Shree was the winner of this year’s South Asian Dance category, on the BBC’s popular talent show: BBC Young Dancer (2019). Performing the Indian Classical style of Bharatanatyam to a national audience, her spunky energy carried her through to the grand final, while also bringing a signature modern twist. “I went from performing with a small dance group to the big stage alone – it was incredible!”
Although the conceptual stories relayed in her routines were told through the traditional construction of Bharatanatyam dance movement, “the narratives themselves were made especially relatable to young women, who might not necessarily recognise the ancient Indian mythology behind customary dances – for example, a particular hand movement won’t translate to dancers of today in an older fictional context.”
Shree continued: “I was delighted to represent a beautiful Indian art form alongside the usual western dances on mainstream TV. It was even more wonderful to have stayed true to myself while doing it.” Adorning an outfit of rainbow colours on black, Shree’s own choreography formed part of a duet, which told the story of mother and daughter. This traced the steps of their intimate relationship through the poetic cycle of life. “The dance showed the knowledge and nurture passed on to the daughter, the bittersweet time of departing home, and finally the pain, and even guilt, of losing that maternal figure, who will inevitably become frail.”
From expressively portraying nascent crawling as a baby to cradling the fictive mother when she later becomes sick, Shree’s routine certainly preserved the narrative power of the Bharatanatyam dance at the same time as retaining her identity as a “contemporary British Asian”. This was also clear during another prestigious performance, this time at the Birmingham Hippodrome, where Shree’s fierce femininity shone through. It is even visible in the still frames of the dance. The artist braces her arms powerfully in front of her face as she wears a shiny maroon slip. “You convey so much through the technical aspect of the dance: the physicality, the precision and subtle eye movements. They naturally allow you to channel yourself.”
Shree continued: “I think the judges picked up on that passion at the BBC. They noted the competent methodology and my effective characterisation as well as the poetry. I was described as ‘ethereal.’ I remember being so at one with the dance that I almost forgot it was a competition!”
A defiant, celebratory theme was upheld in the piece performed for the show’s grand finale. Working with the BBC’s assigned choreographer, Shree stated that this was when she felt she most “pushed the boundaries of traditional dance, and tried to bridge the gap between modern and older storytelling, appealing to a Western audience too.” The cultural fusion dance was dubbed ‘Eve Rising’. “Obviously, this was inspired by Eve in Biblical terms, but we wanted the dance to represent any woman faced with oppression, in any place in the world. We were thinking particularly of the Sudanese women. We wanted to highlight that women are being hit down emotionally, physically and sexually, but that this won’t stop them fighting.”
Shree also sensitively delved into the taboo subject of death during her winning duet for the South Asian Dance category. “It’s unusual to see in Indian Classical dance, but because there was such great emotion, the whole narrative was met with such warmth. People were moved.” Indeed, the young mover went on to stress the importance of being in tune with feelings, not just on stage, but throughout the dance industry. “As an aspiring young person, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to meet more experienced, passionate dancers in the business. I think we need to do more to encourage dialogues about the reality of a chosen profession, and the conversations between the older and younger age groups that help this.” Shree asserted that the reassurance this gives is vital for mental health: an issue which adversely affects a lot of young people. “The experience at the BBC was so positive because they did provide the dancers a caring, communicative culture. I had support through the challenge of suddenly finding myself in the limelight – incredible though it was. There were lows from the pressure, and intense highs after performing.”
Shree is currently studying for a degree in physiotherapy from the University of Birmingham so she had been aware of the interconnecting nature of the body and the mind. “Studying the movement of bodies in my formal education is, of course, related to the passion of dance. I particularly enjoy the musculoskeletal aspects of physio, which allow you to know the anatomy of the body in depth: different actions affect the different muscles.” Since a massive part of dance is physical, this area is just as important in the longevity of the career as the ability to master the flourishes and aesthetic vision: “corporal knowledge boosts the system even when doing basic exercises during warm ups and cooling down.”
Ultimately then, more than her effortless grasp of dance, Shree’s particular journey shows the important truth of an increasing social fluidity among a new generation of British Asians. Today, a strong sense of selfhood and the confidence which flows from it, are not just the product of integrated culture, but more generally, the nurturing of a multifaceted lifestyle. Shree aptly concluded by emphasising the importance of preserving Indian Classical dance through adapting the teaching to the time. “Unfortunately, there are still elements of backward attitudes in the traditional dance industry. For example, the commitment to craft is measured solely through the number of hours one dedicates to it, and rote learning old dances. Truthfully, I didn’t think I would make it onto BBC Young Dancers when I applied: I'd been told the only way forward was by centering my life around classical dance. Since I’d chosen another degree to pursue alongside my dancing passion, I’d then been made to feel I couldn't do it. In fact, being different and expanding my interest is what defined my success: it's why I was able to engage so uniquely with the dance.” And so, through her intense, animated art, Shree comes to highlight a truly timeless virtue: the fundamental cultivation of a strong inner self.
You’ve also done western dance earlier in life: e.g. tap, modern and ballet. Have these moves stayed with you?
Maybe not the moves, but definitely the discipline of dance such as ballet. It’s the same tight focus for both traditional western and South Asian dance forms. You do recruit the same muscle groups. Starting early, definitely laid the foundations for my artistic ability today. My mum also took me to ballet classes very early on so the world of dance opened up to me though those dances. That interest and professionalism has stayed with me.
Was there a specific part of the Young Dancers competition that you enjoyed?
In terms of traditional dance, my first solo in the category final was great because it was Bharatanatyam in the purest sense. The focus was very much on footwork which is the foundation of Classical Indian dance. I was acting out a conversation between dancer and singer and performing simple to the beat of the mridangam, stripping the dance of any fanciful movement. I felt as if a senior dancer – very accomplished.
You convey so much through the technical aspect of the dance: the physicality, the precision and subtle eye movements.