Bollywood and Hollywood – Shivani Thakkar

Shivani Thakkar, a talented dance and artistic performance artist and choreographer, is the Founder and Artistic Director of MKM BollyStars. Shivani a master of Bharata Natyam, Jazz, Tap, and Ballet is trained in both Western and Indian dance and works both in Bollywood and Hollywood. In addition she conducts workshops around in the US and Canada. She was the Finalist for Miss India Canada 2011.

Interview by Stephen Thompson, Ph.D. 

Welcome Shivani. Tell Us About Yourself.
Hello Stephen – it’s a pleasure to chat with you today!

I’m a dancer, choreographer, master teacher, and actress based in Los Angeles, CA and Calgary, Canada. My passion for the arts sparked at a tender age. Growing up in a household of artists and art lovers, I was fortunate to have parents that not only recognized my desire to be in the arts, but lovingly supported me every step of the way. Born and raised in Canada, I went yearly to India, and in my teenage years trained intensively in the classical art form Bharata Natyam. In university, I had the opportunity to expand my background, pursuing a degree in Theatre (Acting and Directing emphasis) and Film Production at the esteemed University of Southern Californian Los Angeles. This combination of training provided the foundation necessary to spring forward into an arena of exciting work, challenging and invigorating projects, and amazing travel opportunities.
On a personal level, I am someone who loves learning and growing, am honest and outspoken, loves laughing, is fascinated with leadership and law, practices prayer and meditation, and trusts that life will unfold as it is meant to be. I am a fire sign and without a doubt an adventurous Sagittarian. I love my family and friends a great deal, and hold them very close to my heart and in high regard. I feel very blessed to have people in my life that are caring, bold, dynamic, intellectually stimulating, and yet humble, loving, peaceful individuals.
Describe Bharata Natyam and how did you get involved?

Bharata Natyam is an ancient classical dance form in India. The most popular of the 7 classical styles, it dates back 2000 years and is based in the Natya Shastra (the treatise on Dance and Theater comparable to Aristotle’s Poetics). A temple art form, it has, over the years, moved to the courts and eventually to the stage, where it is often presented today. Anintricate dance form it is comprised of three components: Nritta (Rhythm), Nritya (Emotional Expression), and Natya (Drama). The rhythmic component includes complex rhythmic phrases that are performed barefoot creating a delightful palette of sounds comparable to those created by drummers and tap dancers. The expressional and dramatic elements are used to delineate stories, both mythological and religious, and now-a-days characters and themes of a modern disposition, through the use of facial expressions, codified hand-gestures, and physicality of body movement.
I was introduced to this art form ever since I was born, as my mom is a Bharata Natyam dance teacher and choreographer. She has been the founder and artistic director of Manu Kala Mandir Dance Academy since1962, and is currently celebrating its Golden Jubilee.

Growing up in the art form had both its positive and negative – on the one hand I learned aspects of the dance form early on and imbibed many aesthetics and rare dance compositions rapidly as it was a constant within my environment. On the flip side, it took me some time to find my own identity within, and passion for, the art form – something that took place in high school when I had the opportunity to go to India and train in the dance form under my mother’s gurus. Learning in India, under senior gurus, helped me identify with the art form on a spiritual and cultural level, deepening my affinity for the art form. Through this experience I discovered elements of myself that were routed in my cultural heritage, aspects that were not easily accessible in growing up in the prairie and Stampede culture of Calgary.
Talk to us about your “Chance Pe Dance” Experience.
Chance Pe Dance was a Bollywood film I danced in Mumbai, India. Starring Shahid Kapoor, we shot the dance sequences in December 2008 and the film released in January 2010. Marty Kudelka (Justin Timberlake’s choreographer) was hired specially to choreograph the two songs (I took part in), as the film producers wanted an authentic American hip hop choreographer.

The experience was really fun and very cool – much like a Hollywood dream. I was flown to India for three weeks, put up in the 5-star luxury hotel, The Leela (which included a mind-boggling buffet breakfast), and was given a car with a chauffeur driver to take me to rehearsals and set etc. But aside from the perks, the work experience, in itself, was memorable and wonderful. Marty is an amazing choreographer, with a signature style that is a both challenging and simultaneously accessible due to its play of hard hitting moves and smooth reverbs. Shahid is incredibly down to earth and wonderfully personable. He was an immaculate artist who had impeccable work ethic and dedication to his practice, setting a tone amongst all the dancers of quality driven work.

During my time there we shot two dance sequences, “One More Dance” for the catalyst moment in the film, and “Pump It Up” which takes place in the climax of the film. Both these songs took about four days of rehearsal and four days to shoot, and finally edited down to four minutes in the final cut of the film. The sets of these songs were elaborately built, both conceivably being real locations rather then sound-stages. “Pump it Up” actually was a 50 foot wide stage with risers, fog machine, and psychedelic lights, and “One More Dance” was an club set that was entirely built, making each square foot if it usable set space, hence there was no “off set” area. A typical shoot day consisted of a 8am call time with hair and make-up, with a wrap around 10pm. Thereafter we often headed to a restaurant or club by Juhu beach or Bandra for a late dinner. Shahid would generally finish his shots by 8pm, so that he could meet his trainer for a quick session before joining us for dinner.

So how did “Step Up 3-D” happen and what’s your part?

