Art Talk with Daniel Phoenix Singh of Dakshina
Dakshina founder Daniel Phoenix Singh with Melissa Greco Liu in "Sonnet." Photo by Stephen Barnovics, courtesy of Dakshina
"[A]rt is the nexus where all the different aspects of my life---as a gay man, a South Asian, a first-generation immigrant, a person of color, a little bit of a tech nerd, and now a U.S. citizen---all come together." --- Daniel Phoenix Singh
At first glance, Indian classical dance and Western modern dance would seem to have little in common---except in the hands of dancer and choreographer Daniel Phoenix Singh. With his company Dakshina---which received a 2012 Art Works grant from the NEA---Singh explores both movement vocabularies creating energetic, moving, thought-provoking works that are equal parts tradition and innovation. Singh didn't start studying dance formally until his early 20s. However, his love of Bollywood movies as a child in India, his job working as a janitor at a local high school, and his professional experiences in computer science have all added up to a somewhat unorthodox, but no less fruitful arts career. We caught up with Singh via e-mail to find out why he's learning tango and salsa, how his work has been influenced by modern dance choreographer Anna Sokolow, and what advice he has for young artists.
NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?
DANIEL PHOENIX SINGH: I don't identify that strongly with the term “artist”---it has too many false/romanticized notions associated with it. I make dances, and I dance, therefore I'm more comfortable with the terms dancer or choreographer. I strive to create art, but it is not up to me to decide whether I've achieved what I set out to do. The observer in the short term, and the continuum of time in the long term will have to decide if I am an artist or not.
In my attempts to create art as a dancer or a dance maker, art-making begins with awareness and self-reflection. From there I move toward understanding the community around me, and then on to trying to make meaning of the world we live in. The ironic end point for the dance is one where the self of the dancer or choreographer is removed so the dance can speak for itself. We either hold up a mirror for the observer or let the observer see something that animates us, and perhaps through this insight lead them into their own "aha" moment. I try to wrap all this up with compassion, and give it back as a gift. My company's moniker “Dakshina” means offering in Sanskrit, and so both giving and giving back are strong guiding principles of our work. Art then is about awareness, self-reflection, and giving for me.
The degree to which I achieve this differs, but I try to keep sight of this goal at all times.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement or experience with the arts?
SINGH: I remember my mother dressing me up as the Hindu god Krishna for a costume competition when I was five or six years old. According to legends, Krishna as a child was very fond of cream, and would often steal cream from the cowherds in his town. To make my Krishna more authentic, my dear mother gave me a small brass pot of cream. And in keeping with my character, I ate all of it before I even got on stage. I still remember feeling special that day as my mother dressed me up as Krishna, even making garlands for me from the flowers in our garden. It felt good to step into someone else's skin so simply and completely. It was one of those funny and magical childhood experiences that leave an indelible mark on you. I tucked this away in the recesses of my mind till I could finally return to this journey as an adult.
I also grew up with Bollywood and Tamil films all through my childhood. The poetry of the songs, and the dancing---the inexplicable but joy-inducing dancing at the drop of the hat made these movies childhood treasures for me. Ironically, though I lived in Chennai---the heart of Bharata Natyam, I didn't pay much attention to dance till I saw a male dancer in the film called Salangai Oli (Sound of the ankle bells). The concept of a male dancer didn't enter my consciousness till I saw that film. I know they existed, but it was like I hadn't put two and two together just yet. There was also a class issue. Just like the U.S., the arts are mostly available to the wealthier classes in India.
I look back at these two experiences fondly and realize how lucky I was to have them seed themselves in my mind.
NEA: You didn't become a dancer until you were in your early 20s. How did you discover dance, and what prompted you to pursue dance as a career?
SINGH: Life in India was hard and my parents went above and beyond to make things easier for me. They worked hard to get me into a private school for a good education, and they even relocated to the U.S. so we could go to college here. So somewhere in the drive to establish a decent career, I didn't let my dance interest grow. I didn't even know that was an option for me. I was working on my computer science degree and working as a janitor at a high school.
