Stars of New York City Ballet, Indian Kathak Dance, and Chinese Kunqu Opera Share Stage

Renowned former ballerina Wendy Whelan, explosive dynamo Indian Kathak dancer Parul Shah, and effervescent Kunqu opera star Qian Yi came together on stage in New York last month to explore the connections of their performing arts forms. The program took place as part of Asia Society’s annual View points series, which highlights new ideas in the creative world.

Each of the three performers represented a rich classical tradition. Ballet is the quintessential Western classical dance form; Kathak is one of eight classical forms of Indian dance which originated with Sanskrit storytellers in ancient India; and Kunqu opera, one of the oldest forms of classical Chinese opera, combines dance, music, and theater. Each form incorporates rigorous physical training, requires incredible aestheticism and aesthetic understanding, and embodies the history of power in its respective culture over hundreds of years.

For the program, the three performers each gave demonstrations of their respective forms, including two presentations of exquisite footage featuring Qian and Whelan in Slow Dancing, a video installation by photographer and videographer David Michalek. The demonstration finale included all three performers on stage together.

Viewpoints: Classical Connections explored aesthetic beauty, the female form, and innovation as manifested across cultures: from Qian’s serious performance and humorous anecdotes, to Whelan’s rendition of the 18th century French courtiers putting on airs and stuffy walks in well heeled feet that was the precursor of ballet, to the Persian influence of the Mughal Court where the dynamic Kathak dance was born.

The three women who shared the stage have shaped the dance world and now use their art to redefine dance. For those who might have wondered how their dance forms could ever be related, it became clear in their strict classicism, rigorous technique and aesthetic language.

The program was followed by a patron dinner, where the conversations continued. Attendees included choreographer Shen Wei, dancer Rajika Puri, and American Dance Festival Founder (and 1960 curator of performing arts at Asia Society) Charles Reinhardt, capping off an evening in which the history of the Asia Society’s work in the world of dance was vividly on display.

Classical Connections takes a global perspective in comparing classical performance traditions, featuring three of the finest interpreters of these forms: Wendy Whelan, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet; Parul Shah, celebrated performer of India’skathak dance; and Qian Yi, Chinese kunqu opera star. Each of these dancers has dedicated their lives to the study and performance of their form, and now are pushing the boundaries to explore new territory inspired by tradition. How will the future of these classical connections be influenced by these new directions? The program will consist of short dance demonstrations and screenings of footage from Slow Dancing by photographer/videographer David Michaelek, followed by a panel discussion with these three extraordinary artists.

Parul Shah is an internationally acclaimed Kathak dancer and choreographer
Parul Shah is an internationally acclaimed Kathak dancer and choreographer

Parul Shah is an internationally acclaimed Kathak dancer and choreographer whose work is expanding the classical medium beyond cultural boundaries. With a dedication to excellence, Shah preserves the form’s aesthetic integrity while developing a unique and powerful vocabulary. Behind Shah’s work is decades of rigorous Kathak training under the world-renowned guru and choreographer, Padmashree Kumudini Lakhia. Ms. Lakhia’s pioneering work revitalized the form for 20th century audiences, and her training has produced forward-thinking Kathak artists with original voices. “Parul Shah …. brought the house down. Her sources are splendidly hybrid: contemporary dance, the Kathak technique of north India, the female temple-court artists of south India. ‘” – New York Times

Her work includes both traditional and contemporary solo and group choreography. Parul’s New York studio is home to both the parul shah dance company and her training facility. With an M.A. in dance education from Columbia University specializing in Indian classical movement, Parul has been teaching Kathak in the pure form for over 20 years. She has presented her solo and group works at major venues around the world, including City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C, Asia Society in New York, Jacobs Pillow in MA and at the Japan Forum Foundation in Japan. She has collaborated on numerous international projects and presented in Asia, Europe, and North America.

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