Step Up 3-D was shot in New York, and was a result of a direct booking; thanks to my wonderful former agent Brooklyn Lavin. A direct booking is when you don’t have to audition for the role, but are booked on it based on your reel and submitted materials. It is significant because it indicates that your quality of work and your agent’s commitment to your case exceeds expectations and bypasses the necessity to undergo a formal audition process. It was exciting because the first call I got from my agent was that she was pitching me for this role, and the next thing I knew I had the part and had to confirm my availability and acceptance to do it! The original shooting script of Step Up 3-D had a strong global influence and the scene I shot was the original opening shot of the film. If I remember correctly the story-board indicated that the camera started on the ceiling, panning down to an extreme close up of my face and then expanding out into the opening dance sequence.
What is your one best gig thus far?

Earlier this year I was part of a show, “Orion: The Great Man of the Sky” presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts as part of the exhibition: Dancing in Wonderland – Surrealist Female Artists from Mexico and United States. The show was a combination of Indian classical dance, mask work, dell arte techniques, and theatre. It was written my Alice Rahon, a featured artist in the exhibit, and was an incredibly powerful piece of work.

The US premiere, it was an enriching experience, which I especially loved because it directly combined both my acting and dance practices. My character was particularly interesting as it was half man and half woman, and dealt with the internal struggle and conflict between both energies, culminating in an internal battle that leads to self-destruction. The rehearsal process included experimentation with physicalization, dance movements, tempo and energy, vocalizations, and visualizations to discover how to maintain and hold these two contrasting energies in my body in behavior simultaneously. This show was also very special, because in the performance piece we were bringing to life characters that Alice had also made into puppets; hand-made art pieces of intricately woven metal wire, which were on display in the exhibit. Also on display were pages of the script that she had handwritten in French in 1946. It was during these moments that it dawned on us performers that we were part of the exhibit ourselves, bringing to life Alice’s work and were in essence living art.
What is MKM BollyStars all about?
MKM BollyStars is a professional Bollywood and FusionDance Company in Canada. It was founded on April 15, 2010. I found, while back in Calgary, that there was a desire for professional performance opportunity for focused dancers, and a demand for Bollywood dancers at private and corporate events. In 2010, I had been asked to coordinate the entertainment for the Canadian Petroleum Landmen’s Spring Ball which had a Bollywood theme. In the process, I put together the first professional Bollywood dance troupe within Calgary, consisting of talented and dedicated dance artists. Since its inception, the BollyStars have performed at numerous events including the Mayor’s Evening for Excellence in Business and Arts Award Night, Asian Heritage Month Celebrations, Khubsurat Bridal Fashion Show, multiple private events, charitable functions, and on television including featured appearances on news shows and shoots such as Omni TV’s Bollywood Top Ten opening credit sequence. The MKM stands for Manu Kala Mandir, as the BollyStars are an offshoot of Manu Kala Mandir Dance Academy and Productions.
Any upcoming projects or initiatives you would like to discuss?

I am currently working on a couple of exciting projects and initiatives that are scheduled to premiere next year.

The first is a unique and brand new cross-cultural initiative between Calgary dance artists and artists in India. It is a large scale project requiring about hundred thousand dollars to successfully pull-off. I have already received $20 000 in funding from Calgary2012, Calgaryas Cultural Capital of Canada, project grant, to get the ball rolling. The initiative brings together a collective of different dance specialists(Contemporary, Jazz, Hip Hop, Tap, Indian Classical, and Flamenco or African)to engage in a cultural dance exchange residency within Calgary, and then travel together as a collective to India where-in we will continue our exchange with dance professionals in various cities in India.The project also includes a choreographic residency component within India, a brand new production creation in Canada upon return from the cultural trip, and a film component that may manifest in a documentary or a made-for-TV mini series that joins the artists on this dialogue. I will be posting updates of this project on my website, so do check it out, and there will also be a kick-starter campaign for any art lovers who would like to get more involved!

Regarding artistic projects, I am in the works of restaging Dvaya: A Confluence of Male Female Spirits, a Bharata Natyam and Fusion dance show that toured cross – Canada in 2007. The show is undergoing revisions and will hopefully be on tour in 2013 and 2014 in Asia and the US.

Lastly, I’m in the process of developing a new solo dance performance entitled “Akruti:Shape” exploring the shape and form of the divine energy and presence. It is currently slated to premiere in March 2013.

On a non-artistic but related note, I would like to spend more time in the future on volunteering with charitable organizations and Arts Advocacy. I’ve been getting more involved in arts administration and legal rights of dancers and creative artists, and would like to be able to spend more time developing a fair working environment and safe conditions for the many dedicated dance artists out there. Exploitation of artists is sadly still a problem, especially young artists who are attempting to break into the industry. Those artists who have not undergone a formal university education, and even many who do, don’t always feel comfortable dealing with contracts, speaking up for their rights, or expressing discomfort in a given situation that may not be respecting their work or needs as a dancer. I recently went through such an experience myself, and realized that this is an area that still requires attention in order to ensure that art practitioners are protected and cherished within the field and in the society in general.
What are your leisure time activities?

I love to cook – I think it’s because I’m a total foodie, but experimenting in the kitchen is a passion of mine for sure. I love the outdoors, and spending time traveling, on the beach, in the mountains, or engaging in outdoor activities is always welcome! I love spending time with my friends, hanging out at coffee shops, listening to live music, seeing stand-up comedy and improv shows, and trying new activities. I do also savor my quiet time at home with a good book, some scented candles, classical music, and a relaxing glass of wine. While I have a lot of acquaintances, and it’s not uncommon for me to “bump” into people when I’m dashing around LA, I am a very private person, and I cherish hiding away with my close friends and family in the comforts of the home.

Thank you.

Visit Shivani Thakkar’s official website,