I remember first meeting Sheetal Gandhi in 2006. "My name is Sheetal," she said, projecting her voice smoothly and melodically from her petite frame. "Sheetal...As in, Lethal Sheetal" she added, and those of us around her smiled immediately. Her performances are just like this-graceful, honest and colorful, with a mischievous penchant for playful contradiction. I sat down five years later to talk to her about performance, inspirations, and arriving at her latest project, "Human Nature."
Gandhi is a multi-style dancer, multi-disciplinary choreographer, theatrical character-shifter and rhythmic vocalist. On stage these hyphenated phrases disappear and she becomes much more simply a Storyteller. At her performances, I often find myself fighting the urge to fold my legs in my seat like I did when I was a child-cross-legged and eagerly gazing up towards the book that my teacher was reading aloud. This magical excitement is what Gandhi loves to capture and share with her audience. Through virtuosic movement isolations, charging rhythms, effervescent texts, and richly vocalized melodies, her tales tug at the heartstrings, tickle the funny bone and evoke a sense of the terrifyingly familiar. In the end --and you may hope that it does not arrive -- you will have followed her narrative through many of your senses.
Gandhi's artistic story is one that weaves together variation, just like her characters on stage. From a young age Gandhi was immersed in classical music and theater but found that the dancing body could encompass many kinds of communicative power, leading her to study choreography at UC Irvine and UCLA. Along the way, she has danced across cultural borders, incorporating the rhythms she has learned from studying abroad in Ghana, training in Kathak (a classical dance from Northern India) and from frequent visits to the hometowns of her parents in Mumbai and Gujarat. As Gandhi listed some of her choreographic accomplishments, she paused when remembering her time with Cirque du Soleil. "Cirque taught me that performance could be transformative, and I never forgot that sense of magic that it could bring to an audience." And transforming is exactly what she mastered in her most recent work entitled, "Bahu-Beti-Biwi" ("Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife,") a one-woman show that she has been touring since its acclaimed debut in 2008. Although solo work is a relatively new trademark for Gandhi, the result of a "risky self-challenge" in graduate school, it has enabled her to sew many of her performance skills together in ways that were only possible alone. "Lethal Sheetal" is not afraid of risk-taking.
When I asked Gandhi about her upcoming project, "Human Nature," she pointed to a kelly-green book that was framed in her living room. I gasped! It was "The Giving Tree" by renowned whimsical storyteller Shel Silverstein-the story about a boy, a tree, and the limits of love and sacrifice. "That has been my favorite book for some time!" I said. Gandhi smiled, explaining that reactions just like mine-inscribed with childhood nostalgia and deep emotional impact-were what interested her. Along with celebrating the book's timeless relevance, Gandhi posed some questions at the heart of her project. Why do people give? What do we expect in return? Are women more prone to self-sacrifice than men? What will happen when we live in a world where nature cannot give selflessly anymore? The inner child, woman and human in me simultaneously had her attention as she exposed some of her own vulnerable observations about sacrifice, family and American entitlement.
Gandhi struggled to begin a new project after the success of "Bahu-Beti-Biwi," but found new motivation by challenging herself with a completely new choreographic process. She will integrate multimedia and video installation within her recreation of Silverstein's story. "I've always been critical about incorporating technology for the sake of technology" she admits. "So I'm taking a big risk by trying to surpass what I myself critique, and by testing the limits of my imagination" and she continued to explain that she is fascinated by the unique ways in which technology can help tell a story. "Human Nature," will therefore culminate in many layers of give-and-take, including her performance between body and technology.
Sheetal Gandhi is a stunning performer with a colorful physical, visual, linguistic, humanistic and musical palate. As her story unfolds, be warned: you may want to sit cross-legged like you did as a child as the magic unfolds. Not to worry, you will not be the only one.