How odissi's beauty and spirituality continue to inspire dancer January Low


'A listening body', January Low’s new solo production, will be staged at DPAC in Petaling Jaya from July 20-22. The dancer, who has over 30 years of experience in Indian classical dance, aims to share her own personal, vulnerable and respectful interpretation of the odissi dance form. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

Why do we need to dance?

This was the thought that echoed in January Low’s mind throughout the pandemic lockdown.

It was a difficult question to wrestle with, as Low has been a dancer almost all her life, specialising in the Indian classical dances bharatanatyam and odissi.

“During lockdown, we were all stuck indoors and I kept wondering why is dance important when we need to feed ourselves, to look after our health and our children. I was questioning what was essential,” says Low, 38, during a recent interview at her home in Ampang, Selangor.

“How come I’ve spent all my life dancing, yet at that moment in time, it didn’t feel important? I felt hopeless and disheartened,” she adds.

But it was that line of questioning that led her to think about what has changed since the pandemic, and how her relationship with dance has evolved.

In January this year, Low joined a two-week intensive programme with fellow odissi dancers from around the world in the outskirts of Bangalore, India. From 10am to 5pm they danced, seven hours every day.

“For me, it was one of the most physically demanding things I’ve ever done. But I came back so inspired.”

That was how the idea for Low’s upcoming solo production a listening body came to fruition. This third solo show - a dance-theatre - will be playing at the Black Box, Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) in Petaling Jaya from July 20-22.

'I didn’t feel internally charged by ballet,' says Low, recalling that what drew her to odissi was the music and the fluidity of its movements. 'Nothing moves me like odissi.' Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon 'I didn’t feel internally charged by ballet,' says Low, recalling that what drew her to odissi was the music and the fluidity of its movements. 'Nothing moves me like odissi.' Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

“During that trip, I suddenly found the answers I had been searching for. When I returned home, I decided that I needed to share what I felt inside it was hope and the importance of dance and art and artists,” she says.

Indian classical dance, for the uninitiated, can often appear to be an intimidating art form.

“When you talk about Indian classical dance, people will say that they don’t understand it. It’s hard to understand if you don’t know the mythology and lore behind the dances. Many don’t even know that there are nine Indian classical dances,” says Low, who last danced in Kuala Lumpur in late 2019 (the reclaim dance and mixed media show at the old Five Arts Centre venue).

Her aim with the upcoming a listening body is to help audiences unfamiliar with the dance to recognise odissi – its structure, posture and steps.

"This work peels away the commodified and exoticised layers of odissi to reveal a relationship that is personal, vulnerable and respectful, enabling agency for both audience and performer to be equal partners in the experience," reads show's notes.

The dancer, who captured the hearts as a teenage sensation in the 1990s, is hoping to attract a new generation of dance fans with this new show at DPAC.

“If you don’t know how to watch a dance, you won’t know how to appreciate it. After watching the show, I hope that the audience will be able to know that it is odissi, should they come across it somewhere,” says Low, who has nearly 30 years Indian classical dance experience.

Enchanted by Indian dance

Low began Indian classical dance at the tender age of eight, having previously taken up ballet.

“I didn’t feel internally charged by ballet,” she says, adding that what drew her to odissi was the music and the fluidity of its movements. “Nothing moves me like odissi.”

Being of Chinese-Indian descent, Low had been exposed to the dance from a young age.

The friendly host Low seen at her studio space in her home in Ampang, Selangor. Photo: The Star/Low Lay PhonThe friendly host Low seen at her studio space in her home in Ampang, Selangor. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

“I don’t remember the exact show that I saw, but I remember how it made me feel. There’s often this point in our childhood when we see something and think, ‘This is it, this is what I want to do.’ Odissi was that for me, and to this day, it still is.”

The first half of her career was spent under the tutelage of Datuk Ramli Ibrahim and the Sutra Dance Company, starting in 1993. She made her solo debut on stage under the Alarippu To Moksha series in KL in 1998.

Since leaving Sutra Dance Company in 2009, Low has maintained a career as a dancer, lived in Jakarta for two years and concentrated on family life.

Despite almost a lifetime of dancing, Low admits that she has suffered from bouts of impostor syndrome.

“I’m only now confident in saying that I’m a dancer. When I left Sutra, I was still very young and I wasn’t sure whether I had what it took to continue dancing,” she says.

Being alone in her practice, Low says that it takes a lot of conviction to keep motivated.

“Your self-confidence can be so fragile. It just takes one person to say, ‘Oh, she’s just a bored housewife.’”

While it can get lonely, Low says that she has also learned the beauty in self-agency.

