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Conversations with the Inspiring Rina Mehta

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rina Mehta.

Rina, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I was born with an intense and otherworldly love of dance. This love has consumed me, tested me, and driven me. Today, this love of dance is the foundation upon which I have built a life and a business and the breath that infuses everything I do. I am proud to be a Kathak dancer, choreographer, and educator, and Co-Founder and Principal Artist with the Leela Dance Collective, a nationally and internationally touring dance company. My formal training in dance began right here in Los Angeles. As a child, I studied Bharatanatyam, South Indian classical dance, from Padmini Vasan in the San Fernando Valley. I loved the rigor of the art form and I loved the stories of the great Hindu gods and goddesses I learned to dance. They seemed to me – these gods and goddesses – like the Marvel’s heroes or X-men of my people.

When I moved to Berkeley, CA for college, I was eager to continue my study of Bharatanatyam. Fate instead landed me in renowned Kathak master, Pandit Chitresh Das’ classroom. I remember my very first day. I was mesmerized by the energy in the room. Pt. Das was playing tabla and singing as his students danced a story of the love between the divine beings, Radha and Krishna. In many ways, my profound journey as a dancer and artist began that fateful day. I immediately joined Pt. Das’ school and began training with him in the traditional guru-shishya parampara (guru-disciple tradition). I eventually became a teacher at his institute, the Chhandam School of Kathak and a dancer with his company, the Chitresh Das Dance Company. I was blessed to have been able to study with Guruji (as I refer to him) intensively for more than 15 years, to have danced with him and in his company and to have taught under his guidance.

In 2010, I moved back to Los Angeles and entered a new phase of my career and life in dance. I began teaching and performing locally and around the country as a soloist. I learned so much as I traveled the country teaching and performing. I saw how dancers and artists struggled – to find the environment and support to develop their craft, to find camaraderie and a community of artists to engage and exchange with, to realize their artistic visions without adequate financial support. When my Guruji passed in 2015, I brought together my fellow sisters in dance – Seibi Lee, Rachna Nivas, Sarah Morelli, and Shefali Jain – to reflect on how we wanted to carry forward the legacy of Kathak dance. We decided to form the Leela Dance Collective. Our hope for the collective is that it provides kathak artists with the support, nourishment, resources, and community they need to thrive and carry forward the rich and ancient art form of Kathak. Our work is grounded in the principle of collective creativity. We believe firmly that an open exchange of ideas and collaboration can lead to great discoveries and works of art.

We also believe firmly in the power of women supporting women. This is the underpinning of the Leela Dance Collective. As a Principal Artist with the collective, I have had the privilege of creating two groundbreaking artistic works. The first, SPEAK, is a kathak-tap collaboration developed and performed by myself, my guru sister Rachna Nivas and tap artists Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. The second, Son of the Wind, conceived of and created by myself along with guru sisters, Seibi Lee and Rachna Nivas, is a dance-drama featuring an all-female cast based on the Indian epic, the Ramayana. In addition to being a Principal Artist with the collective, I am also the Artistic Director of our educational institution – The Leela Academy. I have the great joy of teaching and training more than 50 students here in Los Angeles year round in Kathak dance.

One of my most ambitious initiatives is The Leela Endowment, the first and only one-of-its-kind self-standing endowment for Indian classical dance and music. I am proud to say that the endowment has been successfully established with seed funding of $500,000, generously donated from community members and patrons in Los Angeles and beyond. While fundraising efforts will continue over time, the endowment will be able to grant its first artist fellowship in 2020.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
My journey has been long, difficult and incredibly rich. I grew up in a traditional immigrant household. My parents came to this country from India so that my sister and I could have access to educational and economic opportunity. My parents sacrificed a great deal so that I could attend UC Berkeley and receive both my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Immunology and Public Health, respectfully. The hardest thing I did was abandon the life I was supposed to live for the life I wanted to live. I had danced my entire life. I danced as a college student, as a graduate student and throughout my working life. At some point in time, I came to a fork in the road. If I wanted to achieve something of substance, I had to make a choice. I simply could not let go of the dance and so I chose to move back in with my parents, leave behind my well-paying job and try to be a dancer, an artist. I made this decision at the age of 33.

Perhaps the hardest thing for me was overcoming the shame of being financially dependent on my parents in my mid-30’s. I remember getting panic attacks for almost a year – every day at 4 am like clockwork. What was I doing with my life? I remember receiving an invitation to a friend’s potluck shortly after I quit my job. I politely declined and sobbed after I put the phone down. I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford to take any appetizers or flowers or wine with me to the party. I remember the looks I would get when people found out I lived at home with my parents. I remember the looks from my community members when I told them I had thrown away a UC Berkeley education to be a dancer. And I remember distinctly feeling like I was a nobody for a very long time. It has taken me no less than eight years to arrive at a point where I have an artistic body of work I am truly proud of, a stable income, a team of fellow artists that I can work with and count, a student body that is passionate about and dedicated to dance, and a community of patrons working to support my artistic and entrepreneurial dreams.

My advice to other women is this:

Find a way to listen to that voice inside of you that knows who you are and what you want.
Embrace the struggle – the struggle breaks you and makes you, the struggle gives you depth and character.
Find support – from a friend, a mentor; from nature and the divine.
Embrace loneliness – there will be times that you are and must be alone. There are things that you have to go through alone.
Never ever give up on yourself.

Please tell us more about your work, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
I am a Kathak artist and educator. I am proud to have founded the Leela Dance Collective along with my sisters in dance – Seibi Lee, Rachna Nivas, Sarah Morelli and Shefali Jain. I’m especially proud of the principles that are reflected in our work at Leela – from our artistic productions to our educational initiatives. We believe firmly in the power of collective creativity. We believe in the power of women as artists and leaders. We believe that innovation and tradition are not at odds and the one does not have to contradict the other. So, while we are in the business of preserving an art form and tradition that dates back thousands of years, we also work to innovate within the tradition and push the boundaries of the art form. Perhaps most importantly our work seeks authenticity and integrity. As dancers, choreographers and artists we are in the business of art as distinguished from entertainment. The making of art requires soul searching, labor, conscientiousness, and time. In today’s fast-paced world of YouTube sensations and Instafamous personalities, the making of art feels like a deviant act. Yet we persist and work to stay true to our values.

It would be great to hear about any apps, books, podcasts or other resources that you’ve used and would recommend to others.
I am an avid reader and listener of podcasts. Here are some of my favorites –

Books:

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Creativity Inc., by Ed Catmull
Good to Great by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras

Podcasts:

StartUp, Gimlet
Ted Radio Hour, NPR

Contact Info:

  • Website: www.rinamehta.dance, www.leela.dance
  • Email: rina@leela.dance
  • Instagram: @rinamehta.dance, @leeladancecollective
  • Facebook: @rinamehta.dance, @leeladancecollective

Image Credit:
Marissa Roseillier, Margo Moritz, Egor Barkanov, Don Norris

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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