Two auspicious encounters in both those areas of my life set me on my path to becoming a dancer. My Bharata Natyam teacher Meena Telikicherla's school happened to rent out the high school where I was a janitor for their dance school's annual day performance. I saw the crystal clear technique in her dancers and was very moved. I introduced myself and started learning from Ms Telikicherla---almost 6 years of Bharata Natyam classes on Tuesdays and Thursday mornings from 7 a.m to 9 a.m. Around the same time, I met Pamela Matthews when I signed up for a Ballet class at University of Maryland Baltimore County while taking computer science classes. Pam is a stunning dancer but was/is also a very grounded, down to earth and funny teacher. She taught us how to let go of our inhibitions and made dancing fun. Watching her dance and eat up space so easily, and speak so eloquently with her body in her understated ways, I said to myself, I want that feeling. To be honest and frank, while I had these strong urges to dive into dance headfirst, I also balanced them out with the reality of making a living. So yes I did want to pursue dance as a career, but I was also old enough to realize that I needed to balance that with something else to pay the bills. So even though I sometimes wish I had started dancing earlier, I also realize now that my computer science background (even though I was one class short of getting the degree) has helped me build my dance career more than anything else could have.
NEA: What led you to found Dakshina? What do you hope to accomplish with the company? And why choose a repertoire that's both modern Western dance and traditional Indian dances?
SINGH: When I finished my undergrad degree in Dance, I felt like I needed some more dance experience and knowledge under my belt. I went to University of Maryland for their MFA program, where I met Mim Rosen and Libby Smigel who encouraged me and helped me clarify my vision. I also stumbled into the Women's Studies program and met a fabulous professor Katie King, who opened up my worldview entirely. Through my women's studies classes, I saw that the typical binary setup in most social choices didn't have to be true. I didn't want to have to select between my heritage as an Indian, and my interest in American modern dance in my adopted home country. I spent the first several years focusing on Bharata Natyam and modern dance forms to find our feet so to speak. After having immersed myself in both Bharata Natyam and Modern Dance for almost 12 years, I started getting this itch to see what would happen if I created vocabulary drawing on both styles. I now feel like things have finally snapped into place and now Dakshina has a three-pronged approach focusing on Bharata Natyam, modern dance, and our own syncretic blend of the two forms.
NEA: As you've noted, your choreography embraces diverse dance elements. How do the different styles inform your work? How do they inform each other?
SINGH: I enjoy dance in the many ways it crops up in our lives such as social dance forms like salsa or tango, culturally specific dance forms such as Bharata Natyam that grew out of traditional or cultural underpinnings (of course tango/salsa were once culturally specific), and sort of the academic or stage dance forms like modern dance or ballet. It's always been a goal of mine to present dance from all these different spheres, so people can see that dance has many different functions in different situations. It was also really interesting for me to notice how the forms start at different places but arrive at a similar outcome. Bharata Natyam works from outside in, where you build the structure of the dance and work your way into the feeling it is supposed to evoke, where as modern dance works from inside out---starting with an idea or feeling and building the dance from this kernel. Bharata Natyam and most classical Indian dance were typically performed in a solo format---now I'm incorporating elements of modern dance such as group dynamics, use of space, and patterns into my Bharata Natyam work. I take the importance Bharata Natyam places on a strong focus, the ability to completely take on any character you are portraying, the use of rhythms, and the stress on eloquent hands into my modern dance work.
NEA: Dakshina has performed several works by choreographer Anna Sokolow. Can you tell me a little about who she was, what her work was like, and what drew you to her work? Also, how has Sokolow's work influenced your own thinking about dance?
SINGH: I saw a performance of Anna Sokolow's "Kaddish" by Risa Steinberg at Dance Place almost 12 years ago now. I was struck by the starkness and drawn in by the powerful use of hands and hand gestures. Having seem modern dance where the hands are usually not emphasized too much, the Bharata Natyam dancer in me was thrilled to see such a rich gestural vocabulary in Sokolow's works. There is one particular gesture in which the dancer beats her chest in mourning---something I've seen people in India do as part of their mourning ritual. I went back and read through the history of "Kaddish," and found out that Sokolow had choreographed it as a prayer of mourning. I also found out that some Jewish synagogues didn't allow women to wear the prayer sleeve and that Sokolow was making a strong statement about gender issues when she performed the dance with the prayer sleeve. It was poetic moment to realize that Sokolow's "Kaddish" incorporated a Jewish ritual of mourning which was similar to the customs in India. It was also heartening for me to see that Sokolow was working on social issues in her dances without preaching about them. The seed to get Sokolow dances for my company was sown then. It took us almost 10 years to make that dream come true and I was hooked.
The essence of Sokolow's work was taught to us by Lorry May, long time principal with the Sokolow Company who then became Sokolow's assistant in staging her dances. Lorry accurately and strongly felt that Sokolow's genius lay in how well Sokolow was able to draw the intent out of her movement (rather than using intent to shape movement). This is also typically how Bharata Natyam is shaped and I sensed an intuitive knowledge and gift in Sokolow's dances. There were two geniuses at work here: the obvious genius of Sokolow, and the subtle but equally sensitive genius of Lorry May who allowed Sokolow's works of starkness and simplicity pass through to our generation. I remember Lorry telling us: don't superimpose yourself on the movement. Let the movement speak for itself. Those words were gems of wisdom, and showed me that Sokolow's genius lay in how her movement is able to hold its shape so well after all these years.
