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Mind, body and scholarship

Members of the Urvasi Dance Company in classical Odissi poses. Urvasi brings its tradition of temple dances to Bainbridge this week for student workshops, and later for an evening performance at BPA.  - Courtesy of Urvasi Dance Company and Bainbridge Perfoming Arts
Members of the Urvasi Dance Company in classical Odissi poses. Urvasi brings its tradition of temple dances to Bainbridge this week for student workshops, and later for an evening performance at BPA.
— image credit: Courtesy of Urvasi Dance Company and Bainbridge Perfoming Arts

Urvasi Dance Company brings the Odissi tradition to students and BPA.

When the British “discovered” the temples of Orissa, India in the nineteenth century and saw the temple dancers perform, they presumed the women were loose and wanton.

In fact, these dancers were scholars of the highest order, and their dance not only served their religious traditions; it also served to both express and further their educations.

“There’s a very human way of how we learn. We are our bodies,” Bonnie Showers said. “Kids particularly are kinesthetic learners.”

In that vein, Showers, program manager for the Bainbridge Island Arts Education Committee Consortium, has once again arranged to bring Ratna Roy’s Urvasi Dance Company to Bainbridge for a series of student workshops and performances of the classical Indian dance known as Odissi.

Roy, a dancer, college-level educator and a leading scholar of the Mahari style of classical Odissi dance, has also played a significant role in resurrecting and preserving the art form.

The dance offers for audiences a mesmerizing combination of fluid upper-torso movements, exaggeratedly dramatic hand gestures, emotive facial expressions and solid footwork, to both purely rhythmic and storytelling effect.

Showers, herself trained in Indian singing, likens the dance to the transparent layers of an anatomy book, which can be viewed together as a whole body or peeled back to reveal individual parts.

Odissi’s scholarly underpinnings make the dance form particularly rewarding both to study and to teach, and this week’s student workshops, presented under the Bainbridge Arts and Humanities Council’s “Teen Empowerment through the Arts” program, will not only present the dance to roughly 600 Woodward Middle School and Sakai Intermediate School students, but get them kinetically invested.

Animal enactments will play a large role, not just as physical exercise but also as a means to connect motion with emotion. What are the characteristics of a male peacock, for example? It’s egotistical and arrogant. Whereas a deer is watchful and fearful, and a lioness is full of pride.

“And how do you inculcate within you each one of these animal characteristics?” Roy says. “Because you need to feel prideful sometimes. You need to feel afraid sometimes, because that fear is going to protect you.

“And one of the things we’ve learned through dancing...is that you make your body into that stance. As a warrior, you feel strong in that stance. Or crunch your shoulders and hang your head, and you’ll feel dis-empowered.”

Showers points out that for teens and pre-teens, often so mired in self-consciousnessness, participating in Odissi or any other type of arts-infused curriculum offers “a great opportunity to get out of their desks, and put what they’ve learned in action.” Additionally, the increased body awareness afforded through the dance can bolster self-esteem by providing a freeing physical outlet within a highly disciplined and therefore safe form.

Roy, too, is especially interested in the educational benefits of dance. When in recent years Indian educators observed that girls were academically outpacing boys at the elementary school level, they pinpointed dance as a differentiator: girls took dance, boys didn’t.

Roy now finds that as she teaches first-year college students, on that cusp of adulthood, the combination of dance instruction and hard academics can have miraculous results.

“They’re struggling with this body work, and as they’re doing it, they’re writing wonderful papers and asking wonderful questions,” Roy said. “They’re turning in papers that don’t have a pencil mark on them. And that, to me, is amazing. It gives me goose bumps.”

Showers’ adjunct mission with the Arts Consortium is to teach teachers, so that they themselves are comfortable with whatever art form their students are participating in.

She – and perhaps anyone of the last generation – recalls a time when a visit from a performer meant an opportunity for teachers to go outside for a breather.

Now, her hands-on teacher workshops, which cover everything from terminology to rhythm to movement, lay the groundwork for a fully participatory cultural teaching experience.

“We’ve come a long way from setting out the scissors and construction paper for a break,” she said.

Showers will also lead preparatory workshops for elementary school students who will attend Urvasi student outreach performances at BPA next week.

Then Roy and her company will return to BPA on Nov. 2 for a public performance. This, Showers says, could further help to bridge the cultural and kid-to-parent gap, as parents get a chance to experience first-hand what their students immersed themselves in the previous week.

It’s one more step toward Showers’ epistemological goal, and perhaps a higher one.

“It wakes up something about shared humanity and celebrates something spiritual about that other culture,” she said.

“This is our little gesture toward world peace. To cross the divide....and actually come at a place of common humanity, is a great thing.”

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Temple of dance

The Urvasi Dance Company will perform at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at BPA. Tickets, $15/$10, are available at the box office, 842-8569. Visit www.bainbridgeperformingarts.org for more information, or www.olywa.net/ratna-david/urvasi.htm.

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