Interview with Maja Drobac: Dancing between East and West

by deborah on 09/16/2009

Dancer and choreographer Maja Drobac could be with certainty described as multi-talented artist… she expresses herself, parallel with dance, in the fields of photography and writing, too…

maja_drobac1.jpgPortrait of Maja Drobac by Srikanth Kolari (c)

She is a world traveller and culture explorer that really enjoys to dance between cultures…

Maja Drobac is a graduated dancer from Amsterdamse Hoogelschoole voor de Kunsten (Theaterschool in Amsterdam) since 2005. She did her stage for one year with Magpie Music and Dance company, an improvisation company based in Amsterdam. She has presented ‘Satu’ (a dance video) as her first independent project as part of Magpie Company.

maja_drobac2.jpgPortrait of Maja Drobac by Srikanth Kolari (c)

Performance ‘Squirrels on the loose’ with contemporary dancers Darija Dozdor and Ognjen Vucinic was her first independent project made for theatre stage. She is studying Bharatanatyam (Classical Indian Dance) since 2005. This summer Maja presented two dance pieces: Spirit (prone to change) with Studio for Contemporary Dance and solo work Vipassana.

I also had an opportunity to see her dancing Bharatanatyam… Hence, I find her artworkz, experiences and attitude to be very moving…

drobac_vipassana.jpgPhoto from Vipassana by Srikanth Kolari (c)

First you were trained in contemporary dance, and then in soft Chinese martial art Taiji Quan, afterwards you picked up Bharatanatyam dance, instead of Wu Dang martial art… obviously you’re dancing between two cultures…

MD: They say if nothing goes right, you have no other choice but to turn left. I believe some of us are just wired by the polarities of the differences. Which makes me not an exception.

I know that all styles interfere your imagination and creativity, but I’m curious… when you are choreographing do you make difference in a sense of, you know, doing a piece which is more based on Western or Eastern approach?

MD: If I am asked to do a pure form of contemporary dance for example, of course I will have my focus on western techniques… yet I don’t believe one can ever deny or escape his relieved experience. Even with conscious switch in mind and body, and focus on pure technique, there is always that something that makes us who we are, self special and unique… and if some people recognize it in me as pieces of West and East… than maybe that’s what it is. I never really thought of it, nor am I thinking about it when I am choreographing.

maja_drobac_bharatanatyam_1.jpg
Photo from Bharatanatyam recital by Srikanth Kolari (c)

Usually I have an idea, and different ways of expressing it are just different paths I have crossed or am crossing at the moment. I mean, we all are East and West, North and South… and all the connections in between. I don’t feel green bamboos are more East than Christmas tree, though one can recognise it like that. Or if I jump around like a kangaroo, that action will make me Southern and being all dressed in white will make me Northern. Still… there are certain forms of dance, and/or movement that are characteristic for certain parts of the world. But to be honest, unless I am specifically asked to make a difference, I myself don’t make a difference in the choreography… I only use the movement if it means something to me. Or if the body can express something meaningful by it.

drobac_vjeverice.jpgMaja Drobac in ‘Squirrels on the loose’, photo by: D. Gavran (c)

How would you describe your working processes when you are dancing as solo performer and when you do choreographies for other dancers?

MD: It is a totally different approach. There are different ways of choreographing, and I am not sure I am an expert in any. I just go with the flow, and where my personal drive takes me. Doing a solo is the hardest, yet easy to think the easiest task to accomplish. You can play with yourself, and there is nobody to control you or say they can’t do what you ask for.

At the same time, I find it very hard to observe myself. To choose what is better or more interesting to use as a movement. In this sense, I think my true heart will always be an improviser. I can feel myself in body only if I improvise. For the rest, if the material is set, then it is very much textual. I choreograph it in sentences. So that I can be sure I know what I am saying. I make very clear choices about where my dots, or comas, or exclamation marks are.

Working with other dancers, on the other hand, is like taking a trip to an unknown country. It is so much an observation directed method than just clear choreography. If there is a right click in between a dancer and me… then I just allow that dancer to do what ever he/she wants, and I just try to make photos of the moments I find most intriguing, and we put it together in a sentence. I find it very hard when I am asked to choreograph and transfer the material to the dancers. It’s just that my body is very different from other bodies and it is very hard to find two bodies with the same experience. It may work nicely in a very technically based company, but it would also require the choreographer to be trained in the same technique, or at least have the time to introduce dancers with his/her body quality.

drobac_vipassana_1.jpgPhoto from Vipassana by Srikanth Kolari (c)

Could you describe a little bit days you have spent in India while learning Bharatanatyam…

MD: The first time I came to India it was entering not just another continent and different culture, it was like a discovering a complete new universe. I lived in Gurukulam, at the top of the hill, where most of the time we didn’t even have the basic facilities like water or electricity… some times there was not even food enough.

