A German Dancer's Perspective of Mohiniyattam and a Comparison with Contemporary Dance

(Report of her talk in Samavesh II on Jan 12, 2013, Chennai)                                    

anne dietrichAnne Dietrich a Culture and Dance Educationist from Germany is trained in Ballet, Jazz, Contemporary dance, Improvisation Techniques and Theatre. She began her journey in Mohiniyattam in the year 2005 when she started training under Guru Smt Leelamma in Kalamandalam. She spoke about how she embraced Mohiniyattam and shared her experiences and thoughts on the dance whilst making a comparative analysis between Mohiniyattam and Contemporary dance.

“In classical ballet we speak only through body without any expression on the face and somehow I felt a deep desire to emote and tried to connect music, theatre and dance”: Anne’s dedicated voice spoke. In 2004 she made her first production connecting the three and she found it really interesting to tell story by giving a good emotion to the audience. Her quest had just begun.

Her Indian travails

She knew India existed and didn’t know much about the country until 2003 when her friend who was learning Kathakali passionately told her about Kerala Kalamandalam. While looking for more information she came to know about Mohiniyattam and was instantly taken by its grace and feminity. Compared to the straight and jumpy movements in ballet, Mohiniyattam looked more beautiful and using the facial muscles to emote was a fascinating aspect for her. She was also amazed as to how hand gestures are used to narrate stories.


After watching Mohiniyattam, Anne said she thought it would balance her personality as she is by nature very fast and Mohiniyattam would help her slow down. She said she believes that dance can develop one’s personality. What was most amazing for her was the spiritual aspect of the dance where we can bring something from the heaven to the earth. She found it unbelievable that through dance you can communicate with god and as a spiritually awakened person she said she was totally enamoured by the dance form and she knew she had to come to Kerala and learn the dance form.

During her final year in college she did many jobs and started saving money and as soon as she finished her degree, she took a flight to Kerala and went straight to Kerala Kalamandalam without knowing what to expect. All she knew when she started her journey was that she liked to learn Mohiniyattam. At first, she said she thought she will use the rounded movements in Mohiniyattam in her contemporary work but that idea soon changed and there was more in store for her. Her classes started the very next day she reached Kalamandalam. Prof Kalamandalam Leelamma was her teacher. Very fondly remembering her guru, she said she feels very blessed to have Prof Leelamma as her teacher because it is her effort and her love that has made her continue her tryst with Mohiniyattam. She gave so much energy to her, Anne said.

Speaking on the difficulties she had to face during the early learning period, first and foremost it was the culture shock which she had to overcome; she said. Coming from a very sparsely populated region in Germany she had to come in terms with the crowd in India. The climate is different, the food is different and there is lot of action; everybody tries to speak to you. It took nearly three to four weeks for her to get accustomed to this, she said. At some point she said she asked to herself as to what she was doing amidst all these. But she was sure she somehow wanted to learn Mohiniyattam. Suffer, but never give up so fast was her motto.

As she wasn’t aware of the traditional practices, she didn’t know of the do’s and don’t’s in Indian custom. Like touching gurus feet for blessing, and squatting on the floor and not sitting on a chair in front of the guru and similar practices caught her by surprise she said and she was tensed and careful not to do any mistake. She hadn’t heard about saree before and on the first day of class she was given a six meter cloth and she was taken aback when she was told that she has to use that for dancing. “So many things go in our head coming into a new culture and society and it takes long time to settle in as each day is a challenge”: Anne said. It is really tough but she said she liked the respect a teacher is given in India unlike in the West.


“I was very confident that being a contemporary dancer able to do all the stretches it will be anne contenporaryeasy to learn Mohiniyattam”: Anne confessed, but her opinion soon changed. The first exercise of sitting in aramandi and bending sideways made her realize that it isn’t going to be any easy task. In ballet and contemporary dance the spine is kept erect and there is no sideways bending movement. She had to work hard to get these movements in her and she says she needed more than a year to do so. Same was the case with aramandalam and mudras.

People in India are accustomed to use their hands while talking while in Germany the communication is strictly verbal without any animated movements. Anne said that it was difficult for her to train her hands to hold mudras. She had to exercises to make her fingers move. After crossing this hurdle it was the facial expression which she had to get used to. Using the eye brows, smiling, and the many things you can do with your face was very new to her. She worked hard to bring out these facial movements. She had to work even harder on eye movement. It was really amazing to know of the intricacies in the dance form and the effort one needs to put in to achieve them.

Initially she had planned to stay for three months, said Anne. But after realizing enormity of learning lying ahead of her she decided to stay for one full year. This was a possibility because she said she had saved enough during her college days. 

