There is a word tattooed on classical Indian dancer January Low. It sits on her left forearm, the part of her body she reserves for herself.
“I’m split between five people – my husband, my three children and myself. So I have to divide myself into five, to make sure everyone gets equal attention. My left arm is the one part of my body that is my own. I can do anything I want with it!” says Low, 32, with a laugh, during an interview at arts space DPac in Petaling Jaya.
That word on her arm is “dedicated”. For Low, it has many meanings, mainly in the context of being devoted to another person, or a cause. It is also the title of Low’s latest show, her very first independent solo odissi dance performance.
Jakarta-based Low’s dedicated was conceptualised three year ago in KL, before she relocated to Indonesia with her family in 2016.
“The show dedicated is a huge way of proving to myself that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. It’s the first production that I can put all of me in it. And I can cleanse myself for future productions, and move on,” she elaborates.
The odissi performance dedicated plays at DPac, starting Dec 22.
The KL-born Low, who is trained in classical ballet, has always been passionate about odissi, an Indian classical dance that originated in Odisha on the Eastern coast of India. She trained in both bharatanatyam and odissi dances under legendary local dance master Datuk Ramli Ibrahim and started out at his Sutra Dance Theatre in 1993 before leaving to seek her own career path in 2009.
Low, as a protege of Ramli, made her solo debut on stage under the Alarippu To Moksha series in KL in 1998.
In plainspeak, she tries to break down the classical Indian dances close to her heart.
“Odissi may look easier than the bharatanatyam, but I think it is one of the most difficult dance forms. The dance form is asymmetrical, so the body has to be in three bends. So it’s like your head has to be on one side, your rib cage on another, and your feet are bent a different way,” explains Low.
“The way I look at it, it’s almost like tai chi. You can’t see a movement end, everything must flow into the next one. You need to actively anticipate what’s coming next. Odissi can only be danced well if it’s in your bloodstream.”
Her last odissi performance was last year’s bloom show in KL, which saw her perform a duet with Rathimalar Govindarajoo. Low was seven months pregnant when she took on the bloom show, the first independent collaboration between both dancers.
“In an Asian society, there are so many taboos and restrictions surrounding pregnancy. I have been dancing for close to 20 years though, and I know my body. I know how much I can do,” Low told Star2 in an interview last year.
She has a pair of twins – a boy and girl, aged 4, and a daughter, who is one.
Low says that motherhood has made her more disciplined when it came to dance and training.
“It (motherhood) has forced me to dance a lot more. I am so short on time, especially ‘time alone’. Every time I put my baby down for a nap, I only have an hour and a half window to dance,” she reveals.
“Which is good. It’s very easy to be lazy. I think I became more responsible after I became a mother. You don’t do things just because you feel like it. All my decisions have to be a lesson to my children, so they learn by example.”
All said, Low is looking forward to performing on stage once again. The show dedicated sees Low premiering works from Indian odissi star Shrimati Sonali Mohapatra, set to music composed by renowned Indian flute player Shri Abhiram Nanda. The show is also a collaboration with KL-based actor/director Ghafir Akbar, who will be narrating the performance.
“The narration doesn’t in any way tell the story of the dance. It’s about Jan’s personal journey, as a dancer, as a mother, as a wife, as a woman and a Malaysian,” says Ghafir, 35.
Ghafir and Low explained that dedicated is a way of changing the way odissi dance is presented, with the aim of making it accessible. In creating dedicated’s narrative, the pair went through many of Low’s writings, some reaching back to her childhood days. Nevertheless, most of dedicated’s storyline focuses on her blog entries, emails, interviews and more.
“We sifted through them and found some recurring themes. And then we went from Jan’s own texts to what other people had written about her. And we kind of put them all into a big pot and mixed them all together. We tried to see how to apportion out these texts in an understandable way,” says Ghafir.
For Low, the process of getting dedicated to the stage has been a challenging one.
“Ï had a good balance of ephiphanies and panic attacks! But I believe that there’s always a time and place for everything, and everything always goes into a circle. And the process of developing this has healed a lot of old wounds, brought a lot of resolution, and made new levels of friendship. It forced me to really analyse myself as a person, decide what my voice was going to be,” says Low.
One highlight of the show, she mentions, is the performance of a 15-minute long pallavi dance, which Low could never complete before this.
“When I started rehearsing for this show, I told myself, I need to complete this! That was the impetus for this show! It’s the hardest dance Ive ever learnt in my life. It’s very complicated, the footwork is intricate, and it’s very quick. Your feet are like on a hot frying pan, always moving to catch the beat!’ For those watching dedicated, Low hopes the show will inspire them to achieve their goals.
“Without being gender specific, I hope that women will leave the theatre feeling they can do whatever they want to do. People have lots of ideas every day. And I think that if everyone puts their heart and soul into something, and have it come to fruition, it would be very satisfying,” concludes Low.