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Upcoming Performance Fuses Shakespeare, Indian Classical Dance

A Houston dance company has combined a classic English comedy with a traditional Indian art form.

Silambam company members
Silambam company members as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” characters Lysander and Hermia

The inside of Dancescape Studio in Pearland looks like the usual place where dance lessons are given. Wooden ballet bars run the length of mirrored walls and the floor is smooth, allowing for quick steps and turns. On this day, about 20 girls are rehearsing for an upcoming dance adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But there’s a twist.

There are no slippers or tutus here. Instead, these dancers are barefoot and dressed in brightly-colored Indian saris. This is the Silambam Indian Classical Dance Company, whose students range in age from 10- to 19-years old.

Many have been dancing for at least a few years, but this is a new experience for everyone in the group.

“This is the first time we’re trying to use western classical music and choreography and it’s really hard,” says Lavanya Rajagopalan, Silambam’s founder and director.

She says the dance form has been around in various incarnations for thousands of years. About eight different types exist today; this one is called Bharatanatyam.  It’s characterized by expressive movements, rhythmic patterns, and incredibly defined hand gestures that are almost like a language of their own. The footwork is also very intricate and rigorous. Even though it sounds like stomping, it can actually be pretty graceful.

Silambam company members as A Midsummer Night's Dream characters Helena and Demetrius
Silambam company members as A Midsummer Night’s Dream characters Helena and Demetrius

But merging those styles with that of western music is tricky, says 19-year-old Thulasi Thiviyanathan, who has been dancing since she was five. She plays the character Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

“It was very different,” Thiviyanathan explains. “Especially using classical music, where there isn’t a lot of bass … and at the same time portray a very confusing story to the audience and have it all make sense.”

The plots of Indian classical dances are usually centered around mythical legends based on Hindu text and are stories that the dancers know backwards and forwards.  

“(They’re) things that we’ve grown up with,” says Anusha Venkatramanim, who plays Lysander in the performance. “Things that we’ve heard thousands and thousands of times from our parents and from our grandparents.”

Along with most of the dancers, Venkatramanim wasn’t familiar with many of William Shakespeare’s  works, or at least not A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That was until they heard that the University of Houston was putting on a production. 

“That was good creative input for all of us,” Venkatramanim adds.

Maybe some are wondering, “Why Shakespeare?” For Rajagopalan, it has to do with building an audience.

“I thought that it would be best to take something that’s a more known theme that people would easily relate to,” she says.

With this year being the 400th anniversary of the English playwright’s death, it seemed like an obvious choice.

Thirteen-year-old Gayathri Sampathkumar has been dancing with Silambam for about four years. Even though she’s been with the company for the least amount of time, she’s got her eyes fixed on the future.  

“I think this is going to be very new and exciting,” Sampathkumar says. “And it’s going to be a different starting point for our dance company.”

Silambam performs their adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on August 21 at 3:30 p.m. on the San Jacinto College’s South Campus.

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