Luisa Spagna – Artist and Sacred Dancer
I first came across the work of Luisa Spagna through my interest and love of the 64 Yogini’s of Hirapur Orissa.
Luisa had created a beautiful deck of oracle cards and I was interested in finding out how she came to the yogini’s and what her work with these powerful feminine goddesses was all about.
When I requested to interview Luisa for the section of this website – Reflections – she was more than happy to cooperate…what follows is a conversation about her beautiful work and her art.
Prem: Luisa, in your biography you say “In my Body-Earth of Salento is born an olive tree whose roots graft into India” – please explain this beautiful metaphor and give us some background how India comes to play such a big role in your life and in your art?
Luisa: I was born in Salento – Southern Italy, the Eastern most part of Italy. Salento is a land lying between two seas, the Adriatic and the Ionic, and it has always been a crossroad land of cultures.
Looking East during my morning meditation, I very often feel the journey of the sunrise that has crossed India and the Middle East before arriving where I live. In this way I feel connected to India, a land which is for me as important as my homeland – Italy. This is why I describe myself as an olive tree, which is the symbol of Salento my land, but whose roots reach India. I really feel that both lands nourish me deeply.
It was during my studies at University that I started being involved in Theatre Anthropology and where I encountered Indian Arts and Culture. As soon as I completed my degree, me and Paolo, then my boyfriend and now my husband, flew to India where we spent our first long journey in Orissa and where I started my training in Odissi dance with Sanjukta Panigrahi, one of the most renowned of Odissi dancers. It was 1995.
Prem: I read somewhere that dramatic art functions as a powerful ritual that actually creates that which it describes – “a state of embodied transcendence”…. how does your art particularly Sacred Dance point towards this embodied transcendence and through the medium of Sacred Dancing what do you mean to convey that is both uplifting and healing?
Luisa: Dance becomes sacred when it activates processes of transformation. It does so when a human being in her wholeness of body, mind, memories and all the verbal and non verbal intelligences is involved in the dance. Then all the directions of the space within and without the body, and the perception of past, present and future are involved in the process of transformation which is activated by the dancing, and the dance then becomes a transcendent experience and a powerful healing.
My dance training is based on Indian Classical Odissi Dance and also tradition Indian dance Chhau, although I received training also in ballet and contemporary dance. Now I am also going to complete my training in Dancemovementherapy -E-R@
In India, the seven Indian classical dance styles, which include Odissi, are generally considered to be sacred. I believe that these styles should be considered religious dances, since they are based on Hindu myths and symbols. The term “sacred” may referred to all the dance styles in the world which include the whole human being in conjunction with the integration of time and space as I have described above.
Prem: Tell us about your studies into the Feminine and how this influences both your visual art and your sacred dance?
Luisa: When I started being involved in sacred feminine studies I needed to express this through dance. The first item I choreographed was called Shakti, a short dance with a drum. Then I created Matrika, in which a woman dressed in red, symbol of nature, at first gives birth to children in the form of flowers and then eats them. In this way I wanted to express that we come and go back to Mother Earth. Then, I added another short dance, Shekara, where a black snake symbol of energy springs up again after death. Now I consider Shakti-Matrika-Shekara a trilogy. Many other dances that I created later, are based on the feminine and Yogini Circles, for instance, is part of the same process. I performed these dances in New Delhi and for that I received the International Women of Excellence Award in 2014. The deck of 64 (+2) round oracle cards of Yogini of Hirapur Oracle is part of the same process and topic but instead of dancing the 64 Yogini sculptures, I drew them.
Prem: As an independent researcher into the Feminine – what have your learnt that can help women who live in a world where much of their power is lost.
Luisa: I learnt that there is much power and knowledge hidden inside the body of a woman and how incredibly easy it may be to access it. Many times when women awaken to their female power, they say “Yes, I knew this or I knew that. I am able to recognize this power, it has been inside my memory forever.!”
Prem: Luisa, throughout the ages, dance has always being a powerful communicator of the Feminine. How do you believe dance helps us express our deepest femininity? What do you wish to communicate through dance?
Luisa: Dance is one of the most ancient and powerful ways to communicate with the Universe around and within ourselves. When we use dance intentionally to express some specific meaning or to look to our ancient connection to the feminine, then dance can be called “sacred”. Dance helps everybody to look, to find, to recreate, to live ancient roots that is layed down (mapped) in the memories of our body. Dance is one of the most powerful languages belonging to human beings.
In my workshops on the Yogini of Hirapur Oracle, dance is the way to access the knowledge of the Yogini’s and of course for “a woman to transform herself into a Yogini and to recognise in herself the Shakti Power that fills all of existence.”
The dance style that I use in my workshop on the Yogini or Hirapur Oracle is a mixture of Indian classical dance, Circle dance and Creative dance, in which all the elements play an important role in activating and developing the process of transformation.
Prem: In India there is a huge lost history of the “temple dancer” – known as the Devadasi, can you tell us a little about these ancient temple priestesses and why it is important to remember their contribution to the arts?
Luisa: In the last chapter of my book Iltempio di Hirapur” (Roma 2014) – the book is in Italian language but the title could be translated as “The secret dance of the Yogini – The Hirapur temple” – I trace an hypothetical story that links Asparas to Yoginis and the Devadasis, or Maharis as they are called in the Odisha’s tradition.
The Asparas, who are Spirits of Water and Clouds, the suffix “ap” means “water” could be considered the ancestress’ of the Yoginis. As clouds they can assume different shapes and fly through the sky, as the Yoginis do. According to a mythological interpretation, the Asparas were born from different elements of nature, and this was meant to underline their link with all the aspects of nature, and again this trait is a common element in understanding the Yoginis. Another mythological story tells us that two Asparas Rambha and Menaka, had been the first Maharis (Devadasi’s) who danced in fron of Lord Jagannath in the famous temple at Puri.
