PREVIEW: ‘Bhoomi,’ Kalanidhi Dance, Kennedy Center Millennium Stage

Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Movement
Kalinidhi Dance
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage
September 28 & 29, 2018 

By Nanda Srikantaiah

It’s hard to predict the weather these days. Climate change has turned summer into a humid version of fall, April showers show up in September, and in recent years, D.C. has enjoyed a balmy, spring-like Thanksgiving. As every season is marked by climate change-related events — hurricanes, floods, wildfires, typhoons — there’s no better time to contemplate humanity’s relationship to the environment.  

That contemplation is the subject of Kalanidhi Dance’s Bhoomi, premiering September 28 and 29 at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage and choreographed by Kalanidhi Dance’s Director Anuradha Nehru and Chitra Kalyandurg, with original music by Praveen Rao, a composer from Bangalore, India. Along with D.C.-based choreographers Erica Rae Smith and Diana Movius, Kalanidhi Dance received a Local Dance Commissioning Project grant to showcase their work on the Millennium Stage.  

Bhoomi is the most recent entry in Kalanidhi Dance’s ongoing effort to produce contemporary work in the style of Kuchipudi, an Indian classical dance characterized by quick, flowing movements and percussive footwork. Inspiration for Bhoomi came from Nehru and Kalyandurg’s distress about climate change and its deniers.  

“We thought, why not use this medium to express what is bothering us,” Nehru says, but  maintaining the work is personal rather than political. “All art is in the end a self-expression,” she notes. “This is a personal story about our relationship to the Earth.”  

Kalyandurg, a second-generation Indian American who trained in Kuchipudi under Nehru and now works full-time as Kalanidhi’s director of engagement and arts partnerships, agrees. “We would hope that [this show] is a call to re-examine our relationship with everything that’s around us,” she says. “The disconnect we have with our environment leads to complacency.”  

Connection and balance play a central role in Bhoomi, which means “earth” in Sanskrit. The production is framed by the portrayal of the five natural elements — space, air, fire, water, and earth — known in Sanskrit as panchabhuthas. The dancers depict the evolution of humanity’s connection to these fundamental aspects of the earth’s existence. Nehru and Kalyandurg spent months conceptualizing the show, studying ancient Indian texts such as the bhusuktham, which reveres Mother Earth and urges humanity to appreciate nature’s blessings.  

Nehru explains why she and Kalyandurg looked back to ancient Indian philosophy to portray an otherwise contemporary message: “Drawing from what our ancestors have told us about the earth is an important lesson …. In my own lifetime, I see a difference in the relationship that the people around me had to Earth [in the past] to today.”      

Bethesda-based Kalanidhi Dance characteristically fuses the old and the new in its pieces to offer a fresh take on dusty Indian texts, or to collaborate with non-Indian dance forms and music in unexpected ways. Kalanidhi is foremost “an institution of learning,” Kalyandurg explains. “But there’s a lot of appetite in the community to see new work and the voices of new artists. Shows like Bhoomi are tapping into some work that is not necessarily coming from traditional Indian literature, but is based in current issues.”  

Like many Washington metropolitan area dance companies, Nehru’s dancers are often full-time professionals or students who perform in Kalanidhi’s productions part time. This can make creating a multilayered production like Bhoomi from start to finish challenging. “What works for us is that the dancers believe in the production and are willing to commit large amounts of their time to it,” Kalyandurg says.  

Indeed, on a Saturday morning rehearsal a few weeks away from the show, a couple of dancers are missing. One, Supraja Chittari, is out to take the GREs and is in the throes of applying for graduate school. Chittari said that despite the demands on her time, she sees her participation in Bhoomi as a way to keep her artistic side alive. “Art can only add to your life,” she says.   

Kalyandurg pursued dance as a part-time pursuit for years before coming on as Kalanidhi Dance’s first full-time employee this past summer. An early student of Nehru’s, she taught classes at Kalanidhi and choreographed and performed in their productions when the company formed in 2005. Both Nehru and Kalyandurg are excited about the growth the company has undergone since then. “Kalanidhi’s goal was always to make [someone like Kalyandurg] even consider a full-time position,” Nehru says.  

Regardless of absences, competing schedules, or stress from work or study, nothing seems to faze the dancers in Bhoomi, who maintain an easy synergy as they rehearse. Bhoomi crackles with energy — tight, synchronized formations of dancers depict everything from the five elements, to modern technology, to destructive fires and floods. The performers equally take on the role of spectator and participant in the narrative.  

While rehearsing a scene of destruction, the dancers form a tight knot, huddling in the center of the studio, pushing, pulling and twisting each other as they struggle to contain the destructive energy. The knot bursts and the dancers spiral away from each other, creating leaping flames, and then, one by one, collapsing to the ground as the music stills.  When Nehru stops the music to provide feedback, some of them remain on the floor, drained by the intensity of the scene.  

After they portray destruction, Nehru watches the dancers get in place for a more peaceful formation. Nehru directs them to ignore their usual Kuchipudi instinct to follow the movements of their hands with their eyes. She asks them to look directly at the audience. “Address the audience,” she says. “You’re telling them, ‘From this [destruction], we have come.’”

Bhoomi will ask you to face uncomfortable truths about how we connect to our environment, but as always, there’s hope.

Bhoomi, Kalanidhi Dance, Friday, Sept. 28 – Saturday, Sept. 29, 6:00 p.m., Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, D.C. Free.

Photos: Kalanidhi Dance in Bhoomi, courtesy Kalanidhi Dance Company

Nanda Srikantaiah is an alumna of Kalanidhi Dance and now works as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. In addition to Indian classical dance, she loves watching classical ballet, contemporary dance, and tap.