Shantala Shivalingappa was born in Madras, India, and brought up in Paris, making her truly a child of both East and West. She grew up in a world filled with dance and music, initiated at a young age by her mother, dancer Savitry Nair. Over the years, Shantala explored contemporary theater and dance, working with Maurice Bejart, Peter Brook, Bartabas, and Pina Bausch, among others. Such experiences make her artistic journey a truly unique one. When Shantala was about fifteen or sixteen, her mother asked her to learn a variation in the Kuchipudi style for a choreography for two Indian dancers. “It was an epiphany,” Shantala told Marina Harss in a recent interview for DanceTabs. “I completely fell in love with the dance. Something happened at that moment with that particular dance, and it changed everything. I became crazy for Kuchipudi and didn’t want to do anything else.”

Kuchipudi is a classical dance form of South India, and like all Indian classical dance forms, it is based on the Natya Shastra, a 2000 year-old treaty on dramatics that gives a precise and highly developed codification of dance, music and theater. Kuchipudi has two important aspects: pure dance and expressive dance. Pure dance is rhythmic and abstract. The footwork executes the complex rhythmic patterns of the accompanying music, while the rest of the body, from the head to the tip of the fingers, follows, sometimes with forceful precision, sometimes with flowing, graceful movements. Expressive dance, or abhinaya, is a narrative aspect where each part of the body is used to bring alive the text, poem, or story in the song. The hand gestures—mudras—are codified into a very precise language, while stylized facial expressions convey a wide range of complex and subtle sentiments and feelings. Kuchipudi is a harmonious combination of these two aspects, alternating moments of pure dance—rhythmic, vivacious, full of beauty and grace—and narrative moments based on the Hindu mythology, where the focus is on the use of gestures, facial expressions and body language.

It is this combination of contrasts that Shantala particularly loves about the Kuchipudi form. “It’s very intricate and quick in the footwork and also very anchored into the earth—but the upper body is full of grace and swaying and undulating. I love the contrast between something very strong and rooted and powerful and at the same time extremely graceful and fluid and lyrical.”

Music is integral to all classical Indian dance; a Kuchipudi performance is typically accompanied by a traditional, live orchestra comprising vocals, flute, veena (a plucked string instrument), and percussion. Shantala performs with her own musicians and works closely with them to create her choreographies. In her DanceTabs interview she describes the process: “I need to have all the music and all the rhythms ready, let’s say eighty percent, and then I go and make the choreography, and then we have rehearsals together for maybe two or three weeks, and everything is worked out, all the details.” The relationship between Shantala and her musicians is almost a dance unto itself: “Everything is set,” she explains, “but at the same time, every evening is different. Certain songs have to have a certain pace, which is slightly variable because we’re not machines. Within the choreography, everything is set, but there are also cues where we have to be together. They have to follow me.”

Acclaimed as a rare dancer by artists and connoisseurs in India and Europe, Shantala combines a perfect technique with flowing grace and a very fine sensitivity. She performs her Kuchipudi dance Swayambhu at the Emmett Robinson Theatre June 6 – June 9.