December 16, 2019

Interview: Odissi Ensemble

Interview with Katie Ryan – Odissi Ensemble
When did you discover Odissi?
I was introduced to Odissi by Sanjeevini Dutta who ran an after-school club at my primary school in Bedford.  At that time Kadam were a community dance organisation based in Bedford – now they have moved to the Hat Factory in Luton and run community projects as well as promoting performances and publishing a South Asian dance and music magazine – Pulse.
What was it about the essence of the dance style that drew you towards it and made you want to be a part of the Ensemble?
Well, I was initially drawn to the opportunity to have some fun dancing with my sister and other school friends after school.  The fact that we performed in school assemblies and at school fairs and local events made it exciting and as a child I think I also enjoyed the narrative aspect of the the dance style – the use of character and story helped me engage as a child…and still does now.  We formed the Ensemble this year after working as a group on different projects and trying to set up a network of Odissi dancers in the UK.  As Odissi is a solo form and it is not so widely practiced in the UK, it can be a bit isolating working on your own and it’s not so easy to access performance opportunities as a solo artist. Odissi Ensemble allows us to enjoy a group creative process, share ideas and fill a stage with a range of personalities and physicalities.
How did you relate to the culture embedded in Odissi? You don’t stand out in the ensemble as coming from a different ethnic background, religion or country than the other dancers.  Where did you begin making that transition into such a differing culture?
I guess since I’ve been learning odissi from a young age and through this have got to know Indian culture quite well, it’s not so hard to relate. The themes of the narratives are pretty universal – devotion, love, loss, struggle, celebration – so if you spend a bit of time understanding the stories, it isn’t hard. Actually, although I am the only white British dancer in the group – we’re all quite a mix: Canadian with Indian heritage, Canadian with Indian and British heritage and Malaysian with Indian heritage…and out of the five of us there is only one from a Hindu background. None of us are from Orissa, where the style originates, so it’s part of the learning process to understand the context of the dance style you are training in.
Odissi is obviously very different from what a British dancer would conventionally train in – for example contemporary, ballet, jazz – how did you adapt to this Indian genre?
Starting at 6 meant there wasn’t much adapting to do.  I also took ballet classes and enjoyed them a lot too. A-levels was the first time I was introduced to contemporary dance and after finishing at school I trained at London Contemporary Dance School on a course which included training in kathak – a style of South Asian classical dance I hadn’t tried until then.  I think learning a variety of styles had been useful in giving me a perspective on each of them and it also gives me a sense of freedom to try new things.
The Odissi style is so intricate and detailed; how long did it take for you to adjust to the style and it become so natural to you? 
All dance styles are difficult to do well. But I think as a beginner, Odissi is a difficult style to learn because of the main stances requiring you to maintain bent knees with legs turned out and work from this position – which can make for sore legs when you’re starting out! Also it is a challenge to co-ordinate the counter-point of precise footwork with lyrical movement of the arms and torso plus hand gestures and use of the eyes and face. Your teacher builds this up in layers and doesn’t expect it all to come at once, gradually over time you build familiar patterns of movement and it starts to fall into place. I initially started with Sanjeevini when I was six and she taught us short compositions incorporating both folk, creative and classical movements, gradually building up to classical repertoire by the time I was about 11….now I’m 25 – but there’s still masses to learn.
Having studied many different styles of dance, could you choose which you prefer?
Odissi is definitely my main style – the one I feel most at home in.  I enjoy contemporary a lot and my experience training in kathak with Gauri Sharma Tripathi definitely informed my over-all practice and knowledge. 
What are you planning for the next stages of your career? Would you like to perform in mainstream dance productions, or stay dedicated to promoting Odissi?
Odissi is what I want to concentrate on – I would love to see how Odissi Ensemble can develop and see what new paths working as a group could take us down.
Learn more about Odissi Ensemble at

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