After our most recent reconstruction of a Sokolow dance titled,"Lyric Suite," the Washington Post's chief dance critic Sarah Kaufman wrote that Sokolow was a master of subtraction. I think Kaufman captured Sokolow's essence in her description.
Learning the Sokolow repertoire has made me sensitive to making sure I don't clutter the dances I create, to also create dances that are relevant to my time and my community, to take more risks and to most importantly be honest in reflecting the world back to the observer.
NEA: You are also studying Latin styles, including tango and salsa. Why are you interested in those styles and how do you think they will influence your work?
SINGH: As I mentioned earlier, I love to see how dance has different roles in the various aspects of our lives. Social dances like tango and salsa are about connecting with people in a very direct, one-on-one way. There is a Zen-like quality in social dances, in that you have to be completely present and sensitive to the person you are dancing with. This internal and subtle focus is definitely true of Argentine tango which I studied, where as ballroom tango looks and feels different (for many valid reasons). There is this perfect balance where you have to intuit and think on your feet, making decisions based on what your partner does, how crowded the club maybe, the pace of the music, what the lyrics may be describing, etc., all while improvising your steps and navigating through a crowded room. When you get comfortable enough in the basics to dance with a random stranger and still work together as a couple from the first second, you experience something incredible. At the end of my third year, I was able to follow with my eyes closed and just let my body do the "seeing.”
There is a certain mystery and intrigue about tango that is hard to express in words. The other special thing about social dances is that it is like having an intimate conversation with the person you are dancing with. Each person has their own body language and manner of leading you. I dance the Colombian style of salsa with Javier Varela, and the Cuban style of salsa with Shawn Malone. It may sound a bit hokie, but I could dance with a room full of leads with my eyes closed, and I could tell you when I was with Javier or Shawn just by the way they lead me. This is the magic of social dance---it becomes a unfettered extension of the person you are dancing with. I'm interested in a lot of dance styles because I feel very strongly that the more you learn other styles, the more you are able to plumb the depths of your own main style or technique. There are a lot of commonalities, and some strong differences. Knowing what the characteristics of the dance styles are helps me create movement to achieve certain specific feelings in the dancers and observers. Ultimately, these dances, to me, are about connecting with people, in direct and tangible ways. They influence my work in that, to me, dance is always about making a human connection while expressing yourself. So the theme of connecting and the Zen-like quality of being fully present are the two most significant threads that I take from these dance forms and bring into my own work.
NEA: At the NEA, we believe the artist is part of the community, rather than someone who works apart in some "temple of the arts." What do you think is the role of the artist in the community? Conversely, what do you think if the responsibility of the community to the artist?
SINGH: I absolutely think that my company Dakshina only exists because of the strong sense of community. Dancers are the core of my company; they spend their birthdays, anniversaries, joys and sorrows with us in the studio. Often the rehearsal process is an intense one, where each one of us is challenged to push through our insecurities, weaknesses, and make peace with the limitations we have and still try to do our best. Such a deeply meaningful personal journey is exhilarating, but also draining. We couldn't do this if my dancers were not working together as a community and giving so very generously. I see communities as concentric circles like the ripples in a pond. Each stone thrown onto the surface of the pond creates an infinite number of ripples, and so it is with communities. Each action you take as an artist should resonate and speak to multiple circles of community. I'm indebted to my dancers more than anyone else for their good cheer, commitment, and faith in me. For me, being a part of the community means also being interested in the community's needs and interest. So even as you tap into your mentors, be sure to give back to those you can. I also want to say this with the caveat that this doesn't give us permission to sacrifice quality in the name of "community." Whether it is in the media, or in the funding process, there is a big push for accessible art works. To the point that an anti-intellectual, slap-things-together-in-the-name-of-community approach is being pushed. To me putting up shoddy work in the name of community is deeply troubling. How to engage our communities while doing path-breaking work should be a central mission of dance companies.
I have strong support from my mentors such as Leela Samson, Uttara Asha Coorlawala, Mallika Sarabhai, Mim Rosen, Libby Smigel (executive director of Dance Heritage), Maryland Youth Ballet, AACU (where I work), Susie Farr (executive director of Clarice Smith Center), Carla Perlo and Deborah Riley at Dance Place, and my rehearsal directors Karen Bernstein and Harriet Moncure Williams. The DC community and the Indian dance community [are] very close knit and supportive.... I am indeed standing on the shoulders of these giants, and they deserve the credit for what I've been able to achieve.
