On Stage: River of Dance

You might say that any new piece of choreography represents a dance journey, but for Nalini Prakash, her newest work virtually recreates her life story.

In India, the dancer often helped children with physical and mental disabilities, like many of the women in her town. “I would work one on one with a child that was given to me,” Nalini explains. “But I would work on instinct — I was not trained in special education.”

The others asked Nalini to do some dance with the children. So she would have them sit on their mothers’ laps and have the mothers move their arm and feet so they would feel the movement in their bodies.

However Nalini still felt inadequate. She  “was kind of floundering” when she came upon an Indian dancer who had studied therapy and was giving a workshop. Afterwards she thought, “this is exactly what I would like to learn.” She had often traveled to America and decided to study there.

It was the beginning of a personal journey. “I was looking to find myself,” she says. Her mother was German, her father Indian. Although her mother didn’t give up her German heritage, she encouraged Nalini to “grow up Indian.”

Yet that was not as simple as it seemed, because Nalini was influenced by her guru, who encouraged her to take on the south Indian culture, even though her father was north Indian. “I learned the language, at the food and dressed as a south Indian,” she recalls. Because Nalini was so young, it “became my own. But over the years, I felt like I had adopted that and I wanted to know who I really was.”

That journey began in India when she was asked to participate in a festival of the rivers. Each of seven dancers was given a river and was asked to research, get music, lighting and costumes and choreograph a solo performance.

Nalini’s assignment was the Godavari river, which begins in Nasik and flows to the Bay of Bengal. She looked at the river “as a quest of Godavari, personnified as a woman,” and decided to trace her backwards from the ocean to her source.

The performance went well. But shortly thereafter, Nalini left to study dance/movement therapy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. For her audition, she was asked to move. “I only knew how in that very structured bharatanatyam style.” She recalls that she asked the panel to explain how. One replied, “Move the way you want to move — by instinct,” and put on some rhythmic instrumental music.

Luckily Nalini had an audition partner who helped her to “move freely around the space.” She was able to connect and mirror the partner’s movements and was accepted into the program. During the next two years she slowly found fresh ways to move and, by the end, Nalini was able to compartmentalize the precise lines of bharatanatyam and a new-found, sustained freestyle.

Yet she found that it helped her with her own dance and choreography. “It’s not that I’ve moved away from tradition, but I’ve given myself a little more freedom and stretched my limits.”

Nalini had worked with fellow Indian dancer Vijay Palaparty periodically over the years. After he viewed her “Godavari” solo on DVD, he suggested that it be expanded to an ensemble work. Now Nalini feels that she is able to work with him in a different way and change the dynamic with ease, noting that “now I surprise myself.”

For more information on Nalina’s journey in “Godavari” at Carnegie Mellon University, see Listings.

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