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.
“I consciously try to take away that wall and connect with (the audience) completely,” she said. “The Natya Shastra talks of how the purpose of performing arts is to create a response in the audience, the viewer – when you feel it, you feed it back to me and we create together.”
Sriraman moved to the United States from India in 1994 to pursue her MBA, with a master’s degree in mathematics and science already under her belt. She spent a decade in a successful career as a management consultant with an HR management firm before the birth of her son in 2004 inspired her to give up the days of long hours and travel in order to more seriously pursue her lifelong passion of Indian dance. She landed an intensive apprenticeship with Smt. Priyadarsini Govind, an award-winning Bharatanatyum dancer whom she had admired greatly in her early teens and 20s.
“She was always my inspiration growing up,” Sriraman said of Govind, whom she first met while living in Atlanta in 2004. Govind had traveled there to give a workshop; the two “hit it off as people” and set up an apprenticeship that has had Sriraman traveling to India about once a year to study with Govind.
One of Sriraman’s greatest joys as a dancer lies in teaching others, and she reaches around 30 – 40 students each Sunday at the Shree School of Dance, which she founded soon after moving to Lexington. While there are many historical and technical aspects that can be passed down from one generation to the next, she admits that there are some aspects of dance – which she lightly termed “soul-thetics,” in reference to the expression of something deep inside oneself – that dancers must find in themselves.
“That cannot be choreographed. And you can’t teach that either,” she said. “You can talk about the end product and where the impulse will lie, but the process between that impulse and end product is a very personal journey.”