Goddesses and Heroines

Urmika Devi combines Indian and modern dance for a good cause

Last week, on a monsoon morning heavy with humidity, Urmika Devi stood up under a tree at Raging Sage and began to dance.

She bent her knees in demi-plié, raised her arms up and outward, and coiled her fingers into the delicate mudra gestures of classical Indian dance. Then she moved sideways, stamping her feet on the café's concrete courtyard, evoking the movements of an ancient goddess.

"In Indian dance, you're always in demi-plié, even as you travel," Devi explained, once she was back at the table, tossing a lock of sweaty dark hair over her shoulder. "You're never straight. Your feet are more stamping than pointing--you create a connection to the ground. The movements are based on the earth.

"In Western dance, the aesthetic is to be lifted," she added, demonstrating by pulling up her chest and head skyward, like the ballerina she once was.

This Saturday evening, Devi introduces Tucson to the dance of South India in a concert at the UA's Stevie Eller Dance Theatre. Ma, M[r]s. and Movement, performed by her new pickup troupe, Urmika Devi Dance Collective, offers up "tales of goddesses and heroines, mothers and wives (and) women shaping history."

Eight dance works choreographed or re-created by Devi take up the first part of the concert; the second half will feature live music by Tucson group Sruti. Devi promises an abundance of traditional Indian dance, with costumes custom-tailored in India.

Dancers will wear brightly colored tops and scarves, jewelry strung above the forehead, flowers, bangles and ankle bells. Devi herself will dance along with four dancers--two adults and two young girls--who have trained with Asha Gopal, an Indian dance teacher in Arizona. Another of the dancers trained in an Indian community in Dubai, in the Middle East.

These classical performers will be joined by two local modern dancers, Yumi Shirai and Amber Eubanks of ZUZI! Dance Company. Reflecting Devi's own broad dance training, the concert will segue from classical Indian dance into pure modern.

"I'm not a ballerina, and I'm not just an Indian dancer," she said. "Modern dance suits me--I can create something different."

A 23-year-old graduate of George Washington University who's headed to Temple University Law School this fall, Devi is steeped in both Western and Asian dance. She studied ballet from the age of 3, and then switched to South Indian dance at 12. In college, she performed with an Indian dance troupe but also immersed herself in modern. And after graduation, she danced with the Washington, D.C., troupe Tehreema Mitha Dance Company, which delves into both Indian and contemporary dance.

Born in Northern India, Devi came with her family to Philadelphia when six weeks old. Her father, a physician, moved to Tucson some years ago to join the faculty at University Medical Center; her mother, a school principal, commuted back and forth between the two cities until Devi reached college age.

The dancer has never lived in Tucson for any length of time, but she feels a connection to the city. When she was 18, she performed an Indian dance at a local community concert, and Lydia-Yasmeen Gecobe Peera sought her out afterward to invite her to return and perform at a fundraiser.

"That meant a lot to me," Devi said. "She was my first supporter."

Now Devi is returning the favor. Peera, a teacher with the Tucson Unified School District, died of breast cancer last year, and the concert will benefit a UA scholarship fund in Peera's name.

Devi has been in town since January, when she quit a job as a paralegal in anticipation of her entry into law school. The concert began taking shape after Devi met ZUZI! dancer Shirai at a party.

"Yumi grew up in Japan and studied modern dance," Devi said. "And I've studied classical Indian and modern. We thought it would be fun to get together to dance." Everyone in the troupe, she noted, "has a different training."

India has seven regional dance traditions, some of them dating back at least to 200 B.C., when the Natya Shastra text "codified dance and theater, including 28 single-handed mudra gestures, and 28 double-handed gestures."

The dance form Devi practices, Bharata Natyam--a Sanskrit term that loosely translates as "expression/melody/rhythm storytelling"--is from the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. Like the other traditions, it's structured around familiar stories drawn from mythology and popular culture, and the narratives are elaborated through "movement, facial expression and the art of storytelling."

In the concert, Devi will make an effort to bridge some of the cultural gaps between India and America, through voiceovers and spoken poems. Some of the music--from the band Tool, and from the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--will be readily accessible to a contemporary audience.

"Americans are receptive when they understand the stories, and they enjoy the movement and costumes."

The first section, Ma, is about mothers and "the traditions they pass on." The dance "River Ganges" blends Indian and contemporary movement in the beginning, then veers into pure Indian. Danced by Devi and Ruchika Agrawal in traditional costume, it conjures up river goddesses.

"Tiny Tiny Feet" is a traditional solo that tells an old tale about the god Krishna as a baby, learning to walk and getting into mischief. Devi dances the parts of both mother and child. Two young sisters, 13-year-old Vaishnavi and 7-year-old Kamakshi Vaidyanathan, dance in "Hide and Seek," a work based on a Bengali story.

"It's classical movement but in a contemporary format."

The concert's middle section, M[r]s., champions the idea that "not all women are traditionally married, and that's it," Devi said. She solos in "I Know," a traditional piece about "a woman who knows her husband is cheating."

The trio dance "Behind the Mask" re-creates an ancient epic poem about Sita, a woman whose husband rejects her after she's been abducted, on the grounds that she's a "violated woman." Seeking to find the strong woman within, Devi does not dance Sita in traditional costume, and the music is electronic. Still, she and the other dancers, Ramya Kumar and Agrawal, will use a "classical Indian dance vocabulary. The movement is somewhat familiar, but the use of space is unfamiliar."

The final section, Movement, travels over different movement styles and people's peregrinations across the globe. "In Dreams," modern dancers Shirai and Eubanks join Indian-trained dancer Gauri Pathak for a piece about the "people from other times and space" who come to us during sleep. Again blending modern and Indian, this dance required all the performers to learn unfamiliar gestures. "It was challenging for all three." love@longdistance.com is a modern solo in Devi's "own movement language," partly inspired by her parents' former commuter relationship.

The finale, "Surrender," is a trio for Eubanks, Shirai and Devi. Set to the gospel music of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, "It's totally modern."

Devi said she intends to continue dancing even when she hits the law books this fall, and hopes her legal career can somehow be dedicated to helping art and artists prosper. And Tucson may see her eponymous dance collective again.

"I'm very serious about Indian classical dance," she said.