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Arts & Life

Kansas City Dance Troupe Refuses To Let An Ancient Art Form Die

Julie Denesha
Samarpita Bajpai illustrates a story from the life of Shiva, also known as Nataraja or 'Lord of the Dance.'

The members of Kansas City's Dance Gurukul troupe are hoping “Cosmic Forces” helps revive an ancient tradition while honoring the Hindu god Shiva.

This weekend, they'll be performing in the classical Southern Indian tradition of Kuchipudi, a style of dance that started as a temple art form thousands of years ago.

“The stage is a sacred space for us and the essence of the dance is deeply spiritual,” says Samarpita Bajpai. “It’s a way of connecting with God. That’s what you should feel when you are dancing.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
From left: Emily Garnett, Krystal Bryan, Bajpai and Kirstie McDermott.

Bajpai, affectionately called Sammy by the members of her company, was trained in classical Indian dance beginning at the age of five in India. She has been teaching for more than two decades.

Dressed in a vivid fuchsia sari, Bajpai dances barefoot, wearing anklets lined with rows of tiny bells that jingle and keep rhythm with the music as she tells the story of Shiva through complex movements of her hands and feet.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Bajpai says it takes a mature dancer to inhabit the character she portrays onstage.

Dancer Emily Garnett says travel in Asia piqued her interest in the dance form and led her to study with Bajpai.

“Every dance is a different story involving Shiva and his consorts. They are just really beautiful stories,” Garnett says. “They are very romantic and a lot of them are about love and war survival.”

Kirstie McDermott has been studying studying with Bajpai for six years. She says the style is challenging for dancers trained in Western modern and classical dance.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Stepping carefully, Bajpai paints the canvas with her feet.

“There’s a lot of posing and a lot of what your body and hands do is meant to tell the stories,” McDermott says. “In a way, you are doing a lot of pantomime, a lot of facial expressions. That’s a challenge to make sure you are getting all those aspects of the hand gestures and that you’re really telling the story with your body.”

Bajpai says the form relies on dancers to bring their own personal interpretations to their characters, which requires a certain amount of artistry.

“You need to get into the skin of the character when you are playing it, feel it, and then dance it," she says. 

There's a specific term, manodharma, for having accomplished that. When it works, she says, the dance should look spontaneous and no two dancers should look alike.

"That is not as easy as it sounds,” she says.

The show’s finale recreates the ancient temple tradition of figure-painting dances.

“The figure-painting dance is actually a very ancient temple art form from the 16th-17th century," Bajpai explains. "Currently it’s been declared a dying art because people are not practicing it anymore.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
The painted image is revealed in the finale of the show.

That won't be the case this weekend, when dancers spread colored powder on the stage and Bajpai carefully steps on top of a canvas to paint a picture with her feet. Each spot where her foot travels creates a mark on the canvas.  At the end of the dance, the image she has created will be revealed to the audience.

Dance Gurukul presents "Cosmic Forces," Saturday, July 9, at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 10, at 4 p.m. at the H&R Block City Stage in the lower level of Union Station, 30 West Pershing Road, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.

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