At its most basic, dance is a relationship between movement, space and time. But for professional dancer Lakshmi Sriraman, founder of Lexington’s Shree School of Dance and one of the most recent additions to the Kentucky Arts Council’s Performing Arts Directory, dance is much more than that.
“You feel a music and you let it just seep into you, every cell of you, into your soul, and it just bursts out as movement,” said Sriraman, one of a handful of dancers in Kentucky with a professional emphasis on the traditional Indian dance form known as Bharatanatyam. She explained that much of her work over the past four or five years has centered on education and increasing the awareness about that particular form of dance.
“When you say ‘India’ and ‘dance,’ the first thing that comes to everybody’s mind is Bollywood dance,” said Sriraman, who moved to Lexington in 2005. “I love Bollywood dance – it’s great entertainment. But (the experience that) classical dance provides is very different. It’s a very involved sense of movement, and it’s also spiritual by it’s very nature.”
Bharatanatyam dance relies heavily on the Natya Shastra, a highly detailed document dating back to 200 B.C. which Sriraman refers to as “the bible for all performing arts in India.” The treatise outlines precise details of the art form, ranging from stage set-up to hand, neck and eye movement.
“(The Natya Shastra) provides a vocabulary, and we use a vocabulary based on what it is that we want to express,” she said. She added that while she works to preserve the “purity and tradition of the moves themselves,” the ultimate expression of the traditional dance form has changed over the years as it has evolved from a ritualistic temple art to a form of entertainment geared toward a more general audience. “It’s not that we are dancing the same dance that we did 2,000 years ago, but we are using the same codified gestures and moves. … The format of the program has changed, because you’re wanting to please the sensibilities of the audience.”
To that end, Sriraman often incorporates modern elements, including spoken word poetry and more modern music, into her performances. While she considers her dance to be, in large part, a window to traditional Indian heritage and culture, Sriraman says she is primarily concerned with creating a portal where she can engage with her audience to create a unique experience. Where theatre actors often work to create a “fourth wall” – i.e., an imagined boundary between performer and audience – Sriraman finds herself working in each performance to break that boundary down.