Almost a decade into Bharatanatyam, Croatian ballerina Nikolina Nikoleski tells ESTHER ELIAS that there is common ground between dances from different countries

Two days before Nikolina Nikoleski’s Bharatanatyam performance at JTPac, she flew into Kochi remembering her first dance class on Kerala’s soil. Nine years ago, at the Dhananjayans’ naatya gurukulam in Payyanur, Nikolina wore her first sari, slipped bangles over her hands and jhumkas onto her ears, drew her eyes and dotted her forehead with a bindi. Nothing could be more different than the soft ballet shoes, and body-hugging leotards that were once like second skin to this professional ballet and contemporary dancer. “And there I was, miles away from home, in a sari too tight to breathe in, with more ornaments than I had ever worn, trying to teach my feet, attuned to landing light, to suddenly turn flat-footed.”

Now a professional Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher settled in New Delhi since 2005, Nikolina says those early days gave her an unshakable foundation in Indian classical dance, but her interest in the form originated long before. Born in Croatia, Nikolina’s tryst with physical expression began at four years in a gymnastics class her mother took her to. At 13, she joined the Laban’s High School for Dance and Rhythmics in Zagreb, Croatia, and later studied at the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance, eventually graduating from the prestigious German Folkwang Hochschule Essen school of world-famous contemporary dancers such as Pina Bausch and Kurt Joos. “All through, yoga was central to my learning. I had also studied Indian temple dance forms as a theoretical subject during my training.”

The defining moment though, was when Nikolina watched Odissi exponent Sonal Mansingh perform Bharatanatyam in Germany. “The body language of Bharatanatyam was so foreign, its technique so different. Contemporary dance is light, airy and elevated, it communicates through the body’s muscle intensity. Bharatanatyam was rooted to the ground; it used hand and facial muscles to talk so much. The form seemed to really suit my personality,” says Nikolina, who at the time was teaching as well as performing with several companies. “The competition in Europe is so tough, that for one dancer, thousands will audition. So when I finally left to learn dance in India, I knew this was a permanent choice. There would be no turning back”

First steps

In India, Nikolina first trained with the Dhananjayans and also won the Indian Council for Cultural Relations scholarship. “It took me three weeks to just loosen my body. Once my face and feet fell in place, my body followed.” After over a year there, Nikolina continued her learning in Delhi under Padmashri Dr. Saroja Vaidyanathan, with whose troupe she performed at dance festivals across the country at venues such as Khajuraho, Mahabalipuram, Taj Mahal. She is now a professor of dance at the French Embassy School in Delhi, and runs the Nikolina Nikoleski School of contemporary dance, ballet and Bharatanatyam.

But despite close to a decade's experience in the field, Nikolina is often frequented with the question of a foreigner’s authenticity in an Indian dance form. “There are hundreds of Bharatanatyam teachers in Europe, but I chose to learn in India because within this culture, I knew I could grasp the history, the music and the mythology from the place where it originated.” This context helped her decode a once foreign language. To further explain, she says classical ballet originated in France, but today Koreans, Latinos and Americans have ballet repertoires as rich, or more so, than the French. “But nobody asks how foreigners could dance ballet. At the root of it all is the same universal body, the same muscles. It is about a difference of technique and expression. And there is common ground between dances from different countries. For example, the plies of ballet are like the aramandi of Bharatanatyam.” Being equally skilled at classical ballet, contemporary dance and Bharatanatyam, has given her body a deeper and more nuanced language to speak with, says Nikolina. But she clarifies that on stage, she doesn’t mix forms. “I keep each pure, for each has its space.”

At her dance school, Nikolina also choreographs pieces for her solos and her students. “I may not be able to speak Telugu, Tamil or Sanskrit, but I know the stories this dance speaks of so well. Once I feel it within me, I’m able to communicate it just as anyone else can.” This process of creation is her most precious period, says Nikolina. “For hours in the studio, there’s this magical, mystical experience of challenging your body further each day - you defeat old barriers and reach new frontiers. Those hours, days, months and years of chiselling your body and your mind bit by bit are what make you. The final performance is a little death of sorts, because once it’s over you almost bury all the work you’ve put into a piece. And then you start again, because that’s the dancer’s life.”