“When you’re younger, you hesitate,” says bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer Hema Rajagopalan. “But when you’re older, you’re ready to say to narrow-minded “connoisseurs’: Hey listen, listen to me. I am challenging you. Tell me what is wrong with it.”

Rajagopalan has been experimenting with classical Indian dance for 20 years, taking the results of her experience with Western dance back to India–and getting good reviews. Now she’s gone further, collaborating on a duet with Jan Bartoszek, a modern choreographer and the artistic director of Hedwig Dances Performance Company. Conversation emerged from their ongoing study of each other’s work–and specifically from a “conversation” they had one day in the studio when they stood in opposite corners and played a game of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” Modern dancer Julie Hopkins and bharatanatyam dancer Sonia Gurwara will perform the results at Hedwig’s tenth-anniversary concerts, this weekend and next.

The two vocabularies may seem incompatible, but Rajagopalan reminds me that modern dance developed from East Indian dance–or at least the debased form of it modern-dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis picked up on Coney Island, where she saw nautch girls at a simulated Indian court. But if the form was not always authentic, the earliest modern dancers and even turn-of-the-century ballet choreographers were deeply influenced by the spirituality of Eastern dance.

At first glance bharatanatyam doesn’t look ripe for experimentation, either. Like all forms of classical Indian dance, it’s governed down to the smallest details by a treatise written in the second century BC by the sage Bharata; condensing the four scriptures called Vedas, the Natya-sastra prescribed not only the parameters of dance movement but every aspect of theatrical work, including how to build the theater. Classical dance was a medium for interpreting mythology: one form of bharatanatyam tells scriptural stories using an elaborate code of facial expressions and hand gestures.

But even “pure dance” (the form used in Conversation) is codified, and in that sense much like ballet: the positions of the feet are regulated, as are other shapes, and the movement is conceived in geometric terms, as parallel lines, perpendicular lines, arcs, circles, and so on. Meanwhile, in motions very different from ballet, the feet (often belled at the ankles) beat out complicated rhythmic patterns from a position low to the ground. Rajagopalan calls it “an extremely complex art form,” in which every part of the body–even the eyes–moves, and often in isolation from the others. If you can’t rub your stomach and pat your head, you can’t do this kind of dance. But she adds that the many rules can be liberating, creating shifting patterns that give a kaleidoscopic effect.

When asked if outside influences might threaten this centuries-old form, Rajagopalan says emphatically, “Not at all.” Classical Indian dance has a long history of innovation, she explains; for example, there are seven or eight different styles that developed in several different regions of India, all derived from the Natya-sastra. Classical dance and music alike are meant to be improvised, at least at times. Conversation is set to classical south Indian music and includes chanted syllables from the song lyrics reminiscent of a jazz singer’s scatting.

The main departure for her in this work, Rajagopalan says, is in the theme: Conversation does not interpret scripture. But it does interpret the lyrics, and in that sense incorporates what she calls the “expressional” side of Indian dance: “Flowers are the same, the stars in the sky are the same for Jan and me. So we express our emotions in our own styles, our own ways. But the results are remarkably similar.”

Hedwig will perform Conversation as well as new works by Bartoszek and Sheldon B. Smith at 8 PM this Friday and Saturday and next Thursday through Saturday, May 18 to 20, in the dance studio of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Tickets are $8 to $12; call 907-2192.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Bruce Powell.