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DanceMakers meets India

Shakuntala's Plea is a solo dance through Sanskrit legend

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Experimentation is not unknown to DanceMakers, the Texas Woman’s University division of Dance’s fall concert. This year’s show, however, is going cross-culture and cross-campus.

It’s as complicated a recipe as it sounds. Start with the south Indian dance Bharatanatyam, sprinkle with ballet and Sanskrit drama, add a little genetic sequencing, mix with a dancer from Tacoma, Washington, and you have Shakuntala’s Plea, one of seven pieces which made it through judging and will be performed during DanceMakers Nov. 17-19 at Margo Jones Performance Hall.

Shakuntala’s Plea is the creation of Rajalaxmi Srikanth. And the choreographer, better known as Sumi, is where things get interesting.

Srikanth is of Indian heritage but is from Murphy, Texas, which is east of Richardson and Plano and 8,000 miles from south Asia. She’s a second-year master’s student in the division of Dance, but her bachelor’s degree is in molecular biology. She grew up doing classical Indian dance but also performs ballet.

“I have a science and art background, and they really complement each other,” Srikanth said. “The way I approach is more precise, especially for this piece. I had a vision in mind, and we have experiments all the time in dance. So I guess that’s an interplay between science and art.”

Shakuntala’s Plea is a solo dance based on Abhijnanasakuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala), a Sanskrit play written by the poet Kalidasa and translated into dance by Srikanth. It tells the story of a young woman named Shakuntala who is visiting her husband, King Dushyantan. The king gave Shakuntala a ring of remembrance but she loses it, causing the king to not recognize her. In mourning, she is forced to live on her own.

“In the second section, the music is more upbeat music as she remembers how she used to spend time with her husband,” Srikanth said. “But the other sections tell how she is in the present, feeling frustrated, angry, or sad, manifesting those emotions through her body and her movement.”

To bring her composition to the stage, Srikanth employed a haunting score by University of North Texas Woman’s University musician Beige Cowell. At the DanceMakers draft day in September, she selected dancer Raechel Corey, a transplant from the Pacific Northwest working on her master’s degree with an eye toward a PhD and a teaching career. TWU was a natural landing place for Corey, being one of only five dance PhD programs in the United States.

While she’s been dancing most of her life, Corey has not performed in four years due to the pandemic and getting married. Her return to the stage comes on a piece that does not just require grace, it demands balance, strength, and stamina. Lots of stamina. Most solo dance pieces range from 90 seconds to three minutes, but Shakuntala’s Plea is 11 minutes long.

“The length of it as a solo was very new,” Corey said. “That first month of rehearsals was rough. Muscle memory kicks in, but my body wasn’t strong enough at first. But I feel good now.

“When you’re the only one on stage, there’s so much of the energy that is just through one person,” Corey added. “The music helps, but it’s just one person presenting the narrative of the story. Whereas in a company you have multiple people that can bring their energies and their perspectives into it. But if it’s just my perspective, it can be challenging.”

“Raechel is really an amazing dancer,” Srikanth said. “I’m so blessed that she was able to be this piece.”

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The dance was constructed in five sections, and Srikanth and Corey devoted a week to developing and learning each section before tying all the pieces together.

“This is the first time that I’ve worked with a choreographer with a science background,” Corey said. “In some aspects it’s the same. This idea of coming into a space and experimenting. We call that improvisation. Let’s play with this idea, let’s experiment with this idea. Discover through improvisation and experimentation what I can do. How does that contribute to the narrative or the theme? Then narrowing in until we have the story.”

One thing they discovered was Corey’s ability to handle some physically demanding movements, including supporting her body off the floor with only her hands and forehead and doing a headstand.

“While it may appear challenging, I know how to do those things like the stall or the headstand,” Corey said. “From my background as a ballet dancer, my job is to make things look effortless. Even though you can see when I’m breathing heavily and shaking, but part of the job is to present the material and the narrative and have the audience be captivated by that and not think, ‘Oh, the dancer looks like she’s about to pass out.’ Rather, I want them to think about what I’m trying to communicate.”

But with only one dancer carrying the entire piece, Srikanth built brief pauses into the choreography.

“There are places where she’s taking a breather,” Srikanth said. “The audience is still holding their breath because there’s a lot of tension, even in those more expansive movements

“The thing about solo is there’s much more emphasis on the dancer really understanding the theme of the piece,” Srikanth said. “They really have to capture the audience, and they also have to understand how to cover the stage. It’s really important to have constant movement between the different parts of the stage. Ideally the dancer should go to the corners at least a few times, but there’s also a use of the middle space between those points so that the stage always looks full, it’s bursting, it’s vibrant, it’s filled with energy. Shakuntala is appealing to the audience to understand her situation. She can get closer to the audience when she comes in front, and she can also retreat from the audience. I think it’s actually more powerful that she’s doing this piece as a solo.”

DanceMakers

Thursday, Nov. 17, 4 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 18, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 19, 7 p.m.
Margo Jones Performance Hall
Tickets $7 general admission. Tickets available online only.
THIS IS A SCHOOL OF ARTS AND DESIGN CULTURE CARD EVENT

Source: TWU

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