January’s Journey: Confessions of a Dancer

Photo Courtesy: Karthik Venkataraman

Photo Courtesy: Karthik Venkataraman

Global Rasika had a chance to speak with the exquisite January Low, former principle dancer of Malaysia-based Sutra Dance Theater founded by eminent Dance Artiste, Ramli Ibrahim. January initially began her dance training in ballet, and then Bharatanatyam and Odissi. She ultimately concentrated her efforts solely on Odissi as the years passed. She has performed widely as a soloist and as part of Sutra Dance Theater’s repertory group. In 2003 she was presented with the Kakiseni Award for best Solo Performance. In 2009 she was accepted to the Asia-Africa Dance Exchange hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Korea. After years of touring and performing, January refocused her energies for another important role – that of wife and mother. Today January shares her professional and personal journey with us:

GR: How did you begin dancing?
JL: My mother noticed that I really enjoyed dancing and enrolled me in ballet class when I was about four-five years old. When I was eight, my father witnessed an Indian classical dance performance by Master [Ramli Ibrahim] and Sutra Dance Theater. Interestingly enough, my father, who is of Chinese descent, thought of me when he watched this performance. He asked whether I would be interested in studying this dance form. Up until then I had no experience or exposure to Indian classical dance so he brought me to watch a class first before deciding. I came to Sutra to observe a senior session and immediately afterwards told my parents that I would like to start.
I actually began my dance training in Bharatanatyam. As we [new students] were very young at the time, Master thought the body conditioning and structure of Bharatanatyam would be better for us to provide a strong foundation and grounding. Plus, he thought the transition from Bharatanatyam to Odissi would be easier than the other way around.

GR: And how did you get started in Odissi?
JL: My mother would take my sister and I to many performances in Kuala Lumpur: dance, theatre, Broadway, and of course, all of Sutra productions. I remember watching my very first [Sutra-produced] Odissi performance and being immediately captivated by the dance – the technique, the music, the jewelry, the costume, everything. I actually tried to mimic some of these steps at home like the ‘Sabha Pranam,” or the Odissi walk. When I was thirteen, Master asked if I would be interested in learning Odissi and of course I said yes. For some time, I was learning both Bharatanatyam and Odissi. The ballet eventually stopped because there was not enough time to learn/practice so many different styles. When I was 18 when I had my Bharatanatyam arangetram and then following that, I had two Odissi solo programs in 2004 and 2005.

GR: You had once written this in your blog and we are paraphrasing here Odissi is in my blood. Considering Odissi’s very strong cultural roots, what was it about the dance form that made you connect with it?
JL: Odissi is definitely an art form with strong cultural ties, however for me, I was very drawn to the technique itself. Odissi is a very difficult dance form to master. In the learning process, cultural barriers are something one cannot waste his/her time wondering. At that point I had connected with something that went beyond culture or even technique, something just clicked inside.

GR: How did your background in Ballet/Bharatantyam help/hinder your Odissi training?
JL: Being a ballet dancer helped me immensely by developing proper posture, building strength in my muscles, creating an awareness of my body and the shapes that it could make. Ballet training also taught me how to lengthen the body and breathe through movement. In Sutra we actually conduct our warm-ups using ballet exercises. In my training, I have actually found a lot of technical similarities between ballet and Bharatanatyam: the shapes of the body (plies/aramandi), the arm movements, and the flow of the body. I found it very useful to do both actually, they are somewhat ‘opposing’ movement sciences, the grounded-ness of Bharatnatyam and the elongation of ballet, so it was a very complete approach to body conditioning. As far as any difficulties are concerned – I had been told by many to be ‘heavier’ in my approach to Odissi, to not ‘float’ or ‘glide’ onstage, but to be earthier in the movement. It was also a challenge to develop the fluidity of Odissi – my body had been so conditioned by ballet and Bharatanatyam training, which are two very rigid movement styles, that it took a couple of years to develop the fluidity and freedom within a particular structure of Odissi to get the right “Angasuddhi.’

