Regents Lecturer Vijayalakshmi

Free and open to the public, the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance is honored to host Vijayalakshmi, an award-winning exponent of the South Asian dance Mohiniattam, as our Regents' Lecturer in February 2020.

Regents Lecturer Vijayalakshmi
  • Wednesday, February 5, 2020
    10:00 AM – 11:50 AM

  • Kaufman Hall 200

We are pleased to announce that award-winning choreographer and dancer Vijayalakshmi will be the Regents’ Lecturer in the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance in Winter 2020. An important figure for her role in reviving and refining Mohiniyattam—one of the eight recognized classical dances of India—Vijayalakshmi is recognized for her innovative research and creative practice in the field. As Artistic Director of the Center for Mohiniyattam, based in New Delhi, India, Vijayalakshmi has been promoting the classical repertoire while experimenting with the boundaries of the dance form in terms of its movement technique, presentational aesthetics, and choreographic approaches. She is globally recognized as a top exponent of the Mohiniyattam genre, as well as of classical Indian performance more broadly. Her record of concerts staged at prestigious dance venues around the world is a testament to her artistic caliber and eminence.

Mohiniyattam hails from the southern Indian state of Kerala. Suppressed by the British colonial regime, the dance was gradually reconstructed by a group of artists starting in the 1920s, and only recently codified in the context of the India's reclamation of its cultural heritage, when the country gained political independence in 1947. Vijayalakshmi grew up imbibing a deep knowledge of the tradition as she trained under her mother and guru, Bharati Shivaji, who was the principal architect of the concert dance in the postcolonial era. Additionally, she honed her knowledge of Bharatanatyam for several years under Guru V.Krishnamurthy. Using this solid training as her foundation, Vijayalakshmi later developed an autonomous vision for Mohiniyattam through her profound investigation of the form's aesthetic principles and lexicon, reimagining its contours to incorporate a range of intercultural and multimedia influences, such as theatre, video, Western classical music, and Kalaripayattu, a South Indian martial arts style.

Vijayalakshmi has achieved renown both as soloist and as dancer with her ensemble, showing her work at the Bolshoi Theatre and St. Petersburg (Russia), the Lincoln Center, World Music Institute, and Norton Simon Museum (United States), Theatre de la Ville (France), the Edinburgh International Festival and Milap Fest (United Kingdom), Kalauttsavam (Singapore), and Shared Experience Festival (South Africa), among other platforms. In India, she has been invited to every significant stage: Konark Festival, Khajuraho Festival, the Music Academy, Krishna Gana Sabha, National Choreographic Festival, and India International Center. Multiple times, from the young age of 14, she has been a featured artist for the Festival of India; Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Japan, Spain, Qatar, Turkey and UAE are just some of the countries where she has danced in this regard. Notably, in 2015 she performed for an audience that included Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Hanover Messe, Germany.

As an accomplished artist, Vijayalakshmi is the recipient of several commendations—selected honours include the 1993 Sanskriti Nritya Puraskar award from the Prime Minister of India, for most outstanding young artist; the 2014 Kerala Sangeet Nataka Award for her contribution to dance, the highest recognition in the arts given at the state level; the 2012 Women Achievers Award in the Arts from the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI); along with fellowships from the Department of Culture, Government of India (2001) and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (2002). Back in 2003, The Week magazine profiled Vijayalakshmi as one of their "top 50 emerging stars" to watch, and the decade and a half since has borne out that promise.

Her first choreographic work, Unniarcha, was path-breaking. The concept was inspired from the story of a real-life historical figure in Kerala whose name gives the title to the work, and who was celebrated for her courage and physical strength. An aesthetic landmark, it was the first time Kalaripayattu was integrated with Mohiniyattam for a major dance piece. Unniarcha foregrounded previously unexplored aspects of the dance form as part of the project New Dimensions in Mohiniyattam.

This was followed by Swan Lake, set to Russian composer Tchaikovsky's music (and in the process, creating an Indian classical complement to the canonical Western ballet of the same name). The choreography was inspired by Vijayalakshmi's experience of travelling and performing in the former USSR during the yearlong Festival of India there in 1987, and in 2005, she was able to finally create this production. The premier in New Delhi was attended by the former President of India, the Chief Minister of Delhi and other distinguished dignitaries. She presented it in Russia at Bolshoi Theatre (Moscow) and at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky himself studied music, and has since presented it there many times to extremely appreciative audiences, some of whom have viewed it as a pleasant demolition of stereotypes associated with ballet. This work has come to be acknowledged as a milestone in the realm of Indian classical dance (and indeed classical dance in general), owing to its original concept and universal appeal, and thus has been shown at innumerable major festivals across India, besides Germany & South Africa.

The next major work in Vijayalakshmi's oeuvre was Paryapti, inspired by the cultural and musical traditions of Bengal in eastern India. Based on the philosophy of the "sacred feminine" embodied by the Hindu goddess Durga, it highlighted the spiritual power of femininity while exploring its social constructions. This composition allowed the dancemaker to bring together the music traditions of both Bengal and Kerala through the common ground of Shakti or goddess worship, prevalent and practiced in both regions. This production again was presented multiple times at respected festivals.

One of Vijayalakshmi's recent works drew from Rain, a book of poems authored by Sudeep Sen. The dance piece gave her the opportunity to work with a diverse range of artists from India and the US and it was presented in both countries. For the project, Vijayalakshmi sang one of the songs, originally created by Rabindranath Tagore, the music of which was arranged by acclaimed LA-based composer and Emmy & Grammy awardee Mac Quayle.

Currently, Vijayalakshmi is working on a collaborative production involving a group of noted artists from India and the US. Encompassing a diverse range of art forms and musical genres, it explores the "sacred feminine" principle as manifested in some of the major cultures of the world, especially that which prevailed before the establishment of patriarchal interpretations of religion. Contributors will include the LA-based artist and Oscar winner Yuval Ron, the celebrated vocalist Wasifudden Dagar, and Mac Quayle, accompanied by several South Asian musicians. This will premiere in Los Angeles in 2020 and will be presented in India and internationally.

Besides being a decorated artist, Vijayalakshmi is sought-after teacher. She has given workshops and lecture-demonstrations at universities and schools across India and the United States—including UCLA, where has previously given Mohiniyattam master classes in our department. As further demonstration of her dedication to pedagogy and research, in 2004 she co-authored the book "Mohiniyattam" with Guru Bharati Shivaji, a good resource for introducing our students to the form. She is also the subject of the documentary film "Beyond Grace" (2011), directed by Sarah Baur-Harding.

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