NEA: You have had many challenges in your life because of your decision to pursue dance--from having to balance it with a full-time job in an unrelated field to family issues. What would your advice be to a young dancer---or young artist---just starting their arts career?
SINGH: In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig writes, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a motorcycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain or in the petals of the flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha---which is to demean oneself.” I think of this quote when I consider all the various aspects I juggle in my life.
And to be fair, if I were a parent, I would be horrified if my child chose the arts given the current economic situation in the arts world, and the hard life that it requires. So with some hindsight behind me, I realize my parents were worried about my welfare. Though my family did have a very difficult time accepting the fact that I did Bharata Natyam, a dance form that draws heavily from the Hindu religion and mythology.
In terms of advice for a young artist: As we can't expect the community to be interested in us if we are not interested in them, we have to be more politically involved, realize the power of your vote and voice---go out and ask for what you need, don't settle. Learn to articulate your work in words even if you work in a non-verbal medium. Go to the county, city, regional ,and national meetings where policy makers are working and make your voice heard. Learn from the beginning to place a value on your art; don't give it away for free. Only when you value your art will others value it. Be creative about how you patch together a career in the arts. I would also say [young artists] should double major and learn the management and fundraising skills they need to continue their dance careers. No one is going to be able to advocate for you as well as you can. At times it will be exhausting and draining. During these moments, remember that it will pass. Tap into your peer and established professionals in the field. Get their advice, vent with them, learn how to figure out how you can articulate your frustration with your support group. Then go to the leaders who can make a difference and ask for what you need so that the needs you have are met. Because between all these moments, you will have moments of sheer magic and joy that will be incomparable. You'll fall in love with your colleagues' genius. You'll bootstrap/claw your way up to the next creative burst, and you'll have so many experiences that are strongly human, and tangibly life-altering. In the words of DC choreographer Eric Hampton: “Make BIG mistakes.” Go for it, give it your all.
NEA: At the NEA we think that "Art Works." What does that mean to you?
SINGH:I want to explore that motto from two angles. On the positive side---when I was working on multiple styles and figuring out a way to negotiate tradition and culture with relevant current topics or finding a way to evolve the art form to another place, one of my mentors Uttara Coorlawala remarked to me, "You are choreographing your identity." This is how art works in my life---art is the nexus where all the different aspects of my life as a gay man, a South Asian, a first-generation immigrant, a person of color, a little bit of a tech nerd, and now a U.S. citizen all come together. I do want to be able to move back and forth and not be hemmed in by artificial boundaries. And art works to create that fluid space yet anchors me in my life.
On the negative side: I see severe devaluation of the arts, the artist community, arts education, and the notion of art as labor. To me it is incomprehensible that cutting [arts] funding is even brought up as an option in budget discussions. There is also a dearth of policy makers and arts strategists to examine the long-term effects of the changes in arts funding from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Like the K-12 trend where early education and high school are given priority and the middle school years are glossed over, I see a lot of emphasis put on start-ups or mega arts organizations. But there is almost no program that bridges the smaller companies to the larger organizations. In addition, the burden of subsidizing or supporting arts education in lower income communities has been shifted to the artist instead of state or national educational institutions. This often means that the already squeezed artists have to create or manage an arts administration program on top of everything else they are juggling. The irony in this is that the communities that need the most support are being undercut. I'd love to see Art Works take the leadership role in some of these issues. So my community's responsibility to me is to work with me, even as I listen/hear/work with my community's needs.
And I know that the problem of short-sighted arts policies can't be resolved by just the artists. We need our community members, schools, youth, adults, policy makers, educators, and seniors to all rally around us and help us stabilize and promote the arts. Giving us research and development time, like the business models, would be extremely helpful for us to create the important work and to stay on the edge of the arts rather than becoming complacent or stuck. Unless this is remedied soon, we'll have a lot of floundering young organizations dying out before they can stabilize themselves in the middle phase of their development, or large communities that have little or no access to the arts. This is where Art works is not functioning the way it should be. For Art Works to be the call it seeks to be, we need to refocus our priorities and work together to make this happen. I'm actually working on a paper that lays out some of my concerns right now and hope to have it published in the next couple of months on my company website's blog. Stay tuned for the paper and I'd love your readers feedback to figure out how to make the call "Art Works" come true.