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MICHAEL Jackson included it in his Black and White video, Madonna brought it to the MTV Music Awards stage and local dancer Merle O’Brien has devoted her time and energy to the ancient classical Indian dance form, odissi.
Now that she has seen the potential it has to affect and transform lives, she is eager to share its beauty with others.
Odissi is mentioned in the Natya Shastra, the ancient treatise of Indian dance, and references to it have also been found in caves and early temples. It is believed to have originated more than 2000 years ago in the Odra region, modern Orissa.
“I’ve always known within me and it’s always resonated with me that I dance,” O’Brien says, explaining that when she was first exposed to the dance at a workshop in 2007 it was instantly clear that she should study it further.
One of the postures central to odissi is tribhangi, which translates to three body bends. The dancer creates three triangles, using deflections of her neck, torso and legs, alternating her body weight across the central plumb line of the body
O’Brien recalls how the woman leading the workshop got into tribhangi and then began to move.
“Such power and refinement. Sensuality and spirituality. It synthesised what I understood as my world view,” she says.
“You take the powerful footwork of African dance, the poise of ballet, the sensuality of Spanish dance and the flow of the yogi postures – and you have odissi.”
Immediately after the workshop, she wrote to her guru in India and told him that she had found her path. She would travel to India to study the dance form at the Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Odissi Research Centre in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa.
“It’s been an amazing journey.”
Unlike other dance styles where the aim is to appear weightless and defy gravity, an odissi dancer gets as close to the ground as possible and uses rhythmic footwork.
It’s a highly coded movement system which demands that a dancer understand the complex science of the art form.
O’Brien explains that a student must master the dance’s triangle (tribhangi) and square (chauka) stances and then learn the movements for each. Then, combined with those geometric basics, there are a series of refined movements for the eyes, feet, hands and fingers which tell stories.
No one from Africa has been able to access the dance before, O’Brien says. “What’s really interesting is that Indians came to South Africa in 1860, but nobody came from that specific state, so the forms of classical Indian dance you find here are much later forms.”
Getting to the point where you can teach and pass on the knowledge is a long process, but O’Brien is ready to start teaching others the foundations. She is especially keen to work with people who are already studying yoga and who want to take the next step into movement, or those who are studying movement and want to find a specific code to explore.
some foundation of yoga or dance is helpful.
“You’ve got to shift your body, head and legs. A lot of it is navigated from your core. This is not really a dance where you can free-flow. You have to grasp the mathematics with your left brain and the movements with your right.”
O’Brien will be teaching at the UCT School of Dance where she is completing her trans-disciplinary Phd entitled The Dance of Creativity: Exploring timeless principles of the art and science of odissi dance applied to the creative economy.
The idea is to unearth the old to make sense of the new.
In addition to the geometric physical aspect, odissi also teaches the dancer to access a series of emotions and connect with the audience through them.
According to rasa theory, the highest aesthetic principle of Vedic philosophy, odissi becomes a way to evoke a mental state of mind in the audience, the idea being that art should transport the participant and viewer away from the mundane to experience their full emotional capacity. The nine primary emotions conveyed are love, joy, wonder, peace, anger, courage, sadness, fear and disgust.
“You need to ignite a dynamic between your mind, body and spirit. The dance demands that you call up your full potential. It has an impact on you.”
O’Brien has trained in other classical dance forms, but because of the way odissi is codified she believes it makes her approach the world in a different way.
“It’s about finding perfect balance through imbalance.”
Even her professors battled with the concept when she first showed them the dance. The strange angles and low movements at first did not make sense to them. But once she explained the science behind them they began to see the beauty in it.
“The logical mind will tell us ‘no’, but there it is – so we reorient ourselves. When one understands the science of the aesthetics, it becomes perfectly sensible,” she says.
“To learn the dance according to the ancient guru shishya parampara pedagogy, my guru says, is to come to embody the principles of odissi, so that it speaks for itself – on and off stage.
“For me, mastery of this beautiful, ancient dance is my life’s path.
“I am humbled and honoured to lead, share and perform it.”
l O’Brien leads three 75-minute odissi dance classes a week at Hot Dog Yoga Studio on Sea Point. The classes are R80 each, or R800 for 12 sessions. Call 021 439 4888.
She will also present An Evening of Odissi at UCT School of Dance on August 8. For information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org