During her performance at Joe’s Pub in NYC last summer, 26-year-old Mythili Prakash appeared onstage wearing a vibrant fuchsia costume and a quiet smile beamed from her bejeweled face. As the sitar and enchanting singing began, she swirled into the first dance excerpt full of the intricate hand movements, graceful poses and animated facial expressions that punctuate classical Indian dance. Even though for some of the audience this was their first experience seeing Bharata Natyam (traditional South Indian dance), Mythili’s welcoming presence and stellar technique left a buzz of new interest in the genre circulating in the crowd—even after she left the stage.
And this is just what Mythili wants. “My biggest goal is to bring traditional Indian dance to the mainstream,” she says. “It’s not just a classical, ancient form of dance. It’s relevant to today—that’s what initially attracted me to it—and I’m working to make it even more so.”
This priority was the catalyst for one of the best aspects of her performance: After completing an abstract section, Mythili paused to address the audience before performing a narrative piece. She explained how in some Indian dance a gesture is like a word, and they can be strung together to make sentences—and stories! She encouraged the audience to figure out what different gestures meant, and as they called out phrases and helped complete an example sentence, the collective comprehension rose. When she resumed performing, the humongous round of applause proved she had succeeded in her goal: A hip, young NYC audience understood—and loved—her version of the ancient dance.
Mythili’s role as an advocate for Indian dance is hardly a coincidence. Although she grew up in L.A., she’s the descendant of a veritable legacy: Her mother, Viji Prakash, is a beloved teacher and guru to many Bharata Natyam dancers. As a young child with obvious talent who mimicked her mother’s students, Mythili was put in serious training at the age of 4. Then, at age 8, she made her solo performance debut at a temple in India and continued to visit her homeland often from then on.
Although Mythili’s intense training schedule continued throughout high school, she definitely had periods of doubt while seeing her friends go off to other after-school activities. She even majored in mass communications at the University of California, Berkeley, to give herself space to decide if dance would be her career.
But after graduation in 2004, she spent five months learning in India, and that solidified her career choice. “That was my reawakening,” she says. “Even though dance had always been in my life, that’s when I made a conscious decision and committed to it.”
Since this turning point, Mythili has been making the rounds at festivals in India, Europe and the United States. She continues on her quest to create modern, fun, interesting Indian dance through tours around the world, DVDs and appearances. To build a connection with more contemporary styles, when considering phrasing and formations in her choreography she references modern-dance classes she took as a teen at Beverly Hills High School.
“Traditional Indian pieces are pertinent! I just have to give it that more modern perspective,” says Mythili. “I take this challenge seriously. I want to improve my technique and my ability to emote and still make it all relevant today.”
Mythili is certain that with this approach audiences will see how significant Indian dance is—and dancers might be more likely to try it! “Dance is so spiritually rewarding, and Indian dance is even more so because a performance is an offering,” she says. “It gives you a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction like nothing else.”