Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: Q&A with Shivani Thakkar
By A Noise Within
May 18, 2021
A familiar face from Noise Now, MKM Bollystars member Shivani Thakkar sits down with us to discuss her career as a Bharatanatyam dancer. Learn more about Shivani and her experiences as a performer by reading our Q&A.
How did you get started on your artistic journey?
I was fortunate to grow up in an artistic household. Both my mom and paternal aunt are dancers and dance educators. My dance training started as soon as I could walk, and I was dancing from the age of 2 with my first performance experience when I was 2.5 years old. My childhood home was a custom built house with a professional dance studio in the basement. So I couldn’t really escape the art form, as even if I wasn’t in the studio dancing myself, our house pulsated with dance music, ongoing classes and rehearsals every weeknight and on the weekends.
That being said, I initially had a love-hate relationship with dance. Dance was my mother’s main passion, and I wanted an artistic identity of my own. I was also privy to the unfortunate side of dance politics that seemed be dominant in the Boomer generation of dance practitioners. I’ve always had an aversion to this side of the industry and was clear I wanted no part of it. Both these factors: wanting an independent artistic identity, and the desire to belong to an artistic community that was collaborative vs. competitive attracted me to theatre, and as a child I dreamed of becoming an actor instead of a dancer.
It took me some time to discover, in Bharatanatyam, the spirituality of the art form. This discovery took place in my teen years when started studying intensively with my mom’s gurus in India. The immersive nature of my training uncovered a deeper connection between me and Bharatanatyam. Through this experience I gained a depth of expression, found my own voice, got hooked to the athletic discipline, and connected with a compassionate community of artists. Today, it is my form of meditation, and it feeds positivity and contentment into all aspects of my life.
How did you get to where you are now?
My journey has been ongoing and continually evolving, which is both exciting and challenging. My childhood dream to be an actor was still very much alive even through my dance pursuits. With this goal in mind, I moved to LA from Canada to pursue my BA in Theatre and minor in Film/Television at University of Southern California. When I came to study at USC, I completely focused on developing my skills in acting, directing, and film production. Upon graduation, I was acting with a lovely black box theatre company, Blue Sphere Alliance, lead by Anthony Barnao, and working with the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. I also was training intensively in western dance forms of Ballet, Jazz, Tap, and Hip Hop, to round out and increase my versatility as a dancer. I was on a student visa and when it came time to apply for my work visa I ended up being in a position to apply as a Dancer. I had been in that line of work longer and also had a confirmed Dance tour contract in hand, both requirements for the visa. The catch was, that as long as I was on my visa as a dancer, I could only work as a dance professional. I embraced the experience, switched gears once again, and pursued dance full force. This continued for 6 years and during this time I had some incredible experiences including: touring across Canada with a show I helped conceptualize, create and perform in; choreographing for theatre at USC for numerous plays; performing at the Smithsonian; touring Japan with Bellydance Superstars; teaching and choreographing for professional dance companies in India, Canada and the US; winning a US National dance competition that took me to India to appear in a Bollywood film; establishing a dance company (MKM Bollystars); and serving on a variety of panels of peer assessors for the Canada Council for the Arts, LA County Arts Commission, Calgary Arts Development, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Arts Institute to name a few.
After the 6 years on my work visa, I got my Green Card and was allowed to expand the capacity of my work. I realized I wanted to resume acting. With that in mind, I went back to train with Howard Fine Studios, Steppenwolf Classes West, Margie Haber Studios, and the Groundlings. I am now fortunate to have reps across the board, and I am pivoting to pursue acting alongside my dance activities.
What challenges did you face on the way?
Challenges are interesting, because at the time they seem like obstacles but in hindsight they turn into blessings. Sorry if that sounds cheesy or something from a fortune cookie/self-help book. I’ve faced many challenges and each one has helped me understand myself better as a human and artist. They have also helped me realize how important it is to have faith and believe in the work we do.
