Saris of Dance

Imagine taking dance lessons for several years during your childhood, entering the university later to study economics, contemplating life as a businesswoman, and then giving it all up to spend more than ten years living in a village strictly devoted to reviving and preserving classical Indian dance forms that date back 2000 years. You're a student at first, but your gifts mean that you're tapped to be a principal dancer in a company that performs all over the world. Then you become a teacher, choreographer, and artistic director of that same troupe. Sound like a scenario that only happens in the movies? Not if you're Nrityagram Dance Ensemble of India's Surupa Sen, whose story that is in a nutshell.

"I decided if I want to dance, I would either do it 100 percent or I would not do it at all," says Sen, a woman of her word who has resided in the south India dance village also known as Nrityagram for the past eleven years. Lured by the powerful personality of dancer Protima Gauri Bedi, who founded the village in 1990, Sen was one of the first ardent dwellers (originally men and women, but now all women to curb distractions) who, in addition to devoting ten to twelve hours a day to perfecting dance techniques, study Sanskrit, poetry, religion, yoga, philosophy, meditation, and martial arts. Free room and board is provided, but students must also clean, cook, and grow vegetables. Mastering the three styles currently taught (seven classical Indian dances, all very different from the other, exist) takes anywhere from three to six years. "Then it's a lifetime of work," Sen notes.

Currently on a two-month tour of the United States, Nrityagram stops in South Florida for a performance as part of Miami-Dade Community College's Cultura del Lobo Performance Series. It will offer the narrative piece Sri: In Search of the Goddess in Odissi, a sensual form that Sen says boasts "circular spaces, rounded, gentle, soft yet strong." Based on an epic 23,000-line poem written by Sri Aurobindo in the 1930s, the symbolic story chronicles the journey of the mythological heroine Savitri, who challenges death to break the boundaries of consciousness and gain the understanding that she is part of a greater infinite whole.

Protima Gauri Bedi lost her son Siddharth to the ravages of depression and schizophrenia in 1997. One year later on her way to a holy site in the Himalayas, she perished in a landslide. However her brainchild will live on, perhaps even one day without Sen's presence. "I'm totally dispensable, but that's the best part -- we are always dispensable," Sen says. But as the heroine Savitri finds out, some things endure. "I hope we can pass on that spirit," Sen says, referring to the verve of her mentor Bedi. "That's all we intend to do to our students, and they understand the importance of preserving this culture."