Interview With Kamala Devam
Kamala Devam is a multi-lingual dance artist and choreographer, and Artistic Director of her dance company, Kamala Devam Company, based in London.
She trained in Bharata Natyam for thirteen years under Katherine and K.P. Kunhiraman in northern California and received her BA in contemporary dance at San Francisco State University. Her training in classical Indian dance, contemporary dance, physical theatre and vocal work has led her to perform in a wide range of companies and choreograph using all elements of her unique training, both in the United States and United Kingdom. In the UK, Kamala has performed for the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony with Akram Khan Company and toured internationally for over 8 years with Shobana Jeyasingh Dance and other companies.
In 2016 after the successful premiere of Kamala Devam’s first company piece Ankusha at the Southbank Centre in London, Kamala Devam Company was founded which creates athletic and richly-layered dance work, seeking to affirm life for its audiences by taking risks onstage and through the concepts of its work. The company will embark on its first UK tour in Autumn 2018.
We are pleased to interview Kamala Devam about her choreography process and inspirations, the importance finding your own voice as a choreographer, the evolving Indian Classical Arts and their significance in the global world, the UK tour of ‘Ankusha and Other Mysteries’ and new company works.
Warm welcome, Kamala...
Dakshina, Photo credit: Simon Richardson
Q. In 2015, you mesmerized audiences at Southbank Centre, London with ‘Ankusha’ which in a way gave birth to Kamala Devam Company (KDC). Ankusha was then reworked in Summer 2016 for inclusion in the KDC evening ‘Ankusha and Other Mysteries’. The highlight of all performances was the choreography and the diversity.
With Less of Me, you portrayed opening of new possibilities; in Babushka vs Renaissance Man you integrated the two dance styles, Popping and Kalaripayattu; and finally Ankusha used blindfold as a prop along with the aesthetics of Bharata Natyam and Contemporary dance to question “the intrinsic human need to explain or control the course of one’s life”.
What was the inspiration behind these pieces and what was the choreography process like?
A: The inspiration for each work is quite varied, reflecting different interests and concerns at different times in my life. Fundamentally, the questions I ask in my art tend to be more philosophical than political, perhaps because I was raised against a background of these questions always being asked around me: who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? I think that might have literally been what I memorized from our Hindu catechism as a child in Saiva Siddhanta Church growing up as a Shaivite in the Bay Area in California. I studied and memorised a lot of doctrine, but I wasn’t encouraged to debate or question it. I consider my belief system now to be Hindu at heart, but there is a seeker in me always trying to find my own guru, my own answers inside. And also figure out how these big questions and our search for their answers drive us to do what we do in everyday life.
As you mentioned, Ankusha was the piece that premiered at the Southbank in 2015 and inspired me to start Kamala Devam Company. It was my first exploration into professional group choreography (I had been commissioned for university dance companies before) and I really wanted to see how my explorations within contemporary dance, which up until then had only sourced aesthetics from my Bharata Natyam background, could be taken to the next level in regards to physical risk. As a dancer, I had been fascinated for a long time by the super-human qualities of acrobatics, within capoeira mostly, and its intersection with contemporary dance. So I started training in basic acrobatics and when it came to creating Ankusha in the studio with my two dancers, I approached it hands-on with them, using trial and error with our partner work. The acrobatic partner work was all very new to me, so it was important to have my dancer Tamzen Moulding there to act also as an acro coach and keep us technically safe. The greatest challenge however, was not only to take the time to direct from the outside (the camera became my best friend when I couldn’t), but to make sure the movement I was choosing served to express the idea I was going for, not to just be some wazzy “trick” for the sake of impressing the audience. I was hyper-aware of that and wanted the language to feel integrated. When you’re working with more than one vocabulary and don’t have the luxury of lots of time in creation, exploration of an interdisciplinary language can be difficult. Then to make sure it’s saying what you want to say, that’s another challenge. It’s ambitious and doesn’t always end up successful.
The challenge in Babushka vs. Renaissance Man was similar, when I wanted to investigate on another dancer’s body the theme of “battling” in kalaripayattu and the hip hop dance style of popping – meeting points and combustion points between the movement languages and how each have different roles in the concept of battling. My experience in kalaripayattu is basic. I know the basics well and that is what I pass on to my students at the University of East London so they can get an experience of a martial art which is under-represented and has been marginalized for a long time. I’d had my eye for 3 years on this fantastic student who was a popper and locker, Kamila Lewandowska, and proposed making a solo on her, as she had studied both Bharata Natyam and kalari under me with such dedication and precision. But the creation process was incredibly complex because I was sticking to the vocabulary of kalari I knew well while trying to access what she could do within her own popping skills. Equipped with this very specific movement alphabet, we explored two different characters she felt was inside of her: Babushka, who was demure, rounded, clever, subtle and Renaissance Man who was industrial, sharp-edged, assertive - the kind of person she felt she needed to be to “make it” as a woman in the male-dominated hip hop dance industry. It ended up being a very interesting language and she performed it with great passion. It was a good challenge for me to choreograph on another’s body whose skills were so different to mine.
