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  • Writer's pictureSanjay Saverimuttu

Going Back to College (For a Week)

Updated: Mar 5, 2020

University of Kentucky dancers in "Against the Waves", photo by Theresa Bautista

My path towards life as a professional dancer can’t be described as normal. You can read about my journey here, but long story short I had to make opportunities for myself and learn to broaden my reality of the dance world. At Stanford, dance was an escape from the rigor of my academic life, I never fully saw it as an investment in my future until my senior year. Those four years of incubation and isolation from the elite professional ballet companies gave me the freedom to develop my artistry and grow into myself as a performer and lover of dance.

I learned two important lessons while dancing at Stanford. The first was that years of training was not indicative of the performance one was capable of delivering. There were many times I was cast in a modern/contemporary piece and my cast mates only started dance in college, but that was never seen as a limit or hindrance to the quality of the work. It only proved to the talents of the choreographer who was able to pull out the best of everyone in the room. Everyone in the room was used to having their minds pushed, and they were always able to rise to the occasion. Which leads to the second lesson; my mind is just as an important asset as my body. I don't think I would have a career if I couldn’t think fast. My anatomy isn’t crafted for the European lines and aesthetics of classical ballet but what I could always do was pick up choreography quickly or jump into a random spot and figure it out on the fly. This is how I feel I created and have maintained my value as a dancer within a ballet company, and I feel that it is a rare quality that is often ignored.

Fast forward to this past summer, I was presented with the opportunity to choreograph on the Dance Department at the University of Kentucky. I leaped at the opportunity. Having choreographed on the Louisville Ballet School and the company, I had yet to work with college students, but was eager to work with this new demographic I was excited for their hunger for an outside perspective and nervous for how I could further shape their education. Plus I had a lingering thought in the back of my head that teaching in the college environment could serve as a future career.

For one week in November I not only set a new work but I also taught ballet and contemporary classes and “guest lectured” in a senior seminar. I put that in quotes because mostly I listened to a student describe her senior project and I was probably more inspired by her work, instead of contributing much of my own experiences. It’s the reason teachers love what they do. In my version of a contemporary class, I see the opportunity to even the playing field in terms of training vs. no training and concentrate more on testing the quick thinking of a dancer. Can you take a phrase of movement and quickly adapt it to the left side or retrograde it (I know we all cringe at the word “retrograde” but considering it’s a tool choreographers still use, I have to force students to do it still)? Can you do both? Can you quickly recall and perform phrase 1 to the left, followed by phrase 3 retrograded, phrase 4 to the right, and then phrase 2 to the left retrograded? Can you do it convincingly enough that I can’t tell you made a mistake? Around 2/3 of the way through the class, I can predictably see the minds melting at what appears to be an impossible task, but nevertheless they persist. And the end product may not be perfect, but the dancers leave more confident in the ability of their brains than they did 20 minutes ago. I’ll take that kind of growth.

The piece I created for the dance department, Against the Waves, was inspired by one of my favorite reads from 2018, Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. In case you haven’t heard me preach about it, the book is a memoir recounting the author’s traumatic experience of losing her parents, husband, and children in the blink of an eye, during the 2004 tsunami that hit the west coast of Sri Lanka. I can’t stop advocating for people to read this book. Deraniyagala is extremely raw about her emotional recovery from this event as she highlights her triggers and lowest depths of despair. At one point in the memoir, she describes how her son, Malli, had many dreams including learning how to be a dancer. Obviously this wasn't a line I could ignore, plus I had the opportunity to bring to light a story that many mainstream dance audiences wouldn’t normally have access. Many times throughout the creative process for this work, I struggled between the literal and abstract depictions of the story. The ensemble cast of dancers could serve as a metaphor for many things, the swirling waters, the inner demons, or the roadblocks she created for herself. But having physical representations of Deraniyagala and her lost loved ones seemed to on the nose, and I worried that about the piece becoming too literal, and thus losing depth. Plus I didn't feel I had the talents to push the heart wrenching grief that Deraniyagala describes so vividly.

I needed to reorient my message of the work. It wasn’t about the power of her grief. How did she overcome her grief? And the simple answer is she didn’t. But many of the roadblocks she encountered stemmed from her desire to ignore the memory of her loved ones. For her it meant not confronting the reality that they weren’t there, but in turn it prevented her from learning how to live in the current world. The piece doesn’t necessarily have a satisfying resolution, because the mental therapy needed is an ongoing process and doesn’t necessitate a happy ending (even though one could say her getting married to actress Fiona Shaw could certainly be a happy moment). So as much as this piece is about the overbearing nature grief can have on a person, I think it’s just as much about our relationships to memory. How does memory support or hold us back as we try to go through life? Even though he never got his chance to dance, I hope this piece can serve as a vessel for Malli to find his chance to perform on stage.

It’s been a joy to be inspired by the words of a queer Sri Lankan woman, and it further validates that there is a wealth of inspiration that exists outside the ideas often explored by the cis white male patriarchy. This is why it’s just as important for me to prioritize using female composers, and this piece uses music from the all female group, AVA, from their album, “Waves” (yes, purely coincidental, but it works wonderfully). Stage works are a wonderfully collaborative process, and I’ve been so fortunate to put my faith in the talents of lighting designer, Heather Brown, and costume designer, Aaron Chvatal. Thank you to the wonderful staff of the UK Dance Department; Theresa Bautista for being my advocate, Susie Thiel for the opportunity, Stephanie Harris for inviting me to learn from students, and of course EveMarie Bessenbach for being the most detailed rehearsal director I’ve had the privilege of working with. Of course this work would be nothing without the dancers. Each one of them brings a wonderful life to the work, and it’s been my privilege to be a part of their journey of becoming an artist.

Against the Waves” premieres at the Amplified Dance Concert on March 6 & 7, 2020 at 7:30pm and March 8, 2020 at 2pm at the Guignol Theatre.

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