A Conversation with Debra McCall

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Debra McCall

Debra McCall’s love of dance goes beyond studying, choreographing and teaching; she is also a dedicated historian of the art. Ms. McCall, a Southampton resident who is the director of teacher certification and professional development at the Ross Institute, has a handful of major research and performance projects to her credit. In the 1980s she led the reconstruction of the Bauhaus dances, which were a series of lecture dances performed in the 1920s at the famous experimental school of art and design in Germany, and took them on a world tour. Ms. McCall was also the creator of a performance based on the myth of Psyche as depicted in the second-century Roman novel “Metamorphoses” by Apuleius, for which she conducted research at the Vatican and throughout Italy and Egypt. Now, Ms. McCall has received the 2017-18 Fulbright Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Award, through which she will take on another major dance-related project, this time in India, starting in October for six months.

What will your new project entail?

It has several facets. The main one is the documentation of 108 dance reliefs that make up Bharatanatyam. There are considered to be two temples in India, the Thillai Nataraja being one of them, that have all 108 karanas, or dance postures, that are representative of movement, of dance phrases. They have never been properly documented, and they are exposed to the elements. Another aspect is there is a ceiling in the Parvati temple, with a huge fissure down the center, with all these frescoes of Lord Shiva’s life and what he did. Then there are other dance reliefs all through the temple, which are so unique and beautiful, ribbons of dancers, which again have never been properly documented. The second part of it is documenting the intangible culture, such as the Chariot Festival, in which they take the gods around the temple, the Deekshithar priests and the Devadasi, who were given to the temple as young girls as sacred dancers, and their dancing was considered as sacred as some of the priestly rituals.

What is your academic background that led to your achieving this Fulbright award?

I had those two big projects [the Bauhaus dances and the myth of Psyche] under my belt, and I am also a certified movement analyst. I taught world dance at the Ross School, and choreography. I was dean of cultural history at Ross for many years, so that gave me the historical piece. I’ve had a number of grants, choreography fellowships and a research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s kind of a cumulative history.

What piqued your interest in taking on this project?

I’ve studied Bharatanatyam, which is Indian classical dance, with a woman who was renowned here, who taught at Julliard and Harvard for many years and performed for some of the greats. Ever since I studied with her, I wanted to go to this temple. The dance that she taught me was a dance of creation where there is this moment that says, ‘He danced in the golden temple ecstatically.’ I was thinking, ‘What is this place?’ She said there is a temple in southern India that is the temple of Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. Being that I was a dancer all my life, doing something around the Lord of the Dance seemed like the greatest honor and the greatest payback I could ever do.

How will your project be accessible?

What I would like to do with the photographs is have an exhibition. I hope to make a book, and proceeds from the book would go to the temple to help preserve it. I want to take the documentation to UNESCO to make a case to give the temple world heritage status, hopefully. They will be published online for sure, and I will be writing a paper as part of the Fulbright as my final report. It belongs to everybody – it’s world heritage.

The Temple of Thillai Nataraja in India, which is where Lord Shiva is said to have danced the dance of creation for the gods. Debra McCall photo

Two of the five chariots that transport statues of the main gods of the Thillai Nataraja temple during the biannual Chariot Festival. Debra McCall

A representation of Lord Shiva kicking his leg over his head in a dance competition with the goddess Kali. A priest chants in prayer in the background. Debra McCall photo

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