Less of Me was a personal work. It came from needing to make a solo on my body for a showcase in San Francisco where I’m from. The showcase was a culmination of a workshop series I was co-teaching to dancers on how to make a solo on themselves. But I had to perform too and it was a struggle. Partly because I had just had a splenectomy (had 7/8ths of my spleen removed) in surgery a month before, partly because I was back at home in SF which I left in order to have a dance career in London, partly because I was lost in my love life. I was at a crossroads, having not yet started the company, and I thought having new space in my body post-surgery was a nice metaphor for asking, “Well, what the *bleep* now?” The 5 min solo gave me a chance to use my voice instead of my body at the beginning of the piece through a monologue. I wanted to “work smarter, not harder” after so many years of throwing myself around onstage, and explore other ways to use abhinaya to communicate with the audience.
Ankusha, Photo Credit: Vipul Sangoi
Q. You have trained in Bharata Natyam for twelve years with Kalakshetra graduates Katherine and K.P. Kunhiraman in their school Kalanjali: Dances of India. And also explored Modern Dance, finishing Bachelor of Arts degree in Choreography & Performance at San Francisco State University. Having the knowledge of both, so to say, East and West spectrums of the dances, how important do you feel is to experiment with choreographic works and step out of the strict traditional shadows? How can we ensure that the essence of Indian Classical forms is not diluted?
A: I don’t think in terms of light and shadows, though I know what you mean about adherence to what people perceive as “traditional”; in my youth, cultural integrity was really important to my temple community and I did everything by the book. So as an 18 year-old when I discovered modern dance, it was pivotal to me finding my own voice as a dancer, not only in knowing my body but in making choreographic choices for the first time. I rearranged items a lot as a Bharata Natyam dancer for group performance, but I never composed jathis or created sancharis. Exposure to modern dance blew open to me the concept of making my own movement vocabulary from scratch. It was daunting and very freeing.
I feel like everything casts shadows. Classical dance. Contemporary dance. I’ve seen very dated contemporary dance that seems irrelevant to today, making it very uncontemporary and I’ve seen incredibly contemporary Bharatanatyam which even though it adheres to a code of rules, transformed a current subject matter for me. The adavus themselves were made contemporary with the vigour, craft and expression with which they were executed. So these are arbitrary terms, which is why using the terms “contemporary Indian dance” or “contemporary South Asian dance” to describe my work has always made me a bit uncomfortable. All types of movement, no matter where they came from or the length of their journey, casts shadows. The important thing for young dancers is to know what exists out there so they have a choice of what they want to study and the road they want to take as artists. I think of it as being exposed to many landscapes so one can choose for herself which ones she wants to walk across. I’m grateful to the Kunhiramans for being so supportive and tolerant through my exploration of other terrains after my arangetram. I learned through some cringing experiences of being in not very good hybrid work, what good hybrid work is.
I’m not sure what the “essence of Indian Classical forms” is, so I’m not sure what my take is on how to keep it from becoming diluted… All I can say coming from the Kalakshetra parampara is this: a dancer must have good technique, especially if she’s going to start creating hybrid work. So of course this presents a problem for artists like me who want to make contemporary work that sources Bharata Natyam, but her dancers don’t have the years of training in Bharata Natyam needed. My solution so far is to work with dancers who are full-time professionals who can learn the fundamentals of Bharata Natyam rapidly even if it’s not deeply embodied. (Having at least a ballet background helps with the erect spine, sense of geometry and core strength.) Unfortunately this tends at least in the UK, to be contemporary dancers. What I’d love to see is more Bharatanatyam youth going into full time training of diverse dance styles (which would make them more employable) and showcase their fantastic classical Indian dance training in hybrid choreography like mine! Haha. Well, someday I hope.
Dakshina, Photo credit: Simon Richardson
Q. Talk to us about your collaboration with Seeta Patel on your multi-award-winning dance film The Art of Defining Me (2013). As an artist, how according to you does one deal with the dichotomy of creating for themselves and creating for masses. Your comments on whether, increasing social media presence (pressure) -and subsequently the fame and money, commercializes ones artistic expression.
A: The Art of Defining Me was a commentary on many things we face as artists, but one of the issues was how both Seeta and I, and many of our dance colleagues whom we interviewed in research for the film, have been told we and/or our work isn’t “Indian enough” in some way. Even since then, my trio Ankusha has been judged as not being Indian enough, even though its theme is based on questions of dharma and divine influence from Lord Ganesha and the music was designed to reflect some of the polyrhythms found in Carnatic music. These allusions are just not obviously Indian enough for some people, so I’ve continued creating and hoping that my choices are based on my aesthetic and not what’s expected of me. And sometimes those align and that’s cool too.
