“Objects in Mirror…” are closer than they appear, as the saying goes. But for one South Asian-American Los Angeles-based dancer, the phrase possesses a much deeper meaning.
“We live right here next to you, we go to your school, we’re your neighbor, and you’re missing who we are,” said Achinta S. McDaniel, referring to how South Asian-American artists are viewed in this country. “You’re just looking at the image without deeper interrogation, instead of valuing us as artists and our multiplicity.”
McDaniel, the founder and artistic director of Blue13 Dance Company, is the curator of a project in a recent digital series hosted by The Music Center in L.A. called For the Love of L.A. McDaniel’s project is called “Objects in Mirror…” and features three South Asian-American artists: Shreya Patel, Shalini Bathina and Ireesh Lal. The project launched on June 22.
Invisibility in the Dance Community
The concept of “Objects in Mirror…” is something McDaniel thought about since the pandemic’s onset, she said. With being separated from her dancers and constantly seeing herself on a Zoom screen, McDaniel said her ideas were “converging at the right time.” Something she has always felt in the dance community is invisibility: always being put into a box as a South Asian dancer.
“We’re not allotted the same abstractions as our white counterparts. The expectation for them is you can do multiple things; contemporary dance is equated with whiteness and a European aesthetic,” she said. “It’s how invisible my work as a contemporary dancer is or how disallowed it is — you can only be one thing: just Bollywood or just Bharatanatyam.”
For McDaniel, this project is about trying to “dismantle the monolith mythology” that South Asian artists can only be immersed in one style. When people, especially non-South Asians, expect her to be a classical Indian choreographer, or mistake her for another Indian person, these are the moments that motivate her to showcase how multifaceted South Asian artists are.
McDaniel said she knew immediately that she wanted to include South Asian-American artists in her project for the series to increase representation and “deinvisibilize Indianness.” She said she chose three artists she had previously worked with, asking them to fill in the blank of what “Objects in Mirror…” means to them.
For 18-year-old Shreya Patel, her intention was to explore the multifaceted nature of South Asian American artists. As a dancer trained in both western and classical Indian styles, Patel said it has always been important to her to fuse her backgrounds.
She said McDaniel told her the subject of the project and asked her “to run with it,” putting her own unique spin on the concept.
“When I look in the mirror, I see either a classical Indian dancer or a modern classically trained ballet dancer — [McDaniel] wanted me to take that object in the mirror concept and combine the two,” Patel said. “Now when I look in the mirror, it’s more that I see myself as one fusion dancer that has studied in both genres.”
So, as she choreographed, Patel fused aspects of her western training with her Indian training, combining foundational ballet elements with Bharatanatyam hand gestures. She said it was important to her to not have two disparate sections for the two styles, but instead to fuse them together throughout the whole piece.
Ultimately, she hopes her audience will be able to see her as both an Indian dancer and a western dancer, bridging the two aspects of her identity through her video.
“Especially within the dance community, South Asian artists are always either one or the other, and it’s very hard to acknowledge both sides to the art,” Patel said. “The message is more acknowledging both sides of my dance training and the background and history behind each.”
Musician Ireesh Lal fuses East Indian elements with western elements to create a distinct sound accompanied by visual art. His album, Journey Through the Chakras, explores each of the seven chakras through his combination of music and art.
Although the album was finished first, Lal decided to dive deep into the solar plexus chakra for his video, creating watercolor art, incorporating tabla and sitar and working with dancer Mayuri Bhandari to translate the music into a dance interpretation.
“We went in full force — we wanted to respect traditions and follow rules,” Lal said. “But then we let loose and interpreted it our own way and added electronic dance beats.”
Due to pandemic constraints, Lal and his artists were never in the same room together, as each was recorded separately. This concept, therefore, inspired his video to seem like the audience is watching a painting being created and is seeing themselves inside of it, paralleling the “Objects in Mirror…” theme.
Lal said he hopes his music can be an entry point for non-South Asians looking to learn more about the culture, music and background.
“To people who aren’t familiar with our culture, I’d like to be the introduction. Maybe after they listen to my music they’ll want to pursue it a little bit further,” Lal said. “I know sometimes things don’t get interpreted properly, so it’s just a way of being able to show our culture in a way that’s not a hardcore lecture, but in a soft, easy way for them to come in.”
Kuchipudi dancer and actress Shalini Bathina said when she was first presented with the theme, she immediately thought of balance, whether in her dance, life, career, or family. So, Bathina decided to incorporate the concept of Ardhanareeswara, the half-Shiva half-Parvati manifestation of the Hindu god.
Bathina played both Shiva and Parvati, portraying grounded parts of the music as Shiva and melodious parts as Parvati, ultimately edited together so the video is constantly switching between the two. By the end of the piece, Bathina blended the two together, relating the concept of “Objects in Mirror…” to the different representations of masculinity and femininity.
“It was about portraying a male representation and also a female representation, and showing the distinction that we can do both,” Bathina said. “I really wanted to blend those two styles and come up with a beginning, middle, and end and move through those different feminine and masculine energies.”
Bathina said she has always struggled with the duality of being Indian and American, but she has learned to embrace her layers and uniqueness while recognizing that she can still “have a tribe and community that can respect and know who you are.”
In the end, she wants her dance to convey the journey it takes, especially for South Asian-Americans, to find peace and balance in their hyphenated identities.
“I really wanted to show that we have so many different energies within us, and sometimes you’re completely unaware of them, but it’s a constant flow. You have to keep searching for yourself and growing,” Bathina said. “Within our culture, sometimes we’re forced into little boxes, so blending that and trying to break out of that is not only healthy for you, but it’ll make your relationships closer.”
Sending a Message
Ultimately, McDaniel hopes the project will bring about more representation and education that not all South Asian artists fall into the same box, whether that means just Bollywood dance or just Indian classical music.
“As much as we’re pointing out how different we are and how important it is to highlight that, it’s really about honoring the artists as individuals: this is a person with their own lived experiences, and I want you to pay attention,” McDaniel said. “It can be exhausting to educate all the time, but I welcome it as a way to enlighten even the most woke and the most L.A. [people].”