I’ve been meaning to do this for months, but I’m only getting around to it now. I’ve come to think of this strange expansion of time as “Covid time.” The “this” that I’m referring to is a series of check-ins with dancers and choreographers, a way to hear about what they’ve been up to during the past however-many-months since the pandemic began. Everyone has reacted differently. There are the hyper-productive artists, who have been busy creating dance videos and teaching and planning Zoom seminars. There are the depressed ones, who are just gritting their teeth and watching the months melt away. (As valid a response as any.) And there are artists who have used this time to look inward and explore this thing that they do from every angle, moving their craft, and themselves, into uncharted territory.
Bijayini Satpathy, the first artist I interviewed for this series, is an Odissi dancer and choreographer based an hour outside of Bangalore, in southern India. For twenty-five years she was a member of Nrityagram, a company and training program specializing in the classical Indian form Odissi. The company has visited New York many times in the last decade. Those performances always had a very special electricity. Everyone knew in advance that they were about to see something extraordinary. That was due, in no small part, to Satpathy’s dancing, its fullness and intensity, her deep connection with the music and the texts to which she performed.
Three years ago, in 2018, Satpathy stepped out on her own to start a solo career. It was a difficult decision. Nrityagram was her artistic home, and its artistic director, Surupa Sen, her partner and chief collaborator. It was Sen’s steps that Bijayini had been dancing for 25 years, and Sen’s concept of Odissi that Satpathy had embodied onstage. The separation has been painful for both of them. But it was clear in 2019, when Satpathy gave a spellbinding performance, on her own for the first time, at the Drive East Festival, that the magnitude of her dancing could not be contained within the structure of a company. She needed space to grow and breathe, alone.
Last year was to be a year of touring for Satpathy, but instead, she has been at home in her house near Bangalore, with her cats, surrounded by gardens. There, in her dance studio, its sides open to the elements, she has been painstakingly working on her dancing, breaking it down, studying it, and putting it back together, creating her own approach to Odissi, her own style. A fifteen-minute excerpt of her work, recorded in a theater in Bangalore, will be shown as part of the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Digital Spring season, from February 1-15, 2021. It is titled “Vibhanga,” which, in Sanskrit, means broken and rebuilt.
I caught up with her recently at home.
Greetings, Bijayini. This must be such an interesting time for you. In 2018, you left Nrityagram, and now here you are, developing your own work and style of dance in the midst of a global pandemic.
I have been thinking about that a lot. This kind of departure from a familiar environment has happened twice in my life, when I moved away from Odisha at 20 after training there for 13 years, and then again 25 years after my arrival at Nrityagram. I think of it like being a seed that becomes a tree. The essence of the seed passes into the fruit of that tree and ripens, and when it is ripe and fully realized, it must fall to the ground. And it’s like the world is falling. The fruit shatters on the ground and then the seeds come in contact with the elements and germinate. That’s when a new tree grows. And I am now at that state, which is exciting. But until now it has been shattering.
What have you discovered about your dancing in this year of working alone, away from the world?
I move very, very differently and I’m excited by it. I feel like I’m just beginning and I have so many ideas about the possibilities. And it’s all emerging out of my knowledge of Odissi. I love this movement vocabulary so much that I feel like it needs to be appreciated for the language it is, free from the normal associations. I know anyone, even someone who has no connection it, can be moved by it, because the movement is so telling so rich. It doesn’t have to be explained.
It sounds as if you’ve really touched the deepest well of the art. And of course Odissi is a classical art, and has a certain universality, even though it comes out of a specific tradition. Like ballet—it was born in the court of Louis XIV, but it’s also a classical art that can be used in many different ways. Because it has its own architecture and logic.
Has the fact that you developed a complete training program for Odissi while you were at Nrityagram, a program that can be applied in any setting, influenced your way of thinking about its inner workings?
Yes, it has a lot to do with how confident I feel about knowing the movement, knowing the tradition, the vocabulary, the vernacular. I know it in small bits, and I know it in in its continuous fluid application. I’ve broken it down. I know the rules.
Have you continued to teach?
Yes, and one of the things that has happened this year with my online teaching is that I have been able to record myself executing the movements, and I have archived everything. And I was able to watch the movement from the outside. I now see how expansive the vocabulary is, and how much more I am finding in it, even now. I’ve begun to add to the already quite vast vocabulary. I haven’t made a conscious effort to make it not look like Odissi but I have allowed myself to move and to trust my body. And that’s what excites me. I just feel like oh my god, a new Milky Way! It’s not just the sun and these planets; it’s another solar system.
Tell me about this new work that will be previewed by the Baryshnikov Arts Center February 1-15, 2021.
I call it “Vibhanga,” a Sanskrit word that means “broken and rebuilt.” It describes how I use the vocabulary. It’s part of a new work commissioned by Duke University and the Baryshnikov Arts Center. My first ever original full-evening choreographic solo.
I explored the principles of opposition. Right at the beginning of the piece, I lock my hands together. Basically my idea was to explore how my spine moves. In Odissi, all the movement originates from the spine. I didn’t want to move my hands, because it is very easy to ornament a movement with our hands. We have such beautiful gestures. I spent a good two and half minutes just letting my spine move with the music before I began to introduce the basic elements of the positions, the stances and then the principles of opposition. I’m really exploring the movement in a very, very basic, principle-based way before it begins to flower into a dance.
And do you think that having this year, outside of time, has had an effect on your exploration of the possibilities of Odissi, and on your own dancing?
Yes, It’s about having that time. Time is what we need the most and it seems like it’s always running away from us. I had to cancel a six-month long tour. I just felt a sense of calm. Of course, Covid is terrible, it’s a wake-up call for all of us to become a little more aware and sensitive about the environment, and take nature’s lead. But otherwise, I am very grateful for this time. I needed it.
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