GR: When did you decide to focus solely on Odissi and why?
JL: Focusing on Odissi was more of an organic process. When I was in Sutra I was training in both Odissi and Bharatanatyam, but at the time it just so happened that we were doing a lot of Odissi performances. Many of our tours were also Odissi-based. I grew to love it more and more, and gradually because I became so used to the Odissi movements, Bharatatyam became increasingly more difficult and did not have the same appeal as it did before. While I do enjoy watching a good Bharatantyam performance, I personally find it difficult to do these days.

GR: You were considered a child prodigy and one of Ramli Ibrahim’s protégés’ What do you think it was about you that singled you out?
JL: To be honest, I really don’t know. Many dancers at Sutra start out at a young age; artists like Mavin Khoo and Rathimalar Govindarajoo are also considered to be protégés of Master. I think I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, In Malaysia, my ethnicity became very prominent, as I was basically a Chinese girl learning Indian classical dance from a Malay teacher. And that was really the angle the media sort of hung on to. I think it was a good time for Odissi, a good time for Sutra, and for all of us. Sutra has many talented dancers, I just happened to be lucky.

GR: This brings me to my next point. Considering the ethnic/racial tension at the time, Sutra Dance became somewhat of a symbol of “Unity in Diversity.” Can you elaborate on that time a bit more?
JL: It is interesting how Sutra became very symbolic for the country. In Malaysia, people are identified by their ethnicity. However outside of Malaysia we were considered ‘Malaysian.’ This was confusing especially when we were on tour and when people would ask me where I was from. My maternal grandmother was from China, my grandfather from India, whereas my father’s parents were second-generation Chinese. I had gone to an international school when I was growing up, so I was never aware of race/ethnicity. Even in dance class, I think I was separated from the group more so because I was a ballet dancer, than anything else. I did notice that after my arangetram, we began to see more girls of Chinese descent enrolling for Indian classical dance, which was really huge for me. In a culture (and I am sure it is similar in the US) where people are more inclined to take salsa, hip-hop, contemporary, etc. it is rare to find people taking an interest in Indian Classical Dance. I always wanted to break these cultural barriers to make Odissi more accessible to the masses, which I think Sutra has done quite successfully.

GR: What affected your decision to leave Sutra Dance Theater after years of being such an active part of it?
JL: After years of dancing with Sutra, I felt like I needed to grow artistically, personally, and holistically. Like how 18-year olds needs to grow up and leave his parents’ house, I felt I needed to be on my own and get out of my comfort zone. By that time, I had been with Sutra for about 17-18 years, and after being there for so long and becoming the person I had become, I knew I needed to leave. In 2009, I tendered my resignation to Sutra.

GR: In 2009 you participated in the Asia-Africa Dance Exchange held in Seoul. Why did you choose to do a residency in Korea?
JL: I had heard about the residency in Korea from a friend of mine and even though the application was for contemporary dancers, I decided to apply anyway. I was accepted and soon found myself alone on a plane to Seoul. Up until then I had very little exposure to Korea and its culture so it was a huge cultural shock, which is very rare for me. When I arrived on my first day I sat on my bed and cried my eyes out, I had no clue what I was doing! But those six months turned out to be the best six months of my life. The program was a cultural exchange between African and Asian dancers. I worked with two boys from Africa and another girl from India. The residency culminated in a performance for the Seoul International Dance Festival, which was an amazing experience for me. The dance culture, the training, the process was so different from what I was used to. For the first time, I felt independent. I was out of my comfort zone and making my own decisions and had a different kind of freedom. At the end of the six months, I sat on my bed and cried because I didn’t want to leave!