The first two defining challenges I experienced were as a child growing up in Calgary. The first one was growing up in the shadow of my mom whose identity was defined by her work as a dance practitioner. The second was the reality of strong racism I experienced in the 80s in Calgary. Calgary, in my experience was not culturally open, tolerant, or curious. I was very shy and alone for most of my elementary and middle school years, often not sure if a peer was being friendly towards me out of genuine kindness or mockery. I recently saw a lovely interview of Meera Syal and Adrian Lester on the National Theatre Instagram page, and in it Adrian talks about wanting to be an actor to be seen as himself rather than the labels society constantly placed on him in every situation. I could relate to this, and it perfectly described my experience as a child. When I was performing, and specifically acting, I could escape the label of “east Indian” and “Shivani” but allow my true self to be seen through the cloak of the character. I was heard and seen and I could express myself freely without fear of judgement or ridicule. It was liberating! A lot of these experiences dissipated when I entered high school. I was fortunate to attend a lovely high school where I was able to find my own eclectic circle of friends who were diverse and had inclusive mindsets. I also found my own voice as a dancer, leader, and academically-driven student.
As an adult, the challenges I’ve experienced have varied in nature but have all helped me grow as an artist and human. Some were practical challenges like my visa restrictions, which taught me to be creative, think outside of the box, be disciplined, and self-motivated. Some were emotional challenges, like losing my father who was my best friend and creative confidant which taught me to trust myself, stand on my own two feet, and balance my personal and professional responsibilities.
There were the challenges of perceptions. Over the years, I’ve realized how to constructively internalize outside opinions – I’ve become better at hearing what is helpful from a strategic point of view without letting the noise deter me from my own career goals. It’s helped me find a balanced perspective.
The final challenge is one I am still grappling with and it is the balance between the commercial and artistic dance worlds. The commercial world has some exciting projects, opportunities, and is financially very lucrative, yet my heart and soul feel satisfied by the work and community found in the artistic dance world. Understanding this is guiding me in the decisions of what type of work I want to engage in, create, and prioritize in my artistic pursuits.
How did you find and end up at ANW?
I’ve always loved ANW since being a student USC. This love and respect only grew when I joined the Theatricum Botanicum family, as many of the actors that work at Theatricum are resident company members at ANW. However, my actual professional relationship with ANW commenced in 2019 as part of the inaugural Noise Now residency program. My dance company, MKM Bollystars, was part of this residency program, and since then we have continued to foster the relationship through various programming, both live in-person and virtual during Covid shutdown.
Out of all your accomplishments in the arts, what are you most proud of?
That’s a tough one – it’s like asking a mother to choose between her children. That being said, if I had to choose, my favorite experience has been Dvaya. Dvaya was my show I toured across Canada. It is one of my proudest works, simply because it was my the first show I conceptualized and conceived of from scratch. It was a new concept and way of approaching the traditional form, and it took some convincing to get the musicians and co-creators on board with my vision. It was the first time I had to really stand firm in my artistic vision. It was my baby, and I got to lead the creative vision in all aspects including costuming, music selection and original musical scoring, choreography ideas/collaboration, researching lyrics, applying for grants and funding, developing graphic and marketing material, and at the end of it all, also being performance ready. I think this was probably my most special project due to all these experiences it encapsulated early on in my career.
I’m also very proud of the culture and community established in my dance company MKM Bollystars. The company is like a family and many of my dancers have expressed that unlike other companies, they’ve always felt supported by the leadership and direction, and look forward to our activities. There is true teamwork, respect, and love that thrives in the company and I am very thankful that I’ve been able to create such a special place of work.
Who is your favorite AAPI author/dancer/artist? What is your favorite work of theirs?
I really admire Mindy Kaling because of the manner in which she has broken barriers and stereotypes as a South Asian and as a woman. She is an incredible writer, actor, and leader. She has created her own path and by doing so also opened so many doors for actors of color. The amount of progress and body of work she has accomplished in such a short span of time is remarkable. I have enjoyed all of her work, but am currently tickled with Never Have I Ever as it resonates with my personal experience as a first generation South Asian American.