It’s Sunday night and I’m at New Expressive Works, watching a few minutes of tech rehearsal for the upcoming Listening to Silence, a dance performance co-created by NEW founder and executive director Subashini Ganesan and Yashaswini Raghuram, the assistant director of Odissi Dance Company. Before heading over to interview the pair, I was sitting on my porch listening to the rain as it beat down, mulling over the idea of listening to silence and reading through the ancient Rig Vedic poem 10.129 (Nasadiya).
The poem speaks of the creation of everything, the paradoxical and complex nature of it all, and alludes back to the idea of nothingness or a great void. Knowing that the Nasadiya had been an important point of inspiration for the work, I concluded that listening to silence must be similar to the experience of that great nothingness.
When I asked Raghuram what the process of creating Listening to Silence has done to her perception of silence, she responded succinctly. “Before this project, I thought silence meant no noise, no movement,” she said. “Now, I find silence in everything and anything.”
So how can the experience of nothingness be found in everything and anything? Ganesan and Raghuram are using their new work as a space to tackle these larger than life concepts. Traditional classical Bharatanatyam training and a keen sense for pushing boundaries intermingle as they present their findings in a 50-minute performance set for a three-show run this weekend, January 31-February 2, at New Expressive Works in Southeast Portland.
Listening to Silence is the result of years of Ganesan’s research. Ancient texts like the Rig Veda, writings about silence by poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Jiddu Krishnamurti, and more recently, her conversations in rehearsal with Raghuram all play into the final product.
To get a feel for the kind of imagery the work pulls from, here’s an excerpt from Rilke’s poem I have many brothers in the South, translated by Robert Bly, which served as an inspiration:
Yet no matter how deeply I go into myself
my God is dark, and in a webbing made
of a hundred roots, that drink in silence.
I know that my trunk rose from this warmth, but that’s all,
because my branches hardly move at all
near the ground, and just wave a little in the wind.
This project is the first time Ganesan and Raghuram have worked together. Last year, I got to know Raghuram when I interviewed her for my article on Portland dance-transplants. Yashaswini performs extensively in India and the U.S. She has performed in several international festivals—the International Odissi Festival, All Women’s Art Festival, Marghazhi Season at RR Sabha, and Tamara Arts Festival, among others. She is a principal dancer and the Assistant Director of Odissi Dance Company, the only actively touring Odissi company in the United States.
Ganesan, herself a South Asian immigrant, now serves as Portland’s very own Creative Laureate. She is a contemporary Bharatanatyam dancer and Artistic Director of Natya Leela Academy, where she choreographs and performs potent and universally relevant movement expressions in Bharatanatyam. Her Southeast Portland art space, New Expressive Works, fosters cross-cultural dialogue and exchange. Although Ganesan’s past projects have pushed traditional bharatanatyam boundaries, her collaboration with Raghuram in Listening to Silence stands as her first work with a professionally trained classical Bharatanatyam dancer. The pair’s knowledge and years of immersion within the rich philosophy, history and spirit of Hindu culture allow for a deep dive into the concepts of silence, nothingness, and paying attention.
As we discussed such topics our conversation about the work came to drop-off points, but Ganesan and Raghuram aim to guide the audience through their work. They hope that audiences will leave with greater understanding of concepts that are not only deeply rooted in Hindu tradition and philosophy but also permeate the lives of all of humanity—universal concepts seen through a Hindu lens.
To achieve such a lofty goal, the creation of Listening to Silence required the duo step outside of a traditional bharatanatyam performance structure. “We spent a lot of time finding the common ground between a contemporary approach and classical bharatanatyam,” noted Ganesan.
For comparison, Raghuram explained that when a traditional bharatanatyam dance is performed, the form of the performance is set in a way similar to that of a ballet class, where each exercise has a specific placing in the flow of the hour-and-a-half dance. Avid Indian dance fans arriving late to a Bharatanatyam performance would know the exact sections they’d missed and which ones were up next, solely based on the section being performed—regardless of their familiarity with the work or the choreographer.
Listening to Silence frees itself from this structure, although this contemporary approach to a traditional style does not parallel Western dance at all. While modern dance originated as a rebellion against ballet, “the traditional way of learning gets us here,” Ganesan explained. “We are not breaking from tradition. There is so much to learn from the ethos, or the rasas.”
The rasas are the juice, or essence, that classifies the aesthetics of the work across genres of Indian art. For more detail on that concept, check out a piece of mine from last year, when I covered a show by a visiting Bharatanatyam couple with a focus on one of the rasas: love.
While Ganesan has been working outside of the traditional lines of the style for quite some time now, Listening to Silence marks Raghuram’s first step to a different aporach to creating Indian dance. When I asked her how that experience had been for her, she said that her main worry was that veering from the set structure of Bharatanatyam would create misunderstanding in the audience. Raghuram noted that her experience of contemporary modern dance was so unconventional that understanding it became difficult. The cloak of experimentalism covered its lack of ability to communicate meaning. It’s an art, she said, to guide the audience through your work while still giving space for their imagination and interpretation.
That’s what Listening to Silence attempts to do. Ganesan was clear that their work is “not research, and not an experiment. We are making art to make meaning,” she said.
Listening to Silence uses a plethora of mixed-media to pull the ideas together. Among them is a sound-score by Roland Toledo, whose work focuses on the natural environment and explores the potential of data to create a fabric of immersive audio. The work also includes recordings from NASA, as well as video projection and intricate lighting design.
“We are not cultural ambassadors of an age-old practice that is dying,” Ganesan says. “We are here. We exist. We are making work.” I was reminded of a 2019 conversation with Raghuram, when we discussed the challenges of cultural separation as an Indian artist in the West, and she told me about the “extra responsibility of Indian artists here to increase sensitivity [and awareness],” surrounding such ancient and sacred forms.
After sitting with the Ganesan and Raghuram for just an hour, I began to notice just how universal the topics we traversed were. Though nuanced and rooted in Indian traditions, what Ganesan and Raghuram are talking about is inherently human, and thus, relatable to everyone. The paradoxical journey of the work is like the verses of the Nasadiya, contradicting itself only to resolve in peaceful clarity. Like nothingness containing everything, or the idea of listening to silence.