On Stage: Seeing Double

The odds of having twins are three in a hundred. The odds of having identical twins are one in two hundred fifty. The odds of seeing identical twins in an Indian dance duet? Virtually infinitesimal.

“I never thought about it before,” Odissi artist Sreyashi Dey modestly says of her 17-year old daughters Ishika and Kritika. Under their mother’s guidance, they are making a name for themselves, even to the point of already having a “signature” duet, “Ten Avatars of Vishnu,” that they will perform in Pittsburgh at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater as a part of the Srishti Dances of India performance this weekend.

It  all seems so natural for this trio of women:  A mother who has an MBA along with a degree in economics and a passion for Odissi dance; twin daughters who have a talent for math (they’re taking Calculus III, usually reserved for math majors, at the University of Michigan during their senior year at Pioneer High School) and an unwavering commitment to a dance form that goes back thousands of years.

“I love the fact that it’s so old and so rooted,” says Ishika over the phone from Ann Arbor. “It means being part of something much, much bigger than yourself and will always be bigger than yourself.”

Of course Ichika and Kritika grew up around dance and their Indian heritage. Their mom took them on yearly visits to her birthplace in Calcutta from the time they were babies — at least that’s what they’re told. Kritika, younger by six minutes, still recalls visiting her grandfather in Delhi, where everyone was celebrating a big festival called Durga Puja right in front of the house, full of food music and dance. “I was tiny,” she recalls. “But it was so vibrant and so alive. I still remember the feeling of all that was going on.”

Ishika’s first memory comes from the time she was in kindergarten. “It’s indescribably different,” she says. “India is developing quickly, but is still a third world country. Many are wealthy and educated. But down from the apartment, people are living on the streets.”

They began to study dance formally at the age of six with their mother. “I don’t think I ever gave them a choice,” she admits. Ishika remembers that it was “something your mother tells you to do or something you’re expected to do. Kritika says that “it seemed so natural — we just went through the motions.”

But by the fifth or sixth grade, the pair had made a decision to become more serious. According to Kritika, “it sunk in.” As they moved into their teenage years “we evaluated why we wanted to dance, what we wanted to take from it, what we wanted to give to it.”

Right now Ishika says that she feels “like right now is just the beginning. We are about to enter into the start of a serious, serious dance career. I don’t feel like a little kid anymore.”

In addition to rehearsing with their mother in their home, the twins studied in India, both individually and in classes. Last year they gave their first performance there. “It was a little bit terrifying — we were so nervous,” says Kritika. Ishika agrees and adds that “it was a really, really important experience for us to have, dancing in Calcutta. The audience there was much more educated about the dance and what it should look like. They’re much more aware of the technical aspects of the dance.”

Their senior year means school, volunteering and thinking about the future. And of course, there’s the dance. Occasionally teachers come from India. They’re serious, but “more technical” according to Kritika. When trying to keep the basic position called chouka, “the muscles just burn. My mom wants a more mature feeling, to make a connection with the emotions, the artistic side.”

The final effect looks effortless. The program at the Kelly-Strahorn, called “India: A Light Within,” will feature traditional Odissi dance from the trio, plus dancer Debnita Talapatra. It will be a collaboration with photographer Charlee Brodsky and poet Zilka Joseph, who will not only read her work, but will narrate.

But the three women know that the performance is not only the result of hard work, but one where the mother/teenage daughter relationship can play out in the dance. Kritika admits that her mother is often blunt about what she wants. And as Sreyashi notes, “It’s hard for them because life is always with us.”

But that doesn’t dampen their deep respect for each other. Ishika says of her sister, “She can do absolutely anything. She is very, very focused and she has this amazing ability to commit to whatever she wants to do and absolutely does it.” Kritika responds, “I stress out and she’s the one who is more relaxed and tells me that ‘it’s okay — don’t be so hard on yourself.'” It shows up in the dance — Ishika is more grounded and strong, while Kritika is more fluid.

And what do they think of their mother’s style of movement? “Mesmerizing,” they both say, in true twin fashion. Ishika puts it “on a lot of different levels because we know her and spend so much time with her. She’s our mom and our teacher and a beautiful dancer who is so technically perfect.” Kritika says that “there’s something there – a light – something extra inside of her that is amazing.”

For more information, click on Kelly-Strayhorn.

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