At the same time, classes were very much intense and demanded abnormal discipline for someone who has never done Bharatanatyam in her life, and who all of a sudden had to dance shoulder to shoulder with dancers doing it all their lives. I had to wear only Indian clothes (saris or churidars), eat with my hands (rice three times a day), wash my saris hitting them on the stone at the back of our house and then just splashing them with little bit of water… We were not allowed to talk with boys alone, not allowed to leave the campus walls without special approval, our days were very determined by the schedule and the will of our gurus. Not to mention being locked on the first floor from 9pm till 4.30am.

maja_drobac_bharatanatyam_2.jpgPhoto from Bharatanatyam solo by Srikanth Kolari (c)

It is funny to notice, but nothing I experienced before in my life could help me go though this military training, except classical ballet. Movement was something that was so much part of their daily life, and so far away from anything I have ever experienced in my body, so after a while I started noticing some similarities with ballet. There is a clear structure, and if you don’t know your body well, you can get easily hurt or lost in your own movements.

Later I have joined a school in Bangalore, which was something totally different. My guru lives in the city and although Bharatanatyam is a very traditional and disciplined art, and you can see it in the class or on the stage, life in the city was much easier than on the hill. Though, life in the hill after a while became closer to my inner self from the life I led in the city. But living both was maybe the cocktail of who I am today.

Anyway… it was not easy the first time, there were times I was so ready to pack my bag and run back to Europe. It took me long to accept India.

maja_drobac_bharatanatyam_3.jpgPhoto from Bharatanatyam recital by Srikanth Kolari (c)

You needed about six months to accept this…

MD: Yeah, about six months. And it’s a solid piece of time. I started my studies with three more girls who came from abroad, out of which two were of Indian origin so very well accustomed to Indian culture. But nobody lasted longer than few months. After they left, I really had no other choice but to come closer to India and Indians. I couldn’t talk to anyone, share anything with anyone… nobody understood anything of what I was saying or what I was trying to express. It was in fact, the moment I have started to live India. When She (India) became my only true companion.

My ballet teacher who lives in India as well told me once that not everyone can survive India, since She is definitely finding the way how to confront you with the worse and the best in side of yourself on a daily base. After few years there I still haven’t stopped being smacked to my face from time to time with the new realizations of myself, and the world around me.

drobac_vipassana_2.jpgPhoto from Vipassana by Srikanth Kolari (c)

When did this happen… this complete cultural acceptance?

MD: I went to my friend’s house for a month. We had two weeks free from school, but I stayed one month. They just didn’t let me go back. Even when I think about it now, it still stays so clear in my thought. They didn’t speak English, but they were so engaged to teach me Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala. They spent weeks just talking to me, wanting to know more about my culture, at the same time making me feel part of their Malu culture.

I was very much interested about the plants they had in their garden, so my friend’s father presented me with the books on traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda and Swami Vivekananda’s books. Her mother helped me prepare different kind of herbal medicines for the members of the family; it was a life I never lived before. My day was involved about preparing tea or meals, or helping with the house work, or just being on my own on their roof and learning about Indian medicine, history and spiritualism. It was so simple that it occupied my whole being. They treated me as their own daughter, and I don’t think I have ever felt so much respect and love coming from so much simplicity.

Even on the train back to Gurukulam my role was so clear with my friend. I was an older sister returning to school, we were really there to take care of each other. It was the moment when it hit me; the phase of surveillance stopped and living begun.

kanda_1.jpgFrom performance ‘Kanda’  by Veena Basavarajaiah and Mirra
Photo by Maja Drobac (c)

The question of ‘normality’ (whatever it means) rises up…

MD: Yes, because of what actually means to be normal in one particular culture?! Something that is perfectly normal in Zagreb could be completely odd for instance in China. I think we have to tend the oddity because it enables us to be more adaptable to different cultures. So many people were asking me to explain them how I felt while I was in India, but each time I would write or speak to them, they would always finished the sentence with the words: “Ok, now tell us how you really feel.” I don’t think we are able to speak out the changes that are happening to us if we are still in the process of changing. If I was really and truly changed, I don’t think I would be the first one to notice.

