Dance is a language that needs no translation. It doesn’t matter that the dancers performing onstage tonight and Saturday as part of the Vail International Dance Festival speak more than seven different languages between them. They use movement to convey an idea, tell a story, or express a mood or feeling. In our daily lives, we often don’t think about the ways in which our bodies speak for us, like giving someone a hug, waving hello or fidgeting when we get nervous. Whether we’re aware of it or not, our bodies express ourselves silently. Maybe this is why we understand dance, even when we don’t know exactly what it’s trying to say.
‘I wanted to reach as many people as I can’
Shantala Shivalingappa is a Kuchipudi dancer performing in Vail for the first time tonight during the International Evenings of Dance at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. Kuchipudi is a classical form of Indian dancing from South India. Shivalingappa said those who see Kuchipudi for the first time may not know its history, but that can be a good thing.
“Because (those unfamiliar with Kuchipudi) don’t know the code, they relate to it on a very immediate, emotional level,” Shivalingappa said. “It has a very strong impact. I find it quite beautiful, and (this impact) is what’s important about dance and music.”
Shivalingappa said Kuchipudi combines quick footwork with graceful movements, creating a dance that is both theatrical and poetic at the same time. For the International Evening programs, Shivalingappa will perform a piece from Pina Bausch entitled “Solo” and another piece called “Shiva Stuthi,” created by her mother, Savitry Nair, and her former dance master, Vempati Chinna Satyam. Shivalingappa considers herself an ambassador of Kuchipudi, not content to let it be confined only to India.
“When I was 16 I fell in love with Kuchipudi,” Shivalingappa said. “There was nothing else I really wanted to do. I was so passionate. I thought it had so much to offer…I wanted everyone to know about this. I wanted to reach as many people as I can.”
From the streets to the stage
Introducing new styles of dance to the Vail audience will be a theme of this year’s International Evenings programs, which continue on Saturday. Like Shivalingappa, dancer and choreographer King Charles is also on a mission to not only garner applause and awe, but also get more people moving their feet to his style of footwork. Charles grew up in Illinois and discovered Chicago Footwork as a young teenager, even moving to the city to study with local legends. Chicago Footwork differs from other footwork dance styles in that it focuses on the lower body, but also utilizes the upper body.
“It’s kind of like the upper body is the puppeteer and the lower body is the puppet,” Charles said. “They connect in a way but the lower body does most of the work. Some people compare it to African dancing, tap dancing, break dancing and Riverdance all mixed together.”
This is the first time Charles will perform at the Vail International Dance Festival. A friend of festival favorite Lil Buck, Charles will dance with the Memphis jooker tonight and then dance his own piece called “Chicago Known Unknown” on Saturday evening. The title refers to Charles’ mission to make Chicago Footwork as popular as poppin’ and lockin’ and break dancing.
“We’ve just been unknown, so now it’s time to be known,” Charles said.
Charles now teaches Chicago Footwork around the world and just returned from Estonia, where he taught a gymnasium crowded with those eager to imitate his moves.
“In America, in the (urban dance) culture, we like to help grow styles to a certain point, then we move on to the next thing,” Charles said. “But in Europe, they preserve what we created and appreciate it so much. For me to go to Estonia and teach a class where the whole basketball court is filled to capacity — It just blew my mind how many are that interested in something we were just doing for fun in Chicago.”
‘Making new classics’
For some of the dancers performing tonight, it’s less about using their feet to find new audiences and more about keeping their classical style alive and with the times. Lauren Cuthbertson is a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet in London who will be making her Vail stage debut during the International Evenings program.
Cuthbertson will perform the pas de deux from “Swan Lake” and the pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon,” a piece which is “every artists’ dream to perform,” she said.
Like most ballet stars, Cuthbertson started dancing before her toes were fully grown, first attending The Royal Ballet school at age 11 and eventually going on to become the youngest female principal in the company. For the ballerina, classical ballet is a chance to step outside of herself and truly embody someone else.
“The roles I find the most amazing are the classical roles, where there’s obviously a character in them, (like) a swan or a princess,” Cuthbertson said. “If you’re doing a role where you’re playing someone else, it’s strange because the show just flies by. I don’t know where the time goes, because you just lose yourself in that person. You’re not thinking about dancing it. From the moment you step on stage, you’re that person, and you live their life.”
Although ballet is hundreds of years old, Cuthbertson said you can still find something new and different with classical ballet.
“We’re making new classics,” Cuthbertson said. “ (We’re creating) classics for people for today, which is using what we know to tell stories and make them relevant.”
At the Vail International Dance Festival, it’s tradition for dance mediums to meld together, but Cuthbertson makes a case for staying on point and not swaying too far from ballet’s core.
“I’ve been training 15 years in classical ballet,” Cuthbertson said. “I don’t think I can dance hip-hop as well as the people who’ve done it their whole lives.”
Cuthbertson might not be trading her toe shoes for high tops anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean other styles don’t make her think, or dance, differently.
“It’s become a bit more acceptable these days to be inspired by others and use it a bit without diluting the style that you grew up with,” Cuthbertson said. “I’ve been with The Royal Ballet system since I was 8 years old, so it’s in my blood to move and dance in that way, but that doesn’t mean I’m not inspired by (other styles).”
The dancers performing tonight might not all speak the same language, or do they? Charles thinks dance is a way to communicate on a deeper level.
“It doesn’t feel as good when I’m the only person who knows how to (footwork) and no one else does,” Charles said. “To see other people doing the moves I do and we’re all doing it at the same time — we’re all speaking the same language. It makes me feel like we’re from the same earth. It makes me feel connected.”
Tonight and Saturday, the dancers performing for the International Evenings programs want people to not only listen and look, but also be moved in ways there are no words for.