dance? How did it help you find a bridge between both cultures?

PD: My angle is not East-meets-West, which sets up this opposition where West is modern and East is traditional or mysterious; I don’t buy into that paradigm. First of all, my company is a contemporary dance company drawing primarily from modern dance. I’m influenced by jazz, but what was the most inspiring was to see the work of modern choreographers who were African-American, and also Caucasian, but it was modern dance that made me see that I could explore different things. The modernation has more to do with saying, here’s an American perspective, and to me the Indian vocabularies that I’m using are part of the American landscape; I don’t see them as opposing or a dichotomy. In fact, if you look at the current scholarship in dance history and criticism, you’ll see that modern dance was influenced by dance from India and Asian forms later, Buddhist concepts came into play in postmodern dance.

So this notion that the histories are not connected is false. The classical form that I do, bharata natyam, is also really affected by voices from Western dance. For me personally, combining the two is very simply an expression of my cultural experience being that I’m Indian and I grew up in this country.

In practical terms, yeah, I’ve trained in modern dance and choreography, so in that I way I develop choreography within that contemporary structure, but the movement vocabulary that I build on are from both modern dance and Indian classical dance. They’re both really rich, and I can’t do everything in each piece, so I choose to draw from certain aspects of each form and try to create a unique vocabulary for each piece that blends the movements of the two forms. Also in each piece, I’m trying to explore a theme or more abstract ideas. I would say the blending and the hybrid culture, that’s just a subtext for everything, but that’s not what I’m dancing about.

AM: It doesn’t hit you over the head.

PD: No, it doesn’t, and sometimes I kind of wished that it did, but I think in order to do it effectively, to actually make an impact or allow someone to think differently, you can’t hit them over the head. You have to allow for there to be room for interpretation to actually do something with your art, and then it becomes a much more subtle process.

AM: How has activism inspired and progressed you as a dance artist?

PD: That, I feel, is an ongoing story or question. Activism has to do with who I am as a person, what I believe in. The activism and the beliefs that are behind it are still sort of underlying the choreography. It’s who I am, but at least in what I do with my company, it’s not as overt as it could be. For instance, there’s an interest in challenging the dehumanization of Islam in my work Songs to Live For, but you don’t see it unless you talk to me about it. On the surface, it’s about love songs and this music that is a hybrid of Hindu and Muslim.

In the next phase of my work, I hope I can use the technical skills that I’ve been developing to really push the boundaries, connect what I believe in as an activist and bring that out in the choreography. Although there’s a danger if you make really messagey work- it doesn’t help anything. All these cultures, and in my case, this particular culture that I’m drawing on - to me, I see this all as American, and I see myself as American, not in some blind patriotic ray at all, but I feel what we’re all doing is part of the fabric of American culture, and there’s a lot of power in recognizing that.

Enrollment is still open and drop-ins are still welcome to visit Parijat Desai’s current class series on contemporary dance, running Wednesdays 7:30-9:00 through April 4th at the Randy Warshaw Studio in lower Manhattan.

To learn more about Desai and her dance company, you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

By Safa Samiezade’-Yazd, Aslan Media Arts and Music Editor
*Photo credit: Sallie DeEtte Mackie, courtesy of Parijat Desai Dance Company

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