Brunch

Upeka Chitrasena on turning 70, dance, and the Chitrasena Dance Company

The Chitrasena Dance Company is one of Sri Lanka’s oldest and most prestigious dance companies. Established by Guru Chitrasena in 1943, the dance company has been instrumental in bringing traditional Sri Lankan dance from its village setting to the modern local and international stage, by creating dance theatre that is unique to Sri Lanka. The school, or kalayathanaya he set up with his wife Vajira has become a place revered by dancers and performers. The accolades the school has received are many, and over the years, leading the school and dance company fell to Guru Chitrasena’s eldest daughter Upeka, and then to three of his granddaughters Heshma Wignaraja, Thaji Dias, and Umadanthi Dias. 

Upeka Chitrasena started to lead the Chitrasena Dance Company in 1986 as Principal Dancer while also managing its PR (public relations) and logistics. With 20 years of dance behind her at the time, Upeka continued to build for herself her own reputation as one of Sri Lanka’s finest (and critically acclaimed) women dancers. Brunch caught up with Upeka, who celebrated her 70th birthday in May, for a trip down memory lane and her hopes for the future of traditional dance and the Chitrasena Dance Company.

 

Becoming a dancer

For Upeka, dance has been her whole life. As a young child, she watched her parents practice and teach dance. “From the time I was born, that was all I saw and heard,” Upeka recollected, thinking of the Dance Company’s early days when Guru Chitrasena and Vajira lived and worked out of their residence in Colpetty, living upstairs with their family and teaching downstairs. “My mother always disciplined us by making us join the childrens’ classes every Saturday without just hanging around and watching. We never got any special attention though.” Upeka’s first public performance was in 1957, in the children’s ballet Vanaja, and from there she went on to take part in almost all the children’s ballets.

Seeing her parents create new productions, embark on international tours, and being able to meet the many legendary artists, both local and foreign who visited her parents in Colombo also did a lot to inspire a young Upeka to dance. In 1965, her mother selected her for her first lead role, in the children’s ballet Rankikili (the golden hen). In the same year she also officially became a member of the Chitrasena Dance Company, dancing in their renowned ballets Karadiya, Nala Damayanthi, and in the premier of Nirthanjali, a production that set the standards for traditional dance and drums in this country.

“That year was the start of figuring it out for me,” Upeka said. “I never stopped and thought ‘today I’m going to become a dancer’; it was more being thrown into the water and just having to swim. My parents never forced me or my siblings into it. They only forced us to be in class and to do the classes properly like everyone else. They also insisted each of us play an instrument. I learned to play the sitar, and through that I learned to understand and appreciate music. Now when I look back, all that learning came into use when I finally joined the company.” One festival coincided with Upeka’s Ordinary Levels, with Upeka recalling how she would go for her exams in the mornings and then go on stage in the evening. But that was where she wanted to be. Looking back, Upeka recalled that she couldn’t think of a time where she wanted to be anything other than a dancer, saying: “Dance just became a part of my life. I’ve never thought about becoming something else. There’s nothing I’ve loved more than dance.” 

Upeka’s first tour with the company in 1970 was a three-month tour to Europe which, she admits, was a crash course in what it would take to become a professional performer. Performing opposite her father in Karadiya as Sisi in 1975, a role that belonged to her mother and was only ever performed by her, was another major turning point for Upeka. The ballet Kinkini Kolama, which was in the making for many years, premiered in 1978, finally coming to fruition when Upeka was ready to take on the lead role as Upuli. “Right after that I think my mother felt I was ready to be presented as a solo artiste and started making traditional items for me. There was an informal coming of age performance around 1980 I remember at the Carey College Hall where I performed three traditional solos in the first half of the show in between drumming acts. Every performance has been special and I never wanted anything more in my life.”     

 

Living up to her legacy and leading the Chitrasena Dance Company

As the eldest child of Guru Chitrasena and his wife Vajira, both of whom were revered for being the finest dancers of their kind, as well as for their tireless work in creating a new genre for traditional Sri Lankan dance, the Ceylonese Ballet, Upeka was afforded no favours by her parents. She was treated just the same as any other dancer within the company. “My parents never told me ‘you’re good’ or anything like that. They let me be and I worked really hard to become the dancer I became. It was tough being compared to my parents or anyone else, but that’s not something you can stop. Everyone compares you. So when continuously practicing I was able to create a style of my own. I find that I took more of my father’s strength and weightiness of the Kandyan dance, and from my mother the precision and form of every movement.”

