Interview: Shantala Shivalingappa on the Freedom of Discipline

As the world economic balance shifts ‘eastward’ our Western-centric presumptions of the way things work is sinking into the sand. Contemporary dance is perhaps the most accessible art form able to embody and communicate these changes.


Born in India and brought up in France, Shantala Shivalingappa (pictured above) trained in the strict discipline of classical kuchipudi dance yet has since explored freer contemporary forms through contact and collaboration with key choreographers, dancers and musicians, including Maurice Béjart and Pina Bausch. Impro Sharana is a new piece created in conjunction with the Catalan guitarist and singer Ferran Savall, and four other musicians of diverse disciplines: local double bassist Jordi Gaspar, Spanish percussionist David Mayoral, Bulgarian kaval player Nedyalko Nedyalkov and Moroccan oud player Driss El Maloumi. On performing the piece at Mercat de les Flors this weekend, Shantala spoke of the relationship between discipline and freedom intrinsic to the piece, terms often simplistically used to divide ‘East’ from ‘West’.

Describe your background.

Shantala Shivalingappa: I was born in Madras in the south of India but was brought up in Paris in France. My mother is a dancer, a choreographer and a teacher of classical Indian music and dance, so I began learning dance from her at a very young age. When I was about 15 or 16 I began to train with the same kuchipudi master who had taught her, and for a period of about 7 or 8 years I went to India for up to six months at a time to train at his academy.

Why did you move into contemporary dance?

When I was a teenager, kuchipudi was my passion and I was completely dedicated to it. But through my mother, I began to meet many wonderful artists of other disciplines: I worked with Maurice Béjart when I was 13 years old, and then with Peter Brook. When I was 22 I began working with Pina Bausch and her company, and that was when my training in contemporary dance really began. We made three pieces together and through Pina I met Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and so it continued… What’s most important to me is the human component in my collaborations, that’s what gives them meaning.

Guitarist and singer Ferran Savall

And did this happen with Impro Sharana on which you work with Ferran Savall?

Yes, Ferran is a good friend of mine, although it was Francesc Casadesús of Mercat de les Flors who asked us to come together to create Impro Sharana. The title refers to ‘improvisation’, which is Ferran’s unique approach to music and song, and Sharana is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘to surrender’. It is a word associated with the Hindu god Shiva, the lord of dance in mythology, but who also symbolises the primordial vibration of sound and movement that triggers creation and that forms the universe. We thought our beliefs related, and we envisaged this piece as a surrender to the music, to let it flow and to have the courage to not try to control movement.

What role does kuchipudi play in the piece?

On the face of it, kuchipudi is the opposite approach. Like most classical styles of Indian dance it is very precisely set, codified and choreographed in terms of rhythm, music, narrative and symbolic hand gestures. You must practise choreographies many times before you perform them. Yet, at the same time, kuchipudi is all about finding freedom within this strict framework. Impro Sharana is in a contemporary style but we don’t just come out on the stage and see what happens. There is a loose structure, a path, a set series of songs and music taken somewhere new by musicians who are used to working together. Each has their own style and discipline just as I have my base in kuchipudi and so it is this language of movement that gives me my freedom.

Nedyalko Nedyalkov playing the kaval // photo: David Ignaszewski

So discipline and freedom are not opposites for you?

There’s a misperception that if you have a strong discipline that you can’t escape from it – but I think it’s the contrary. If you ask any musician, dancer or indeed anyone who masters any technique, while for many years that is necessarily your only interest, you come to a certain time when that very codified form that you’ve poured yourself into, that you’ve ingested and digested, suddenly begins to evolve, to free itself. That transformation, I think, is what keeps these traditions alive.

Is this interrelationship something reflected in so-called ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ philosophy?

It’s a more complicated relationship than it seems. In India everything is last minute, and so you have to be very flexible and live in the moment. But in fact you need to be really prepared … prepared for anything! And, amazingly, things do get done. In England and France, some things are simply not considered possible and so, of course, they don’t get done. In India everything is possible, that if you believe in it you will find a way.


Impro Sharana
12 – 14 December 2014
Mercat de les Flors