Choreographer, dancer and movement director Usha Jey is currently in Birmingham, UK at the ongoing 2022 Commonwealth Games performing Tamil Nadu’s folk dance Kuthu along with her now iconic #HybridBharatham choreography. If Jey’s name means nothing to you, his performances certainly will. It’s impossible to have missed his now-viral Instagram video dancing to Lil Wayne Uproar wearing a checkered bottle green Kalakshetra saree – bringing hip-hop and Bharatanatyam together in her unique interpretation — which has nearly 5 million views at the time of writing. Her popularity is such that she now performs an extended version of this choreography at the 10-day sporting event for the world to see.
When I met Jey through my Zoom window a few weeks ago, she had just returned to her hometown of Paris after a whirlwind European tour with British rapper MIA, and was about to leave for the UK. My first question was to decipher her inimitable #HybridBharatham choreography that made her the internet’s darling dance queen. How did the idea of merging Indian classics with street dance come about? “I envisioned choreography in 2019 as an experience for myself,” reveals Jey, who has also worked with fashion brands like Off-White, Rami Kadi and Ashi Studio on movement direction and show choreography. . “People say I mix the two dances, but that’s not the case. The Bharatanatyam adavus each have a specific mood. I don’t mix that with hip-hop movements. I consciously move from one dance to the next, honoring each in its entirety,” she explains.
A first-generation Franco-Tamilian, the dancer grew up straddling two cultures, and the choreography is nothing but a collision of her worlds, with which she wholeheartedly identifies. Jey started learning hip-hop dancing over a decade ago to keep a friend company. She didn’t really expect to find her rhythm in the process. The opportunity to study Bharatanatyam in the French capital, however, took some hunting. “I always wanted to learn it but I couldn’t find the right place in Paris. Bharatnatyam is considered to be that dance form that you have to learn from an early age, but I didn’t start until I was 20. I was doing it for me and I had nothing to prove. So I didn’t mind being the only adult in a room full of kids!
Tamil music and movies, says Jey, have always been part of her family’s daily routine at home. She even spent a decade learning her mother tongue. She saw dancing as another way to stay connected to her Tamilian roots. Did she approach the clothing aspect of this process with the same respect? “I grew up imbibing the values of Tamil culture. I therefore do not consider the sari as a simple dress. It’s a relic of my lineage, a thread that ties me to my land,” says the choreographer. “Often when people talk about the saree, they refer to it as a representation of femininity. I don’t see it the same way, because a woman can also be represented in many other ways. More than an eloquent affinity, the sari allows me to represent my culture wherever I go, like when I wore it on French national television. It allows me to say where I come from, without trying to look like someone else.