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At the crossroads of science and dance
- Sapna Sinha
Photos: Steph Stevens

September 17, 2022

You don't usually go to a launch event of a new center at an academic institution, expecting a traditional Indian dance performance. Anubhava Dance Company's Bharatanatyam dance performance I witnessed at the Bionics Center launch event last month at the MIT Media Lab, took me into a different world - one made of calibrated movement, light, sound, color, and expression. To celebrate the spirit of innovation, ingenuity, and scientific progress being championed by the Lisa Yang Center for Bionics at MIT, headed by Professor Hugh Herr, the Anubhava Dance Company took the audience on a journey exploring the incredible potential of the mind to augment the human condition.

Anubhava Dance Company

Weaving traditional Indian dancing with a poetic script, the choreography innovatively leveraged a thought process inspired by biomechanics, scientific innovation, and emotional catharsis. The choreographers, Joshua George and Dr. Shriya Srinivasan, also a scientist at the Center, stunned the audience by presenting an ancient classical tradition in the context of an international, academic environment such as that of MIT. Such a performance needs careful and thoughtful planning, a high standard of training in the arts, and clarity and sensitivity to tradition.

Their presentation, titled 'Flight of the Mind' began with poetry written by Sutikshna Veeravalli, setting the stage and mood for the dance to unfold. The dancers began with a unique portrayal of the chaos and coordination present in nature and in our minds. The choreography ingeniously captured the essence of the mind with coordinated movements resembling cogs of a wheel turning around. As the piece evolved, we witnessed the mind faltering - being pulled in different directions by an uncoordinated system. This imagery was accompanied by rhythmic syllabilization that progressed from highly coordinated to increasingly intense and dissonant patterns. Then we saw the mind refocused through sustained efforts in activities of knowledge creation and perseverance. A highlight of the piece was the imagery of an arrow - symbolizing the mind being sharpened to attack any challenge or disability presented - whether it be mental, emotional, or physical. The piece closed with a soulful display of the different Bharatanatyan dance components and the artists finishing the story with a pose that brought together the idea of academics and bionics to life.

The narrative choreography beautifully combined all the original styles of Carnatic music - with its alaap, swara prastharam and holy devotion, whilst also seamlessly blending beatboxing, multiple harmonies, and piano - bringing alive a new soundscape that was so apt for the occasion. I am more accustomed to slower classical styles that originated from Tansen, where artistes showcase their melody slowly - over an hour or more or of singing. This unique soundscape, however, like most southern Indian Carnatic musical styles, felt freer and rhythmically complicated. Adding onto the background music was the ankle bells jangling precisely at the right time, creating a beautiful resonance with the music vibrating through the MIT Media Lab's conference space. The lighting was simple and elegant, bringing the entire focus of the audience to the performers and the expressions of the dancers.

Anubhava Dance Company

It is worth noting that such an artistic presentation at the beginning of an academic conference is quite unusual, but had the powerful effect of focusing the audience, quieting the mood from the busy networking session preceding it and setting the stage for the poignant discussions that followed.

The concept, choreography and direction are by Shriya Srinivasan and Joshua George. Dancers featured were Sutikshna Veeravalli, Shriya Srinivasan, Priyanka Chary, Shriya Srinivas and Nithya Kasibhatla. The music ensemble includes Shriya Srinivasan, Shivaraj Nataraj (vocals), Hana Uwai (piano), Subramanian Lakshminarasimhan, Shivaraj Nataraj (percussion), Pranav Swaroop (violin) and Priyanka Chary (veena). Shivaraj Nataraj, Pranav Swaroop, Shriya Srinivasan and Joshua George are credited with music composition and arrangement. Costumes are by Joy Boutique, Chennai.

The Anubhava Dance Company founded by Shriya Srinivasan and Joshua George in 2015, produces artistic works featuring both traditional and contemporary themes through Bharatanatyam. The company has toured across the United States, impressing audiences, receiving critical acclaim, and raising funds for charitable organizations. The company features a collective of leading second generation, Indian-American artistes.

Sapna Sinha is a scientist and musician with Sangeeta Prabhakar degree in Indian Classical Music from Prayag Sangeet Samiti, Allahabad.

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