“Being responsible and showing up for myself, for my own practice, has been such an important lesson. It’s taught me to hold my own ideas and to trust in myself.”

“Now I can say I’m in a good, comfortable space where I’m very sure of who I am and why I want to do this.”

Art as ‘a safe space’

At its best, art can be a very fertile space.

“It needs to be a safe space, a creative space. There shouldn’t be any fear,” says Low.

Low's aim with the upcoming 'a listening body' is to help audiences unfamiliar with the dance to recognise odissi – its structure, posture and steps. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon Low's aim with the upcoming 'a listening body' is to help audiences unfamiliar with the dance to recognise odissi – its structure, posture and steps. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

Sadly, according to Low, the way that dance is taught at the moment does not create that condusive environment.

“When I was learning dance before, I was filled with so much fear, even though it was something that I loved to do. My love for the dance outweighed the fear, but as I grew older, it became harder to come to terms with these things,” says Low, explaining why she went solo at the age of 24.

“I needed to find out for myself how I could create a practice that is sustainable and doesn’t burn me out, that can give me more positive feelings and outcomes as opposed to the other end of the spectrum, because art can also be very self-destructive.”

After years of practising on her own, Low got the opportunity to be mentored by renowned odissi exponent, Bijayini Satpathy.

“She is the best in the world, hands down,” says Low.

“I first saw her perform in India when I was a child. The moment I saw her dance, I was transfixed. I wondered if I would ever get the chance to learn from her. It would be like learning ballet from Mikhail Baryshnikov.”

That chance came in 2020, during lockdown.

The mentorship mainly took place online through videos and email.

“She records herself dancing and sends it to me, then I record myself doing the routine and she will email me corrections. It’s not easy, as you need a lot of self-awareness, but it forces me to have agency over my own practice,” says Low.

Throughout her years practising dance, Low says she had been on a search to deepen her relationship with odissi and thought she had already learned all there was to it.

“But when I started this mentorship, it was like learning my ABCs again.”

Low says that finding a mentor in Bijayini was “like finding an oasis in a desert.”

“She is very generous and respects people’s relationship with their dance. It’s not as simple as pointing out what you’re doing wrong, but more of teaching you to be more aware of how you are feeling and sensing internally,” says Low.

Come as you are

Following the intensive programme, Low came back reinvigorated and ready to create.

Slowly, she collected ideas and concepts for her next show.

A file image of Low performing on stage during a Sutra Dance Company showcase in Kuala Lumpur in 2003. Photo: Filepic A file image of Low performing on stage during a Sutra Dance Company showcase in Kuala Lumpur in 2003. Photo: Filepic

“Then one day, I was driving back after dropping my kids off at school and suddenly all the pieces came together. From start to finish, I knew what the structure of the show would be, so I went home, took out my laptop and wrote everything down.”

According to Low, everything came together in a matter of months.

A listening body, Low’s third solo production, shares her dance practice in three parts.

“I’m showing the audience what I do every day, because for me, it’s important for people to see what’s behind the art,” says Low.

“I find it interesting to learn about artists and to listen to their ideas and what inspires them. It helps you understand their art better,” she adds.

The production will be an exploration of how odissi lives inside her body – as a Malaysian, a woman and a mother.

The scenography for A listening body will be designed by Bryan Chang, a graphic designer and media artist, while Armanzaki Amirolzakri, a theatre designer, is the stage manager. In December 2017, Low embarked on her first solo independent odissi performance titled dedicated at DPAC, which combined elements of dance and theatre.

With rehearsals and production meetings, how has Low adapted to the preparations of performing live again?

As a mother of three – her eldest son and daughter are twins, 10, while her youngest daughter is six – she says that it’s easy to let the hectic day-to-day take over her life.

But Low's dance practice allows her a space of her own, outside her identity as a mother.

In October 2016, she even performed a duet show (titled bloom) with fellow Indian classical dancer Rathimalar Govindarajoo at a club venue in Kuala Lumpur. She was then pregnant with her youngest child.

“Dance is mine. The time I spend teaching or in the studio, it’s my time.”

As a dance teacher, Low loves teaching people who think they cannot dance.

“I’ve always enjoyed teaching adults because I’ve noticed that children don’t want to be in dance class – it’s always the parents who make them go. But the adults want to be there. They choose to spend their Tuesday evenings in class with me when they could be anywhere else.”

Most of Low’s students are older women, and she says it’s empowering to see them learn to feel at home in their body and to trust it.

“For anyone who thinks they are too old, or don’t have the coordination, I tell them to just come and experience for themselves.”

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