Back in Germany after her sojourn in Kerala

After one year of learning Mohiniyattam in Kerala Kalmandalam, Anne returned to her native in Germany. It was almost entering a new cultural zone for her. She recollected how she visited a he supermarket in her village and she couldn’t find anyone there and nobody coming to talk to her. It was a great contrast to the setting she was living in for the past one year where you could see people everywhere trying to chat with you. She realized then that she missed the energy, the people and the feminity and grace of Mohiniyattam.

Her life forward with Mohiniyattam

She kept coming to Kerala, to Guru Leelamma to further her learning in Mohiniyattam. In 2004 she wrote a hundred page dissertation on teaching dance; the methodology, what teachers need to know about the anatomy of a dancer etc and she started her own research studies and met many gurus in Mohiniyattam including Gurus like Satyabhama, Nirmala Panicker and Pallavi Krishnan to understand the different approaches to teach. She had a good exchange with Smt Pallavi Krishnan and started to learn under her for a while. She realised there is so much more to learn and there are many more approaches to teaching. She rates her interaction with Smt Pallavi Krishnan as very fulfilling because she could have open discussions. Since Pallavi Krishnan learnt from Padma Shri Bharati Sivaji, Anne got an exposure to her style of teaching and through her she went to Guru Bharati Sivaji and has been learning under her for the past one year.

She found Bharati Shivaji’s methodology interesting since it has similarity to contemporary dance where the adavus are structured from simple to complicated and elementary to complex. It was interesting for her as it was more suitable for her to take this methodology to Germany.  Anne was also impressed by Guru Bharati Sivaji’s interest in taking care of the body with many body exercises. Anne said she gained a great deal form her and continues to be her disciple.

Contemporary dance

“Before learning Mohiniyattam I didn’t know there were many contents in dance”. Understanding different methodologies is also important for a dancer as it helps in applying different approaches to the learning and teaching process.

anne dietrich contemporaryIt is very difficult to describe contemporary dance because the development of Contemporary dance started in the modern era about 20 years ago when there were lot of changes in the society and it was based on individual effort, Anne said. The main idea of contemporary dance was to break away from the clear cut straight dancing of Ballet, where the body isn’t really inside of the dance and to become more individualistic dance style, she added.

Anne said that it is a huge work which uses meditation and yoga techniques and a lot of teaching methodology and kinetic awareness as well as body therapies like Alexander technique. Each dancer uses these in various proportions resulting in a very individualistic style, she added.

In contemporary dance the movements are created form inside to outside instead of imitation from outside to inside. A dancer does a lot of research to understand the movement from inside.

Contemporary dance versus Mohiniyattam

 Since contemporary dance is completely separate from drama, Anne preferred to speak about the body movements in both the dance forms.

Because contemporary dance is very young compared to Mohiniyattam or other traditional dance forms, the contemporary dancers are also young. The purpose of secluding drama from contemporary dance is because the soul is separated from the body. And while contemporary dance is individualistic work of people, Mohiniyattam is a more collective form which took shape in relation to the society, to the culture, to the music and drama, she said.

While Mohiniyattam tells stories, through facial expression and hand gestures as a communication with god, in contemporary dance, mostly the inner conflicts of man related to the world is portrayed.  It is a pure dance where the body conveys emotions to the audience; Anne said.

Speaking of the technicalities, of using time and space, Anne mentioned that Mohiniyattam isn’t very space conscious dance form but a very time oriented one. The movements, the gestures and facial expression takes place in time, perfectly synchronized with the music and rhythm. This is the beauty of traditional Indian dance that it doesn’t use the space but the time. Mohiniyattam doesn’t have big jumps and leaps and since western dance is created to use space and the floor; here floor means not just the space to place the feet but it is new dimension, a partner. In contemporary dance we use lot of jumps and leaps and we use lot of space. Before we start the class, we walk around to understand the space in order to know how we can use the space in relation to the floor; she said.

As for the approach of technique, Anne said that in contemporary dance they use the whole body to create a story or motion. Each movement is traced to its source or the power center and the dancers try to understand which muscle is involved in the particular movement. Also, she said the individual anatomy of each dancer is studied and modifications are made in the movements to suit the dancer’s anatomy. The effort is to shape a good dancer out of what god has given. Anne said this is an important factor which every dance form can follow to observe and go deep into the anatomy. Though they rehearse each movement over and over, to imagine the movement and internalizing it gives a more understanding and there will be a better coordination of the movements with the nerve centre, she said.

In contemporary dance, she pointed out that gravity is used in the movements. Imagination of movements is also very important in contemporary dance, she said. For example for a particular neck movement which she showed, she said she imagines how it will look if the neck is pulled using a string and accordingly create the desired movement. This aspect she said she uses in Mohiniyattam by imagining particular movements in real life situations like being in water and moving the hands, being in honey and suddenly coming out of it etc. For aramandalam I tell my students to imagine a pot full of water and the side bends as though the water is coming out of each side; she said. It becomes easier to understand the movement when applied with imagination. When you realize from where the movement starts, the better, she stated.


