The Kalaakriti series aims to highlight the stories of different artists with South Asian backgrounds. In today’s installation, check out Ishita Mili’s story about her dance company, IMGE!
Ishita is a Bengali American choreographer based in New Jersey. She founded IMGE Dance in 2017 as a way to use global storytelling through movement to explore the world with dancers of diverse backgrounds. Her movement is primarily inspired by bharatanatyam, hip hop, Mayurbhanj chhau, and contemporary. Since its inception, IMGE has been able to reach people all over the world, most recently at New Victory Theater, Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, and Lincoln Center Out of Doors.
How were you introduced to your work?
I am very fortunate that my kaku, Sukalyan Bhattacharya, is a renowned choreographer in his own style of Indian contemporary fusion. I was earliest filmed copying his dances in my living room at the age of two. I was choreographing my own routines by four. My mom soon enrolled me in Bharatanatyam under my guru, Smt. Sudha Devulapalli. Against my guru’s wishes, I auditioned for a hip hop company later on. It has been a push and pull of my elders putting me in one direction, and me pivoting into another. But these combined moments led to the discovery of my work now.
At what point in your life did you feel that following this passion is what you wanted to do?
Life has given me many reasons not to dance, but against the odds I’ve always found my way back. After I tore my ACL, I didn’t know if I was going to dance again. I decided if I was going to come back, I had to focus on creating my own voice in dance. After getting accepted into medical school, I realized that I would never be able to pursue dance in the level I was capable of, all for a career I wasn’t passionate about. So I quit and dedicated myself to finding a balance of being able to support myself and finding my artistic voice.
In the South Asian community, there’s quite a stigma against people choosing careers that are “non-traditional.” When choosing to follow your passion here, what are or were some challenges you’ve had to face? How did you get through them and what helped you through the process? If you’re still going through it, what has been helping you so far?
My parents and elders have given me quite a bit of grief over the years for my career choices. I realized that they ~only~ want me to be self-sufficient and stable with the stats to prove it. Those stats are hard provide off the bat as a performing artist. It often felt like all of my well-wishers expected a certain outcome from me, and that I owed it to them. Only when I was able let go of those expectations, was I able to find freedom in my choices. After all that grief, now I can handle any stressful situation and take harsh criticism - pretty useful things in the professional dance world so it turns out.
What would you like the world to know about your work and the realm that you're working in?
At the present moment, the pandemic has destroyed the performing arts sector. But art’s ability to evoke emotion has and always been the key to inciting change. This is more relevant today than ever. So now is also an exciting time where the long standing institutions and practices of the Western performing arts are beginning to change, and someone like me can fight better to have my voice heard.
What are some stereotypes that you have experienced about your art form or about someone from your gender/social standing/religion/cultural background etc., choosing to pursue work in this field? How did you handle these critiques/comments?
Dance is at the bottom of the bucket for economic profit. Dancers are overwhelmingly female, but all the successful choreographers tend to be men. Hip hop and street styles are not as respected as dance forms as classical dance. Indian dance is only seen as Bollywood to global media. There are extremely few South Asian dancers working in the Western industry. These are facts that all work against me. The stereotypes lie in the assumption that these issues can’t be overcome. But a lot of these issues are linked to fundamental problems in society. I think dance can be an effective way to confront these problems if used as a cultural bridge that can reach anyone no matter gender, race, class, or background. So critiques/comments don’t affect me anymore now that I am focused on the bigger picture.
How is your identity affected by the work you do in this field?
Creating art has helped me make sense of identity. Living life helps me create meaningful art. It is symbiotic. Identity is an extremely complicated and changing thing. My understanding of identity will continue to change as I grow, as will my art.
What changes would you like to see when it comes to how your art form/work is perceived in the mainstream media? What would you like to see representation-wise?
Diversity in media is tokenized, instead of being a baseline normal. Mainstream media also largely views South Asian dance as just Bollywood, which I think is the fault of both South Asians and the media.I would like to see my art not boxed into other people’s needs and expectations, but valued as high as ballet or commercial dance. Mainstream media does not know what to do with someone like me yet.
What are some misconceptions about the type of work that you do that you feel the world should know about?
Choreography is bigger than just dance. It is the direction of movement. There is movement all around us, movement is essential to life. The potential of choreography goes beyond making a cool dance for your cousin’s wedding or Tik Tok.