By her own admission, Upeka wasn’t young when she started to lead the company while Guru Chitrasena was still alive, being about 35 at the time. Through her time at the company, and her unique vantage point behind the scenes seeing everything her parents did and were continuing to do, Upeka knew all the ins and outs of running the Dance Company. Her journey to lead the company during a very difficult political climate in Sri Lanka was an unconscious one, starting from managing performances to handling international tours. “My first tour leading the company was to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. That was the first of many tours, but with each one I learned more.”

Leading the company, Upeka shared that there was indeed a great sense of responsibility. “My father did the hardest work to create a unique stage art for our country,” she said. “The work he and my mother did has made it easier for us to carry on in one sense but tough too. It was easier as he had to fight all the initial battles in his time to pave the way for not only male dancers but female dancers to share a stage professionally; for dancers and drummers to have an equal footing on stage. But they also set the bar very high, very early on, in terms of production standards – artistry of dance, music, and stage craft as a seamless composition and the technical proficiency in theatre lighting; even a new form of music suitable for our dance.” 

Upeka also emphasised the role her mother Vajira has played among a multitude of pioneering efforts, developing a distinct stage form that Upeka now carries forward to the future generations. “She’s a very powerful part of our lives. Her strength in supporting my father throughout was phenomenal. I wouldn’t be here doing all of these things if not for her. She has passed on her discipline and untiring commitment to all of us. When I see her still wanting to teach at 89, it’s inspiring, especially now that I have become the main teacher for training the company.” 

 

The Chitrasena Dance Company and the new generation

In 2011, Upeka decided to stop dancing professionally. “It was a spontaneous decision,” Upeka shared. “We were doing Dancing for the Gods, a production my niece Heshma had created. It was a three-night production and on the final night, just before the performance, I told Heshma that this was going to be my last performance. This was announced before I went on stage, and that audience was to witness my last performance. It was a great way to get off stage, and I felt I needed to get off stage and spend more time supporting my dancers. Because when you’re performing, you can’t give a hundred percent to training others, especially as you get older because you have to practice and train more. To dance for 10 minutes, you have to work for months.” 

Upeka handed the reins of the company over to her three nieces, Heshma Wignaraja, Thaji Dias, and Umadanthi Dias. The women take on different roles within the dance company, with Heshma leading creatively as Artistic Director and making sure all dance company performances are impeccably produced, from choreographing and directing rehearsals and stage productions to managing the lightboard during the actual performances; Umadanthi manages the business and other technical aspects while also managing backstage during performances; and Thaji literally working every day of her life as a teacher and Principal Dancer. “I am very worried about the current situation. I’m not sure how I would have been able to handle it as a performer. Thaji has the discipline and she keeps practicing and teaching every day, which is very important because dance is something you have to keep doing. You can’t take a break.” 

 

Looking to the future of traditional dance

Predicting the future is very difficult, and this is precisely what Upeka said when speaking on the future of traditional dance. “When you tour and perform, audiences go crazy for our traditional dance,” Upeka said, adding: “There are lots of people who still support and appreciate the difficult path we have taken, not commodifying or objectifying our art. But the problem is, will funding keep coming for this kind of approach? If we can find sponsors, this will go on. There are lots of kids who are interested in becoming professional traditional dancers, but as things are, everyone needs a job to survive. So most of them opt to teach, and that’s one of the things we are trying to support.” 

Upeka spoke about the Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation’s scholarship programme, which is one of the ways the company recruits dancers. “We select about 10 students from hundreds of applicants to train over two years on a rigorous schedule for them to either become company members and/or teach at the Kalayathanaya. But it also empowers them to go off on their own.” 

Another aspect of traditional dance that is fast fading “are the rituals that the stage forms were born out of. There are only a handful of ritual masters alive who have the knowledge of how to perform a ritual. Many of the children of these old gurus are not interested in continuing in the footsteps of their fathers like in the olden days, because they’ve seen the struggle and disappointments of it all. During our Guru Gedara Festival in 2018, we brought out the stories of some of these traditional masters. We barely managed to find gurus who make drums, traditional costumes, masks, puppets, who know the old methods and processes. They were all old artists living hard lives. We have already lost three of them today. Someone at the event described them as a dying species. The ritual dying out was something my father feared from what he witnessed in the 40s and 50s, and I believe was what led him to create the stage form. I feel the same way, but I am confident, so far, that our children will carry on this legacy.” 

Upeka stressed that traditional dance is one of the only unique living art traditions that we as Sri Lankans have, especially when it comes to what we can share with the world, and how much people outside Sri Lanka appreciate our traditional dances is testament to its power. “There is so much you can do with traditional dance. At the company, from my father’s time to now, we have never compromised our art.”