Sheetal Gandhi professes to dislike solos – an odd aversion for a woman who is currently starring in her own one-woman dance/theater show, Bahu-Beti-Biwi.
“This is the first solo I've ever made, and I'm glad I made it,” says Gandhi. “It really pushed me. It was just a wonderful experience to see what would come out of me and how would I tell this story, just relying on me and my skill set.”
In approximately 50 minutes, the Los Angeles resident weaves North Indian music traditions and nine unique characters into a contemporary dance performance that artfully balances the humorous with the serious. The characters she brings to life have been inspired from her family as well, as women in India who have trusted her with their stories.
“What I'm always trying to do in my work is to get people to feel like they're in someone else's shoes,” Gandhi says in a phone interview. “Everyone knows what it feels like when there's something in your life that doesn't have the freedom it should have. And they all know what it feels like to want a bit more than what we have.”
An interdisciplinary director, choreographer and performer, Gandhi grew up in Walnut Creek, California, which is near San Francisco, raised by parents who had immigrated from Mumbai, India, in the 1960s.
She attended college at UC Irvine, and after that earned a graduate degree at UCLA. Her show, here for one night on Feb. 6 at Théâtre Raymond Kabbaz, the performance space at Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles, began as her Master's thesis. She's since performed it in 15 U.S. cities, as well as in India and Europe.
A video titled “Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-Law, Daughter, Wife)” on Gandhi's Youtube channel features snippets from the show. Gandhi seamlessly takes up the mantle of several characters, slipping from one age to the next and speaking in different character's voices. Sometimes she sings in English, sometimes in Marvadi, a language from North India, in a voice both pure and strong. The choreography can be abstract at times, with certain characters acting as symbols, but the empathy that drives the performance is palpable.
“Her unique skill set has always made her a distinct artist,” says composer Joseph Trapanese, who worked closely with Gandhi on the music. “Her voice, her movement, her ability to entertain and captivate an audience – these have always been there, but to me it wasn't until Bahu-Beti-Biwi that she was able to find a vehicle to bring all of them together.”
At 29, Trapanese is an accomplished composer who has collaborated with Daft Punk and Moby on soundtracks including Tron: Legacy and The Bourne Legacy. He met Gandhi when they were both earning their graduate degrees at UCLA. Since then, Gandhi has grown more confident in her abilities, he says.
[“To help her tell her story, I had to be acutely aware of the emotion she wanted to convey, and the easiest way to do this of course – listen,” Trapanese explains over email. “Since it is a one-person show in a dark theater, every little decision made is that much more important. Everything is amplified and important, so that much more focus and finesse is required.”
Originally, Gandhi separately created two characters during a choreography class. A professor questioned what it would look like if these two personalities lived in the same space. Gandhi began to think of transitions – and from there, the piece began to take shape.
“That started to become the crafting of this whole piece,” Gandhi says, her voice picking up an excited tone as she explains the process. “The idea of these somewhat separate characters and how did they all connect. And then, in a way, kind of feels like it's just one person across generations and cultures and times.”
Whether Gandhi performs the piece in India, Israel or America, the work has impact. It deals with human issues even though it's culturally specific.
“I'm not trying to represent India. I'm just showing it through my lens in a way,” says Gandhi. “You know how poignant it is that I might be complaining I can't wear a tank top and someone else somewhere in the land that I'm from, my motherland, can't even show their face.”
In one song, a character based on Gandhi sings her desire to wear a tank top. This piece is juxtaposed with one in which another character sings a giddah, a song sung in jest, about wanting to throw chili powder in her father-in-law's eyes so she would not longer need to cover her face around him.
“I'm not saying that to diminish my own desire to wear a tank top, but just to show that no matter where you are it's relative, all of these little cultural norms,” she says.
Gandhi purposely adds a dose of humor into her work. Weighty topics, she knows, can often come across as didactic, which pushes people away. Humor draws audiences in.
“It's a lighter touch so you come to that place surprisingly, without realizing it,” she says, passion for her work seeping into her voice as she speaks. “And there's something so beautiful about that – it's the element of surprise. I love to keep people off balance and keep them on their toes and remind them also that the way we get through this situation often in our own lives is by finding humor.”
And despite her distaste for the solo spotlight, Gandhi can't help but claim ownership of every note in it.
“This is all mine,” she confesses. “This is my baby. From top to bottom to bottom to top – every single decision, every single point, it came through me.”