This is how you got drowned into Bharatanatyam completely… not explaining but accepting…

MD: Even up to now, I was never explained anything about India. There is a beautiful Japanese saying my first Sansei used to tell me: “Everything I ever learned, I owe to my teacher who never explained me anything.” Indians live their art. It is so much part of their beings. It is of course departing from them as well, especially in the big cities like Bangalore, Bombay, unfortunately even Chennai, though Tamilians are still the most involved with their culture and they are trying to nourish it even today. Young people are trying to approach Western models of life, and there is simply no time anymore for all the rituals and dedication that were done even by their parents on the regular base.

My teacher was never explained why Lord Rama holds a bow in his left hand, and arrow in his right. And it can’t be the other way around. She has lived with the statues of Lord Rama all her life… ever since she knows about herself, she knows what Lord Rama is holding in his hands. As well, Bharatanatyam is danced on lyrics. There is a clear story behind which is sung by a singer.

maja_drobac_bharatanatyam_4.jpgPhoto from Bharatanatyam solo by Srikanth Kolari (c)

It became so clear to me that dance is the oldest art form existing. Older even from drawing and maybe even music. Though I believe movement and sound can’t be really separated one from another. People used to get in touch with divinity by moving their bodies. Getting into the trans.

After living in a country where first few months I could communicate only by moving my body, I became perceptive to movement and I threw away the dance. Natural constellations exist without us being aware of them. They are ready made choreographies improvised on spot. What we call today instant compositions, are nothing more but becoming aware of the space we are part of. Choreographies exist in space without us making them. But when we do catch them, and transfer them onto the stage… than we are talking about theatre, or art.

devadasis.jpgPhoto: Jogulabhavi Satyava Temple by Maja Drobac (c)

Beside heavy work, what would you highlight in your experience with Indian tradition in the context of dance?

MD: I had a privilege to visit quarters indented only for females in Indian tradition. Nobody else is allowed to enter. This is something I will always keep and bear with me. When I’m wearing Sari I’m wearing something that is deeply related to my experiences in India. Something that is part of me now.

kanda.jpgFrom performance ‘Kanda’  by Veena Basavarajaiah and Mirra
Photo by Maja Drobac (c)

You have spent a month in the jungle in Ands, how did that experience change the way you perceive things?

MD: I didn’t care about anything but elemental things like keeping the fire up, finding food for today, washing the pots and so. Most of my time was spent while sitting on the ground, underneath the tree, looking at the performance by facing the nature. There is no similar way of seeing things, no similar way of sitting or moving, even if you are picking the same spot over and over again, because every time something else will happen. Heraclites wrote: “You can’t enter the same river twice”. It is rather fascinating when you realise that is so true.

escalator_clause_1.jpgFrom ‘Escalator Clause’ choreographed by Veena Basavarajaiah
Photo by Maja Drobac (c)

You are very talented for photography and writing, do you plan to work more in these directions?

MD: I wouldn’t say I am talented in any form, I just love what I do, and I do what I want. It happens very often that I get overstuffed with certain things if I do only them. I need space, and freedom to explore and change, and be different, and just look at life from different corners. So when I get tired of listening to myself, I start writing so I can read myself. If I dance too much I really need to have a break and grab a camera and go somewhere and just freeze the movements that I find moving so fast when I move against it.

It might sound very hippy saying my directions are orientated by the wind… but that is honestly how I feel.

escalator_clause_2.jpgFrom ‘Escalator Clause’ choreographed by Veena Basavarajaiah
Photo by Maja Drobac (c)

As a world traveler give us some advices and several tips for trips, for instance in India or South America jungles…

MD: Consult with someone more experienced than me before you go.

Thanks a lot, Maja!

p.s. Srikanth Kolari often travels with Maja… an amazing photographer who is a part of  Asian Motion, Cambodia’s first photography agency… don’t miss this link… amazing photos…

Dancer and choreographer Maja Drobac could be with certainty described as multi talented artist… she expresses herself, parallel with dance, in the fields of photography and writing…

Maja is a world traveller and culture explorer that really enjoys to dance between cultures…

Maja Drobac is a graduated dancer from Amsterdamse Hoogelschoole voor de Kunsten (Theaterschool in Amsterdam) since 2005.She has danced a year with Magpie Music and Dance Company, an improvisation company based in Amsterdam. She has presented ‘Satu’ (a dance video) as her first independent project as part of Magpie Company.

Performance ‘Squirrels on the loose’ with contemporary dancers Darija Dozdor and Ognjen Vucinic was her first independent project made for theatre stage. She studied two years Bharatanatyam (Classical Indian Dance)in India. This summer Maja presented two dance pieces: Spirit (prone to change) with Studio for Contemporary Dance and solo work Vipassana.

I also had an opportunity to see her dancing Bharatanatyam… Hence, I find her artworkz, experiences and attitude to be very moving…