Congratulations Talking Pointes Podcast, awarded bronze medal for Best Arts & Culture Podcast! Listen here
Seibi Lee. Photograph by Surzayon Ghosh

The Voice Within

For Seibi Lee, Kathak is a form of endless self-exploration

When Seibi Lee discovered Kathak, at first, she says she almost didn’t know what happened. Up until that point, her life—at least in terms of her career—was that of a typical 20-something: exploring, learning, and trying out multiple options in hopes of finding the best fit. Then along came Kathak, merging her multiple life paths and bringing a clarity and confluence that she hadn’t felt before.

Growing up in Alberta, Canada, Lee studied piano, violin, and ballet, and even harbored dreams of becoming a ballerina. However, as her studies grew more serious, she was told she didn’t have the body type for a professional career. This discouragement, along with her parent’s urging toward academia, led her to university, where she chose a major in the sciences with an ultimate goal of entering a pre-med program.

At this point, she says she temporarily lost touch with her love for music and dance. When she was 19, however, she discovered a passion and talent for playing the classical harp. Lee took to the instrument quickly, and after finishing her science degree in Alberta, she moved to Toronto to complete a Bachelor’s and Master’s in music, and from there, she went on to become a professional harpist.

It was in Toronto that she saw Kathak for the first time—by somewhat blindly wandering into a concert showcasing the classical Indian dance form. After that evening, she says she was transfixed.

Soon after the show, she enrolled in a week-long workshop offered by Kathak pioneer Pandit Chitresh Das, and in that moment—unlike with ballet, science, or even the harp—something with the then 26-year-old dancer connected. Or rather, everything did.  

Seibi Lee. Photograph by Surzayon Ghosh

“I realized that all the education that I had done up until that time I needed for this dance form. I needed mathematics, I needed that sort of analytical science mind, but I also needed the sensibility for the music and the movement of the dance from the ballet,” she says. “It just all united and came together.”

Just like with the harp, she picked up the form quickly, training with a disciple of Das’s, Joanna de Souza, in Toronto, while still playing music professionally. In 1997, she decided to move to San Francisco to study with Das directly. There, she trained and performed with his company, the Chitresh Das Dance Company, until his death in 2015.

Devastated by the loss of their teacher and mentor, Lee—along with fellow Das dancers Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta—felt called to carry on Das’s legacy, and chose to do so by founding Leela Dance Collective, a Kathak-centric performing arts organization that has locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Denver.

And although the synergy she felt on that first day led Lee to make Kathak her life, the dance form—and the company she helped to create—have still provided her with ample opportunities to explore and learn about herself.

The most recent installment of her journey comes in the form of Leela Dance Collective’s next-slated production, “The Voice Within,” which is comprised of two solos choreographed and performed by Lee. The solos are retellings of two traditional myths, Houyi and Chang’e and Yuki no Onna, that come from Chinese and Japanese lore, respectively.

And not only are they classic stories, they also pay homage to Lee’s own roots: her Japanese heritage on her mother’s side, and her Chinese ancestry on her father’s. Lee says the Chinese myth is a love story centering around the themes of journeying, loss, and tragedy, and the Japanese tale is of an otherworldly woman, and quite different in its focus on the concept of immortality and the consequences of getting too close to life’s mysteries. Lee says she chose these outwardly disparate myths to reflect her parents—“They’re very contrasting”—but, beyond this, they also represent a somewhat newly realized deep introspection of Lee’s own roots.

“Studying with [Das], he always asked all of the students: ‘Where are you from?’ Lee remembers.

This question caused her to reflect, not just on where she grew up, but on the Chinese and Japanese heritage that she had always felt somewhat distant from.

“When I was growing up, I was the only Asian in my school, so I didn’t really self-identify as Asian. I basically thought that I was just part of the Canadian community, which I thought was multicultural. I didn’t think about being Chinese or Japanese,” Lee says. “When I started to think ‘Okay, who am I?’ and ‘Where am I from?’ it actually drew me back to my own cultural heritage.”

Lee says that, despite being a traditional Indian dance form, Kathak is particularly apt to tell stories from many cultures. Because of the emphasis on expression—in Kathak, a simple turn of the head, roll of the wrist, or raise of the eyebrow is imbued with meaning—it was a natural step for Lee to translate this movement vocabulary into myths from her own background.

“There are obviously certain gestures that might seem really unique to Indian culture, but it’s very interesting how those same gestures actually can reflect in the stories of other cultures,” she says.

Seibi Lee’s “The Voice Within.” Photograph by Nitish Adla

The music, too, can be spun to reveal elements that are reminiscent of Chinese and Japanese culture. For example, Lee’s solo will be accompanied by several musicians, one of whom will be playing a bansuri, which is a bamboo flute. Though the instrument is typically used in Hindustani classical music, it can also easily be made to sound like a shakuhachi, which is a Japanese flute.

“I hope that, if you are Japanese, you recognize the melody. Not so much that you’re going to sing along, but enough that you are touched because you hear the familiarity of it,” she says.

And not only does “The Voice Within” draw on Lee’s cultural roots, she will be pulling from her Kathak heritage, too. The show will be performed in pancham sawari, a traditional 15 beat cycle Kathak rhythm (or taal) that Das taught to Lee shortly before his passing.

“I’m really thinking of this show as honoring my heritage and honoring the influences that are very, very strong in my life,” Lee says. “[My teacher] really wanted me to take the pancham sawari into myself, and it took me a number of years to come to terms with his death and to really start to work and go deep into this beat cycle.”

Lee first performed pancham sawari—as well as a version of her Houyi and Chang’e solo prior to the pandemic—but, she says, in the time since her last performance, she’s done a lot of growing, thinking, researching, and allowing the work to “marinate.”

“I re-discovered the whole thing,” she says of the show and the time she spent during lockdowns considering her work. “The past two years of Covid really made me go inside and really think about what’s important.”

The performance resulting from this contemplation is somewhat of a full-circle moment for Lee, bringing her back to the initial harmony she felt when she first found Kathak.

“It’s a little scary and it’s also really exhilarating,” Lee says. “It does feel like I’m kind of taking a step, not a new direction, but sort of going forward and really being coalesced as who I am and where I’m going to go.”

So, through “The Voice Within,’ Lee is showing audiences how, through Kathak, she has found her place, voice, and story. Just like the first time.