Shalaka Kulkarni, wearing an orange skirt and gold sleeveless top, is pictured kneeling on the stage floor. Her chin is resting on her right hand and her left hand is laying across her lap.
Shalaka Kulkarni in Nyra's Dreams, presented by Prop Thtr and SurTaal Dance Credit: Rich Rankin

Traditional Indian dance is a form that is rooted in storytelling, folk literature, and sacred texts. Its forms are myriad and complex and are divided into three main categories: classical, folk/tribal, and Bollywood. Classical forms are highly stylized with prescribed movements that accompany sacred and traditional texts in the mode of dance and theater. Folk/tribal forms are representative of the cultures from which they come and are performed as rituals to mark occasions and celebrations in their regions. And Bollywood, probably India’s most well-known dance export in the States, is a secular form that helps forward the story of a film, usually a love story. Training in the classical forms is serious business in India. The national performing arts academy, Sangeet Natak Akademi, only recognizes eight forms, each with a specific purpose, very specific gestures (mudras), and usually performed to express certain spiritual concepts.

Nyra’s Dreams
10/27-11/19: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; Chicago Dramatists, 798 N. Aberdeen,, $20 or pay what you can

Shalaka Kulkarni, a Chicago-based trained Indian dancer and contemporary performance artist, sought to explore these concepts in her new play, Nyra’s Dreams. Working with veteran Chicago director Stefan Brün, Nyra’s Dreams is part of the Prop Thtr’s 2023-24 season at Chicago Dramatists. We sat down with Kulkarni and Brün to discuss the origins of Nyra’s Dreams, Prop’s interest in working across genres and cultures, and a little bit about how Chicago theater is constantly evolving and changing, creating more inclusion and breaking down barriers between disciplines.

Nyra’s Dreams is a multiyear project that essentially I started working on last year, which was predominantly a dance piece surrounding experimenting with Indian classical forms, but mostly for the Bharatnatyam, which originates from the southern part of India,” Kulkarni explains.

“Working through the technical elements of the classical forms and withdrawals, I started thinking more about its history. I used to have these imaginations and fantasies of where all the dance came from because there is no real date for that particular dance form, which is very ancient.

“[Nyra] is here to do a job in today’s world, based on behalf of a god, and she has a direct channel that only she can understand and feel, which seems like a channel of communication from a celestial world. But essentially since she is like me or like us, and in today’s world she does not really have a clear channel, there are some disturbances and there’s a fragmented channel of communication. So, even though she comes from the celestial or from this goddess lineage, she has problems dealing with the challenges of being a woman now.”

In a mash-up of classical Indian dance, ancient Devadasi dances, and contemporary performance practice, Kulkarni as Nyra explores issues about feminism and being an Indian woman in contemporary times. 

“Devadasi temple dancers were considered as servants of gods and there was a whole system which was celebrated and respected and had this idea of divinity. And their art was used as a connection to the divine,” Kulkarni says.

She expands on the Devadasi and why the system of dance became illegal in India. “Since British rule, it has changed into a different kind of system to the point where it became a system to lead women or young girls into trafficking and prostitution. And so, to the point, now it’s illegal. There’s other acts where you’re not supposed to conduct any kind of Devadasi ceremony or there should never be temple dancers. It’s illegal, but now there is a difference. The contemporary world has changed [it].”

Kulkarni is interested in reclaiming this tradition through Nyra’s Dreams. “I am reframing the idea about the use of body as an art form, which is essentially what the problem was—women using their body to do something which was celebratory was considered something that needs to be shut down, in some way. So either they were married off to God, which means they were under authority of some kind of man, whether it is monarchy, royalty, or, you know, some other people who have money. I feel like I’m trying to reclaim it in a way to remind people of the history, who may or may not already have an idea if they’re from the same culture that I am. And for other people to understand that there is such a thing there where the art—or dance especially because I’m a dancer first—that their dance had a very distinct place in terms of ancient art form, at least in Indian culture.”

Kulkarni is also interested in what she described as a trident of Indian goddesses: Durga (Shakti in some cultures), the goddess of protection, motherhood, destruction, and war; Sarasvati, the goddess of the arts and creativity; and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth (not necessarily monetary but also wealth of knowledge).

Nyra’s Dreams takes the audience on a journey through these concepts and forms and combines the mythology of Indian goddesses, spoken word pieces and voiceovers, and video projections to discuss what it’s like to be a performer from these traditions living here, in American society in 2023. And whereas Kulkarni comes from a multiplicity of disciplines (she earned her MFA in the now defunct Interdisciplinary Arts and Media program at Columbia College Chicago), Brün arose and has been steeped in classic Chicago storefront theater for decades.

