One damp, chilly evening in March, I watched Taiis Pascal, an African-American professional Odissi dancer, practice. Pascal, one of North America’s greatest dancers of the tradition and a founding member of Trinayan Dance Theater, an organization dedicated to presenting performances, workshops, and classes in the ancient form, positioned in front of a mirror to observe herself as she moved in a full sari. She dances with an expression of someone virgin to the Eastern India tradition, finding awe in each movement, yet as though the dance was programmed in her bones.
It felt like a privilege to watch her in such an intimate setting; it’s no surprise that the company and its dancers have received rave reviews from critics at the New York Times, The Village Voice and the Star-Ledger, to name a few.
It also helps that Pascal was initiated into Odissi at a young age: Following an uncle’s interest in Vaishnavism, Pascal’s mother decided to explore its religious teachings herself, one day deciding to visit downtown Brooklyn’s local temple on a whim when Pascal was 11. It was there that Pascal saw her first teacher, Deva Deva Jagatapate, give a performance and discovered he offered weekly classes on the form. From there, Pascal and her sister began attending classes regularly, her interest eventually leading her to Orissa, India, when she was in her twenties to study with her guru, Guru Durga Charan Ranbir.
Though she was interested in other forms of dance, no other traditions spoke to her like Odissi, its movements graceful yet deliberate; the arm shapes as elegant as a ballet dancers, the footwork complementing such fluidity with a harder edge by its stomping.
To an outsider, this may look easy. That was my initial thought, anyway,, figuring I was poised to quickly pick up on the form since I had studied ballet and other movements from the age of three. When Pascal invited me onto the floor to dance with her, however, my ego was quickly squashed as I struggled to keep up though the dance was slow. “The muscles have to be trained to hold a certain posture,” says Pascal. “It’s not easy to transfer and shift the body weight and move. And all the movements and poses are so precise. There is nothing that’s not measured.”
Referring to it as a “living art form,” Odissi “is a body language that requires a refined use of opposing forces of fluidity, strength, and grace,” says Pascal. “It requires the use of grounded legs supported by the earth, while arms, torso, head, and neck are supported by the lightness of the air, continuously creating circular or S patterns in space or delivering meaning through mudras and gestures. At every stage of learning, body language is integrated with the spirit, emotions, and vitality of the dancer.”
The dance tells a story, the one she tried to teach me a celebration of Ganesh. As we moved, she explained how each movement represented a part of the deity: his trunk, his ears, his arms. “A lot of times, a dance is based on poetry or a drama, a scene from a certain epic,” she says. “That’s normally the traditional way of doing it.”Explaining that people today are being more experimental with the form, Pascal tends to consider herself more traditional. “I’m open for experimenting, but definitely right now I’m more traditional,” she says.
Which makes sense, given that Odissi is the least popular form of Indian dance compared to other styles like Bharatanatyam. “Odissi really became revived in the 1950s,” says Pascal. “What you see now is definitely not what was happening in the ancient years. It’s more of [the forefathers’] interpretation, but it all happened in the 1950s. So Bharatanatyam was already moving and grooving way before then, so I think that’s why.”
When I asked if it bothered her that Odissi wasn’t as popular as the other dances of India, the dancer shrugged it off. “If anything, it gives me purpose because it makes me feel like there is a reason why I’m doing this. And it just means that I have so much more to contribute.
“The company that I help direct, we try to create opportunities to increase the awareness of the dance,” she continues. “I just felt there was never enough Indian dance, Odissi dance that I was exposed to in terms of seeing different artists. A part of learning is watching, and I felt like I wasn’t able to watch constantly.... The great thing is that, now in New York, the scene is growing.”
Starting Trinayan Dance Theater in 2004, the nonprofit has grown considerably since its inception. “We tend to do about four master workshops a year where we have a guru, someone considered a master of Odissi, and have students train with them.” They also put on an annual festival; this year’s will be hosted by Long Island University’s Kumble Theater on June 29, offering classes and workshops not only in Odissi, but also Bharatanatyam and Kathak to give a well-rounded offering of India’s sacred dances.
“I’m also a physical therapist,” Pascal continues, “so when people say, ‘Oh, it’s you’re hobby,’ I kind of get offended [laughs]. You know, I’m like, No, it’s more than a hobby. And I don’t want to just call it a passion because it’s not a big enough word to even describe it. It’s definitely a part of what makes me me.”
I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if her ethnicity ever stood in her way of being considered a successful, legitimate Odissi dancer. “It’s never been an issue,” she says. “At least I never allowed it to be an issue or hold me back. I do get a lot of encouragement, especially from my teachers. And when I perform, I feel like it’s appreciated, and that’s a great feeling and I just hold on to that.”
To learn more about Odissi or if you are interested in taking classes in the form, visit Trinayan for more information.