Natya Dance Theatre, under the artistic leadership of Hema Rajagopalan, is among the most critically acclaimed and culturally treasured dance companies in the United States. Founded in 1974 and based in Chicago, the highly innovative work of Natya offers profound and subtle expressions of humanity’s deepest questions and values in the context of our present-day lives. Rooted in Bharata Natyam, one of the great classical dance theater forms of India, Natya preserves and perpetuates Bharata Natyam in all its classical rigor, and moves the art form in innovative directions. Natya’s contemporary interpretations incorporate dynamic body movement, rhythmic footwork, hand gestures and facial expressions to convey meaning and emotion that create rasa, the aesthetic experience that transforms the audience. Natya believes that dance is a powerful means of cultural exchange. This is accomplished by multi-faceted programming, including a professional touring company that performs throughout the country and internationally, a 39-year-old dance school, an outreach program, and a series of presentations featuring the finest Indian performing artists of various genres.
Using both narrative and abstract elements, Bharata Natyam expresses the innermost emotions of the dancer, uplifts the audience and consistently relates to contemporary sensibilities. From the performer it demands rigorous attention to technique and wide knowledge of related art forms, especially music. A living and breathing dance theater tradition, Bharata Natyam explores both timeless human concerns and timely complexities of life. The dancer communicates through movements of the limbs, a language of gestures, rhythms executed by footwork, and abhinaya, which is the art of expressing emotions through facial and body language. Hands open out and become a flower, birds fly from the dancer’s hand gestures. Each muscle of the dancer’s face transforms into an expressive instrument. As the dancer expresses complex moods and emotions, she or he aspires to create a spiritual message.
Originating in southern India, Bharata Natyam is one of the most graceful, subtle and sophisticated styles of dance art. It is rooted in The Natyashastra, a treatise on dance, music and drama written by sage Bharata about 3,000 years ago. It is said that the Hindu scriptures or Vedas, because they were voluminous, were not being read by the common people. So the gods requested that Bharata create a way to communicate profound knowledge. This was the origin of The Natyashastra, which suggests the use of dance and drama to communicate and create rasa, an aesthetic experience that transforms the audience.
Hailed by The New York Times as, “Admirably precise… animated… sensual… exceptional… triumphant… daring,” audiences and critics worldwide have recognized the artistic excellence of the Natya Company. Recent performance highlights include: in 2011, the Natya Company premiered The Flowering Tree at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance – acclaimed by Sid Smith of SeeChicagoDance, the production came close to selling out the 1,500-seat house; in 2008, the Company performed with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble before an audience of 13,000 in Chicago’s Millennium Park; in 2005, Natya was the first US company ever to appear at the prestigious World Music Institute in New York City; and In 2002, Natya was the only dance company selected to create an original work for performance at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. In 2003, Natya was the first Indian dance company to receive the prestigious Chicago Dance Award, and is a 2004 recipient of the Paul Berger Arts Entrepreneurship Award from Columbia College Chicago. Natya was featured in 2005 in The Chicago Dance Project, a 13-part series produced by PBS, and in 2006 in Arts Across Illinois CenterStage on WTTW Channel 11. The Natya Company has twice been given its own billing at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Natya has been presented at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage and nationally and internationally at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Ravinia Festival, the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the Avignon Festival in France, and the Music and Dance Festival in Madras, India, among other major venues. Collaborations have included works with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lookingglass Theater Company, and the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Nationally, Natya has appeared at The Ailey Citigroup Theater in New York City.