“For me, I come from the tradition of Walter Benjamin. The transition that Shalaka is describing from the sacred to the Bollywood is, for me, also the problem that he describes—where there used to be the cult of the sacred from which all art was, and it was unapproachable. It had that distance, and it wasn’t supposed to be beautiful in the way we got beauty in the 19th century. That was something that happened to all art everywhere,” Brün says. “We have formed a relationship with bureaucratic societies and technology and factories. And that has also happened in the Devadasi system and also in the general world.”

Brün was drawn to the character of Nyra, “The fragmented personality who results [from these tensions] I found just so excitingly presented in this invention of Shalaka’s Nyra, who, for me is kind of the fallen god, or the one who’s trying to join back up with this trinity and fix things. And I admit, I’m not particularly optimistic. But like, I know it’s not about me. And it’s not that important what I think. Mostly I’m here to help her organize, share her work, and get it facilitated. The older I get as a director, the more my ideas get out of the way.”

Brün and Kulkarni met when she was in grad school and have worked together a few times since. “Just to toot [Kulkarni’s] horn a little bit—after we worked together on her final project, [she] joined the cast of Busted City and valiantly stepped in as an actor. We didn’t even put dance into it. We took it to Truman College after and it was a wonderful experience. And we really got to know each other better.”

After that, Kulkarni created SurTaal Dance and made a collaborative work at Prop called The Ripple. Brün says, “I was a little ignorant about dance. And it really helped me go, ‘Wow, why haven’t I been involved in this a whole lot more before?’”

Brün was also drawn to the work’s multidisciplinary approach. “This is another excitement of this. She’s a media artist. It is about dance in the way that it’s not about any of the other media. But there’s storytelling. There’s playwriting, there’s characterization. There’s film work in it—a wonderful film and dance. And so the movement between the media for me is a nice analogy to the moving between realms of Nyra.”

As we’re talking, the conversation pivots to the history of Prop Thtr, how we now find ourselves here at Chicago Dramatists, and what happened to the space on Elston. I ask if they are now in residence here.

“Prop and Curious Theatre Branch came here, along with the Rhinoceros Festival. The idea [of Chicago Dramatists] being to bring new plays to development, but they really focus now on readings, they don’t produce plays anymore. And they have classes. And they do readings, and they have a full program here,” Brün explains.

“We’re interested in stepping stones in line with bringing in people who are young. And instead of saying, ‘Oh, we’ll do this workshop that will give you everything you need,’ because we all know that’s crap, I’m really interested in young people getting some idea of the real world of storefront and not just luxurious high-budget Equity [productions], but what it’s really like. I’ve seen so many people come out of college and come to their first production that they actually get hired for and go, you know, ‘What is this? How does this even work here?’ So that interests me, and Prop wants to [provide] stepping stones for someone coming into that,” Brün says.

Nyra’s Dreams is another step in SurTaal Dance’s exploration of how to employ Indian classical dance vocabulary to celebrate female experience in nontraditional performances. This world premiere is the culmination of text, travel, collaboration, film, choreography, and composition—of which an experimental ten-minute film, completed in April 2023, has premiered in Paris, Seoul, and Assam. 

This production of Nyra’s Dreams is the first presentation as a part of Prop Thtr’s new leadership team project. Their goal is to find innovative work that transcends traditional storefront to create space for new voices and to ferment new work in performance and multi arts.

So, what can audiences expect from the show? 

Kulkarni explains that she didn’t set out to write a feminist play, but it evolved along those lines. “I started creating first and writing, which is what dancers probably do. And in that context, I don’t think that I was writing with the idea that this is a feminist piece. But I think there are subtext and like notes about female experience, connecting threads between women or the female-identified person in their lives in different cultures. Because we have these characters who meet Nyra in their current lifetime who are not Indian. Or if they are Indian, they don’t have any similarity between the life she’s leading in the Western world and someone who is in a completely different village in south India. 

“That is to say all three [goddesses] will have the same experience of meeting a person like that, even though we might have the same cultural background. And that’s how the world has become now, that somehow the geographical similarities matter more than the cultural identifications. And I hope that comes through too. But also the idea that no matter what space you’re in, the idea of doing a piece that talks about a female point of view or female experience always seems to be necessary.”