Five questions with: Choreographer and dancer Kuldeep Singh

So Many Journeys: Choreographies in Odissi

Englert Theatre — Friday, April 26 at 7 p.m.

Dancer and choreographer Kuldeep Singh returns to the Englert on Friday, April 26. — photo courtesy of the Englert

For the last five years, Kuldeep Singh has been intriguing audiences with his fusion of visual art and performance, steeped in his interest in Indian philosophy and his training in Indian classical dance forms. The Englert, which hosted Singh five years ago, invites audiences to experience Singh’s So Many Journeys: Choreographies in Odissi on April 26 at 7 p.m., part of the Englert Wavelength Series (sponsored by Little Village. Tickets are $10-18; youth 17 and under are free.

I had a chance to speak with Singh before the show. He explained that odissi is one of eight classical dance styles in India, a lyrical lullaby that follows a specific curvilinear movement, undulating S curves in temporal space. Another hallmark is that it favors a medium pace, which resonates with the heartbeat, understated in its sculptural beauty.

Like many artists, Singh understands that traditional forms are not static — traditions reinvent themselves as choreographers and performers become a site relating present to future. “You’re situated to your issues, your society, your given time: You can’t just do whatever was done in the past,” he told me. “You’re adding your own awareness into it.” He compared the relationship between tradition and contemporary culture to the use of language, especially English. “The Queen’s English is still spoken in India,” he said. “But we have our own words, our own charm.” Each idiosyncratic verbal expression, like the physical ones Singh explores, becomes a fusion of the present with tradition.

Your work in dance fuses together mythic narratives, Indian philosophical traditions, space studies in sacred architectures and an awareness of the global human. When you choreograph and then perform, how do you distill these multiple kinds of knowing from different continents and centuries into physical expressions and forms? To what extent do you think and audience understands your source material?

The more literal you go, the more obstructions there are. When you let the art speak for itself, it is poetry. It lets people be touched. It distills down to humanity — we all, as a species, think, behave, generate ideas in a similar way. Our language is different, but expressions are the same. The dance may speak of history, but it eventually becomes timeless. Wherever people are from, you can relate to an abstract form in a personal way. The dance uses these systems.

I’m very much aware of climate change, the food we eat, the farming issues. But when I look at a text that describes the cosmic body — the sun in relation to the planet — I connect these dots clearly. Our ancestors were talking about these things also. There are connections to plants and animals, and nature is never static, like the curvilinear form. Our present awareness adds a lot to it. The content is relevant: Beauty has a deeper meaning that we all crave. We’re hustling everyday. When you sit down, you want that moment of peace. These kinds of traditions give you back.

Is your goal to use beauty to invite the audience into a deeper awareness of their own lives?

What is beauty in a dance? It isn’t just Western art history’s sense of beauty. It’s deeper in Eastern philosophy. You live through a balanced situation. Dance is an epitome of that — you’re in a balanced state. You have worked out your choreography, you know how it will happen. The process of making it is satisfying and gratifying. The process itself is beautiful … These elements create the dynamic of something which is pleasing, satisfying, not just superficial.

You have to work for years — at least a decade — to learn odissi. It becomes you. Beauty is also time, which we don’t pay attention to. It doesn’t last forever, which we don’t talk about. As an art form, it stays with you.

What does it mean to script, stage and personify a story through movement, without language? How does approaching movement as storytelling provide a new awareness of body posture?

India has 32 languages — they may not know the language, but I understand the people and their emotions. What I relate to human society and their art of storytelling, all of these expressions are language. We may not understand certain languages, but the idea of how humans present themselves — it distills down to emotions. Emotions are universal, whether you’re feeling happy, or low or sad. The face and the body tell a lot.

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All the symbolism is clearly presented in odissi, but in a stylized manner. Posture — sitting on the floor, interacting — the body speaks a language of forms, and it becomes very universal.

Odissi is a play of emotions in the human body. It is humanity … Dance is what brings you to silence. It brings a sense of tranquility.

Your show offers audiences a chance to witness “the body and the divine within,” and I was curious about how training in dance and performance studies allows you to more fully understand the divine within and how to reveal it. What do you mean by divine? Does the performance allow audiences to also experience the depth of the divine within the human body, or is it more intended for your body to serve as the site of that kind of transformation?

It is for everyone. It is a layered dance. But going back to the history of Eastern philosophy, including Buddhist and Zen ideology — in Indian philosophy particularly (and it is where this dance starts) — dance situates on that thread, where Indian philosophy talks about not needing to look outside. You are the microcosm. That is what I see, even right now in theoretical physics and the way the cosmos are made. Atoms are empty space. The body is also a space — you experience the cosmos around you, you limit it because you can only understand so many things. Think of the rates of reaction on cellular levels, the body organ intelligence — they operate on you. It’s a complex mechanism of existence that we don’t even recognize.

That’s where the spirituality arises — you are your own god. This is what Indian philosophy talks about: You are born divine. Who understands god? Spirituality unifies all of us. Divinity is everywhere. The whole planet is intelligent. The planet, your body, my body — we’re all one, we all exchange in a complex system of energy, or divinity.

What are you looking forward to revisiting in Iowa City as you return here?

It’s like a homecoming. There are a lot of … old friends. I’ll be seeing many of them. Iowa City gave me so much when I was here, for three years — it was my first experience of the United States. I owe a lot back, I have a deep gratitude: its time, its resources, its people.