GR: Was this the first time you had ventured into choreography?
JL: In a way, yes. We do a lot of improvisation at Sutra, but as everyone’s dance background is quite similar, we end up doing more or less the same thing during these sessions. The dance residency was very different because people were coming not only from different dance backgrounds, but different cultures as well. This experience taught me to step out of my comfort zone and adapt to these different situations. With regards to choreography, shortly after coming back from Seoul, I was invited to perform for World Dance Day. For this event, I decided to present my own piece called “Shades of Love,” which was influenced by the Ashta Nayika, but presented without the Odissi costume or music. I had requested a friend to come up with some acoustic melodies on his guitar instead. I wanted Malaysian youth to be exposed to Rasa and Abhinaya and the different types of Nayika – Everyone, man, woman, boy or girl, has experienced love in some form or other, and I thought it would be an interesting subject to pursue. The piece turned out pretty well; the audience could understand what the piece was about, and they did not find it intimidating or too abstract. I wanted to keep the piece light and accessible to the public.

GR: Did your experience in Korea provide you with any clarity with regards to which direction you wanted your dance to go in?
JL: Absolutely not! I came home still very much confused. Dance had been such a huge part of my life from the very beginning and I never saw it as a job or work. I grew up with it. But that said I knew that I wanted to remain independent. I needed to grow and challenge myself artistically. Having spent so many years of my life performing, I was exhausted – as a performer, you are constantly giving your energy. Seeking a new direction, I tried a day job in PR for about three months before tendering my resignation. I was also considering going back to school for dance. But then I met my husband and we had our kids, so my plans as far as dance went on hold for a while. However, now I know that Odissi is such a treasure and I am so blessed to have learned the tradition from such a young age. I definitely do not want to let it go. This time away from dance has done a lot as far as allowing me to regain my strength and energy to start again; I gained a lot of perspective from being away.

GR: How has marriage/motherhood affected you artistically?
JL: Taking the time away from dance allowed me to re-assess my life and gain perspective on what I was doing and why I was doing it. When I resigned from Sutra I was able to say that I had given it my all and had done everything I could for the time I was there. When I got married and had my children, I had already reached a point where I wanted to focus on family – Because these are areas that also need a lot of attention. I really wanted to experience marriage and motherhood properly and give it my all. I did not want to over-commit and spread myself too thin. If you don’t give proper attention to your art it starts slipping, and then you have to compromise – with your art, with your family. It is tough, having twins, and it has taken some time to get things in order, but now as they are getting older it is getting easier to manage. I am slowly getting back into my practice. I definitely appreciate dance a lot more – every moment that I had spent learning. I have fallen in love with it all over again and I can’t wait to resume performing.

GR: What was the most important thing you learned from Ramli-Ji?
JL: There was a time when I would spend more time in Sutra than at home and most of my formative years were with him. He is really keen on nurturing intelligent dancers – he never liked the saying ‘Dancers think with their feet,’ He always encouraged us to think independently. He would ask us for our opinions about a particular performance, and would give us that space to express our opinions, which was very critical. By providing that space where our opinions and ideas are validated, he also helped to develop our confidence. He has built a tremendous infrastructure for Odissi in Malaysia, which is rare. When he is on stage he is bigger than life, he exudes this aura, which is extraordinary – there is really no one like him. But offstage, he is a very different person. I am so blessed and lucky that in this day and age I was able to have this sort of relationship with my Guru. I am not sure if my kids would ever have this relationship with a teacher who really gives a holistic perspective of life. Dance was dance, but he made it a point to share everything he knew with us. It is a relationship that no one else will experience.

GR: And that is really the success of Ramli-Ji and Sutra, to make the dance accessible and provide the infrastructure and the space to really nurture you artistically
JL: Yes, absolutely. In my time there, I really understood the concept of ‘rasika,’ and how to develop artistically. Every time I attend any performance, I make it a point to sit in the front and absorb everything the performers are doing. I am always dissecting, always analyzing. I always feel that there is so much more to learn as a performer. As an artist, it is important to not get too comfortable in where you are at. I always make it a point to hone my art and make it my own. If you as an artist are not moved, then how do you expect to move others? So it is very important to really feel the essence of what you do and take the audience on that journey with you.

January Low with her husband and children in 2014

January Low with her husband and children in 2014

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