Subsequent fame and money? Ha! I don’t know too many famous, rich dancers… Well, I know some who have gotten famous yes and you’re right, helped through social media now more than ever. But also very bad dancers are getting famous too. Social media has leveled the playing field. I think it’s fantastic that dancers who can’t afford promoters can promote themselves for free on the internet. I suppose one of the down sides is that it shines a light on the fragility of the artist’s ego; the highs of being liked, the lows of comparing oneself to other artists who are liked more. I think it’s a good challenge for us artists to use social media for our benefit and exposure, but to post wisely and with belief in what we make and do because one day we’ll be liked and the next day scorned. Whether or not this negatively affects artists’ expression by making them more materialistic over artistic, well, I don’t really know if anyone’s making so much more money that it’s affecting them in that way. And I don’t necessarily think being artistic means you can’t also make lots of money, in the same way creating for myself isn’t always opposite of creating for the masses.
Ankusha, Photo Credit: Vipul Sangoi
Q. Within your company, Kamala Devam Company, you offers workshops, internships and extended teaching intensives to universities, colleges, schools, museums and charities. How important is an evolving education in the arts and what advice would you give to a budding dancer?
A: I think the most interesting people and the artists who make the most interesting work are the ones who research and watch/listen/taste/experience as much as they can of everything. As I said before, I would encourage young dancers to listen to all types of music from all cultures, watch as many genres of dance and drama as possible (live or virtually), but also go to lectures, watch TED talks, eat diversely, travel and walk through those varied terrains (literally this time) and debate political issues with their peers. This is how they’ll get to know what’s been said before, what they have to say and how they can say it in their own way.
It’s interesting you use the word “evolving” in relation to an education in the arts because this is what’s often left out when youth are being taught about Bharata Natyam or other classical Indian art forms – that they evolved, many of them, into what they are quite recently. I was told as a young dancer that Bharata Natyam was a 2,000 year old dance form, so I held it up like this ancient, sacred, unchanging thing. It has sacred roots of course, but it’s been molded by the minds and bodies of so many artists since then and is a living, evolving art form. This is really important for young dancers to know so that they understand it’s personal choices, community choices, nation’s choices which makes art grow.
Q. How does the future look for Indian Classical Performing Arts? Will global influences and the rise of multicultural millennials have a large impact on contemporary performance of Indian classical dance?
A: Well, in light of this idea that the Indian Classical Performing Arts are constantly evolving, I think the future looks bright in the sense that they will continue to evolve in the way that they have done - taking on and passing through trends and changing through the people who practice them. I think our current challenge and that of future generations will be to bring these arts out of the view of being exotic, “ethnic” or “cultural” arts, and be regarded (and subsequently funded) as classical arts on par with Western Classical Performing Arts like ballet, opera and orchestral music. There’s nothing worse than being categorized as a “cultural” dance form when what people really mean is “non-western”. Why isn’t ballet considered “cultural”?
My hope is that future generations of students of Indian classical arts, whether they belong ethnically to the Indian diaspora or not, will have more choice to pursue the arts as a career. Being an American and having to leave the US in order to pursue a career as a dancer, I particularly hope this becomes true in the States. This means: 1. having access to affordable, high-quality training in classical Indian arts 2. being encouraged by their family to pursue higher education arts training and explore their own creativity within it, and 3. Most importantly, campaigning for the importance of government and corporate funding of the arts so that dance organisations, companies and individuals can apply for funding and create the jobs for young dancers to go to after college.
As globalization continues to make the world “flatter” and brings everyone’s culture to each other, my hope is that the quality of Indian classical arts and art that is derived and inspired by it becomes more important to audiences than who is making it.
Less of Me, Photo credit: Vipul Sangoi
Q. ‘Ankusha and Other Mysteries’ is touring the UK in Autumn 2018. What can we expect and other projects in the pipeline?
A: AAOM is my first company tour and I’m extremely nervous about it! The evening consists of five pieces – 4 dance pieces (three of which I’m dancing in) and a dance film, so the technical and practical details are complex. I hope it goes really smoothly, but more than anything I’m excited to share it with British communities outside of London; I think it’s going to be a great night out for audiences. I hope they’re moved and entertained, I hope they learn more about classical Indian arts (I have a live orchestra in my Bharatanatyam solo Jati-Swara-Leela, which includes a cellist) and also how art can reflect the weird, wonderful, cultural mess that is the world now. Or maybe always was.
I’m starting to plan my next company work now. I want to be outside completely this time, so not dancing in it will be a new challenge but it’s imperative for my development as a maker. It’s interesting how inspiration comes easily sometimes and, as the American singer/songwriter Tori Amos says, you sometimes have to coerce “the muse” to reveal herself, tempt her with a bottle of good wine left in the corner of the studio… I’m having to tempt her this time, there’s so many subjects I want to explore but none are hitting me in the heart just yet. Watch this space!
Thank you Kamala for your time and this insightful interview. Wishing you and the entire team at Kamala Devam Company continued success in your future endeavours.
KDC creates athletic and richly-layered dance work, seeking to affirm life for its audiences by taking risks onstage and through the concepts of its work.
ANKUSHA AND OTHER MYSTERIES is touring the UK in Autumn 2018. Uk tour dates and details can be found at http://kamaladevamcompany.com/works/ankusha-and-other-mysteries/
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