The Maharis celebrated five rites a day in front of the God singing and dancing. However, it is hard to say anything about their contribution to art. In Orissa, when dance moved from the temple to the stage, when Odissi dance was born as a re-created tradition, very few elements were taken from the Maharis heritage.
What is important to say here about Maharis and Yoginis is that they speak of the Power hidden in a women’s body. This aspect is part of the “Secret” dance of the Maharis and related to Tantric teachings.
When Indian classical dance was born in the first decades of the 20th century, scholars, dance and music gurus did a big clean up of the art of dance in terms of the various compromising aspects derived from its past strong association with Devadasis and Courtesans, who were both considered as prostitutes. Only a few elements of their art was saved.
Prem: Luisa, both of us love the Yoginis my visit to the Hirapur Temple in Orissa has been life-changing in both my spiritual and professional life. Give us some background of how you came to study the yoginis, what they represent to you and how you came to create the Yogini of Hirapur Oracle?
Luisa: My journey to the Yoginis was a long process. I met the Yoginis for the first time in 2000. I had been living for long periods in India since 1995, but that year Paolo, my husband with whom I share my artistic path, proposed that we go and visit a special temple. Presently, there is a road that goes from the Old Town to the temple in less than 15 minutes but then, the Hirapur Temple seemed to be quite far from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa. We rented a car and drove among the villages to reach Hirapur. Yes, that time I realised it was a wonderful place, very different from all the other temples we had visited till that moment. We took pictures of each sculpture and each side of the temple and noted down all the names of the Yoginis that the priests recited to us. This material remained hidden in our studio for a long time.
Much later I began to have a deep interest in feminine studies and started reading, researching and attending seminars. In Italy there began a big movement around the subject of the feminine. I felt the need to write something about Dance and Sacred Female Power, two paths that were very strong in my life. I wanted to join these two aspects of my art through the them of Dancing Indian Goddesses. In 2011 I was in my room in Bhubaneswar, the same home that hosted me since my first journey to Orissa.
I was lying down amongst books and pictures, and on the wall just in front of me there was a picture of an ancient mandala with women dancing around a circle. It was at that moment in looking at that picture that I really met the Yoginis. Then and there I decided to overcome the fear to undertake the writing of such a difficult subject. I replied to the call of the Yoginis and said – Yes, I will do this work. In a split second I decided that the subject of my book would be the Yoginis and that I would draw each sculpture and create an Oracle deck. Amazingly, everything was so clear. I am not an expert at drawing but in that moment I strongly decided to do it without a moment’s hesitation.
Since that moment I visited the temple many times and for more than two years dedicated myself to the writing of my book and to drawing and writing the Yogini Oracle.
Looking back I can say that Hirapur was like a Light, a constant Presence in my life, now I know, I was just waiting for the right moment…..and the Yoginis were also waiting for the right moment to reveal themselves to me.
Prem: How can this Oracle help us as women reconnect with our essential sacred feminine nature and negotiate life in an ever challenging world?
Luisa: The Oracle helps women establish an inner dialogue with themselves, the more we are connected with ourselves, the more situations appear clearer to us. This is what clairvoyance means to me. In the Yogini of Hirapur Oracle, Yoginis are aspects of manifested nature, archetypes, symbols and all these elements push women to recognize their sacred female power inside and outside themselves. It is important to make clear though, that as symbols of manifested nature, as Shakti, the Yoginis can also push men to have an inner dialogue with themselves. In my workshops, dance and the symbols expressed by these Oracle cards are the two basic elements from which I start working with the women in order to emphasize our inner feminine power.
Prem: You founded Sutra Arti Performative together with Paolo Pacciolla – give us some background on Sutra Arti Performative and what do you offer?
Luisa: Sutra Arti Performative was born in 2003, Paolo and I had been working together for a long time. It is involved in research projects on Indian arts and culture and, at the same time, on original and innovative projects of contemporary music, dance and art in which different worlds join. We publish CD’s, Video-Documentaries, and also the Yogini of Hirapur Oracle Deck.
Prem: You have done much fieldwork in India and you are one of the facilitators of the first Biannual “Awakening the Shakti Woman” – in Bangalore India….tell us about this event and what you will be doing there?
Luisa: It has been a very nice experience in being of the facilitators of “Awakening the Shakti Woman” in Bangalore. For the first time my work on the Yoginis and the Yogini of Hirapur Oracle deck was introduced to Indian women and to women from other parts of the world.
For me to tell Indian women how I reinterpreted their culture and their myths has been a strong experience. I was thrilled and a little worried at the same time. But they, were so open and their response was so good, I felt like I passed an examination!
After the presentation we played with thee oracle and danced the meaning of the cards. It was interesting and valuable to receive their feedback and to listen to their individual stories coming from the inspiration of the oracle .
Prem: Luisa, do you have any words of inspiration or any daily practice that helps you remember your sacred femininity?
Luisa: To the women who come to my workshops and to all the women out there I would ask you to remember how important it is to pay homage to your own life by offering flowers and beautiful thoughts everyday to yourself… with many thanks and blessings….Jai Yogini. May the Yoginis help all human beings to pursue a higher life. Luisa Spagna – Summer Solstice 2016.
To order the deck contact: Luisa at firstname.lastname@example.org. The deck costs 25 euro + postage.
The following videos shows Luisa performing a Sacred Dance…….dedicated to Feminine Power….