Sunday, April 19, 2020

Artists Reach Out: Sloka Iyengar

Dear friends,

Welcome to Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. I dreamed this series of interviews out of grief for my work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance. In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there's no distancing around what we still can share with one another--our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I'm glad they're part of our beautiful community, and I'm eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.

--Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody


Sloka Iyengar


Sloka Iyengar
(photo courtesy of the artist)


Sloka Iyengar PhD, PMP is a neuroscientist and dancer passionate about using her science and dance training for public good. Born and raised in Ahmedabad, India, Sloka worked at a shelter for stray animals after her undergraduate studies in pharmacy. For her graduate and postdoctoral work, Sloka explored mechanisms of seizure generation. More recently, projects have been in the private and the nonprofit sectors. Sloka is involved in neuroscience outreach and advocacy. She has visited Capitol Hill several times to lobby elected officials for basic neuroscience funding. As an educator, she has developed curricula and taught neuroscience and forensic science to middle-school and high-school students. Presently, she teaches neuroscience and evolution to educators at the American Museum of Natural History. She developed the Basic Science section of www.epilepsy.com to communicate advances in basic epilepsy research to patients and caregivers globally.

Sloka is a professional dancer and performer of the classical Indian dance form known as Bharatanatyam. She teaches dance and has started a program to bring dance to residents of New York City nursing homes. Passionate about combining the arts and sciences, Sloka has developed Neuronatyam--a production to explore dance through the lens of neuroscience. You can find out more about her at www.slokaiyengar.net.


Sloka Iyengar
(photo: Michael Tanksley)
Iyengar teaches dissection to high school students
(photo: Stefin Woolever)


Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

Yes. I was scheduled to perform Neuronatyam--a piece exploring themes of movement, rhythm, and emotions from the lens of neuroscience. This piece brings together my two passions (and professions): dance and neuroscience. The original intent was to perform the piece as part of Brain Awareness Week on March 20th but, of course, it was canceled due to the pandemic. A few themes that I wanted to explore are: how the brain enables movement, how the brain can perceive rhythm, and why storytelling can be so moving.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

I have been dancing for a very long time now! I started dancing at age 5 in India, thanks to my mother. She was a vocalist herself and had a deep interest in anything related to dance. Bharatanatyam--the classical indian dance form that I practice--has always been part of my life. I performed my debut recital (called Arengetram) at 13 and stayed on with my gurus to learn dance pedagogy and practice and theory of dance. After I came to the US for my PhD and postdoctoral work,  I stopped dancing for what seems now an eternity (but was only seven years), and picked it back up in 2012. Since then, I have been performing, practicing, teaching, and choreographing in and around New York City.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

Bharatanatayam is exceptionally versatile in that it has a broad vocabulary of movements, expression, and language that can be used to tell a variety of stories and convey a broad array of messages. While there are lovely themes of devotion in the dance form, I have been trying to experiment with two themes as follows: 1) an exploration of science through the lens of dance, and 2) using Bharatanatyam to talk about nature and conservation.

To explore the brain through the lens of dance, I developed Neuronatyam--an excerpt of which debuted in NYC in early March 2020. A larger version of this piece was supposed to be presented later in March. Passionate about nature and conservation, I have developed a piece that shows the death of an old oak tree. The death of the tree is not its death alone, the animals and birds and bats that used to seek refuge in the tree are also affected. These themes will be even more relevant as we will emerge out of the pandemic.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

I try to bring together science and conservation in my piece. In a way, I am very lucky to be working in a dance form that offers a language for pretty much any story I want to say.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

Now, more than ever, the importance of science and arts is being understood and accepted. I think there is a need to (and interest in) explaining the sciences in a way that is relatable, clear, concise, and not condescending. I believe that arts--and specifically--dance provides us a way to do just that!

Self-care tip

I think there is sometimes a propensity to be “hyper-productive,” because there is an illusion of having so much time. I am trying to practice self-compassion, and being okay with not being okay.

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DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.

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