Contemporary dance classes are usually of ninety minutes duration without any breaks or talks. If we break the session in between it isn’t good because the dancers need to achieve lot of flexibility, said Anne. Like in Mohiniyattam the classes begin with body exercises which are related to yoga. Some of the contemporary dancers begin the classes with the floor; ie by lying on the floor. Anne said she at times uses this approach to teach Mohiniyattam too. She feels that when introducing the sideways (paarswa) bending movements to a new comer while they are lying down with straight back, they get the right feel of it without having to concentrate on shifting or bearing the weight.  After this, in Mohiniyattam we move on to the adavus which are taught one after the other. In contemporary and ballet, she said that the different movements are taught in combination which they change periodically so that the dancer gets prepared for performance alongside learning.  Unlike in Mohinyattam there is no real learning of items. All that the choreographer needs to do is incorporate the appropriate combinations that the dancer already knows in a piece and so in a day or two the dancers can be readied for a performance.

Another interesting factor that she said she finds in contemporary dance lessons is the time they use for improvisation after class. Since the dance form involves lot of inner flow, dancers listen to the music and try to understand what their body is trying to express. To get this connection with music, she said she plays music sometimes in Mohiniyattam adavu class so that the students can feel the movement better.


Spreading Mohiniyattam in Germany

Her main focus is to present Mohiniyattam in Germany, through performance and lecture demonstrations. She said she performs in theatres, cultural events, for associations and also in events where they showcase Indian arts. She was of the opinion that when you present Mohiniyattam as it is, people don’t enjoy much. It has to be presented in a very devotional atmosphere for audience to completely involve themselves in the performance. She mentioned about one of her performances which she had inside a church in Germany. There were about 100 to 150 people which she said is a lot in her country and she said after her one hour performance, they stood up and didn’t want to go home.  The normally hurrying audience stayed back and went to her and said that they didn’t know what it is but it touched them, that it gave them great energy and was very special. This was proof that for Mohiniyattam to create the real effect, the atmosphere need to be set with the right devotional feel; she said.

Normally she begins the concert with a cholkettu so that the audience gets a taste of the anne dance form and later she takes time to narrate the story and introduce some of the mudras for better comprehension. When they understand what the dancer is presenting, the audience feels very elated; she said and tries to give a lecture demonstration prior to the performance whenever possible. When people understand the depth, the intensity and the devotion involved in Indian classical dance, they come for the performance. Her endeavor thus has been to popularize the dance form in her country and she hoped that it becomes more and more famous across the globe.

Teaching Mohiniyattam in Germany

As in other parts of the world, she said Bharatanatyam and other dance form are more famous in Germany. So she said she tries to introduce the dance form through performances and lecture demonstrations and by speaking about her work. During her travels (in and outside the country), she said she speaks a lot about Mohiniyattam. She has about fifteen students in her class for whom she gives special energy to make them come closer to Mohiniyattam and she said once they learn and like the dance form, they are willing to make the dance their lifelong partner.

Speaking about her teaching methodology, she said she had to adopt more introductory exercises. The bodies of western dancers are generally very stiff specially the spine and so she said she uses a lot of free falling exercises to loosen up the body. She adds a lot of imagination and introduces the basic movements of Mohiniyattam which makes it easier for them to understand the movement. For side bending, she normally asks them to imagine being pulled by a string to both sides. She also observes the body shape of the student and tries to accommodate them suitably for Mohiniyattam.

Another factor which she lays stress on is the facial expression. Normally the people in Germany are less expressive through their body, specially the face. So she makes them sit in a circle, after class and make them connect either with god or to the person in front and make them communicate through face. Also, she does exercises for eyes and neck sitting in the circle itself so that they can see each other and correct as well.

She said additionally they need to do exercises for fingers, wrists and hands since compared to Indian girls whose wrists are more flexible due to wearing bangles etc, the hands of westerners are more stiff. In her introductory sessions, she talks about different aspects of Indian culture, including a simple culinary session, so that they get more exposure to Indian culture.

She concluded her talk with some pictures of her class and a video of introductory class session of Indian Classical dance. Thanking all her gurus and the organisers of Samavesh II, Anne said she hopes Mohiniyattam reaches more people and grows to become a popular dance form in India and world over. She also expressed her desire to see more unity among fellow artistes and gurus in Mohiniyattam to take this divine artform forward. 


Samavesh II, organised jointly by Lasyatarangini and The Alliance Francaise of Madras was supported by www.uapasanafoundation.com and Nrityasree Foundation. 

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