Upeka Born to dance | Sunday Observer

Upeka Born to dance

19 July, 2020
Upeka performing in Nritta Tharanga    Pic: Lukshman Nadaraja
Upeka performing in Nritta Tharanga Pic: Lukshman Nadaraja

Upeka – Danseuse Upeka Chitrasena has mesemerised audiences all over the world for over five decades. She has now turned guru to pass on the matchless legacy of dance bequeathed to her by her parents, legendary dancers, Chitrasena and Vajira to future generations. The Sunday Observer took this dazzling dancer down memory lane recently.

Q: It can truly be said that you were ‘born to dance’. Your parents, Maestros Chitrasena and Vajira are iconic dancers. What are your earliest memories of dance and them?

A: Being born to great parents like mine and growing up in an atmosphere of dance and drums, not surprised that I became a dancer. Our home accommodated the Dance School downstairs, so a great part of my childhood was spent watching the Dance and listening to the rhythm of the drums, seeing my parents teaching, creating ballets and conducting rehearsals.

Besides that, watching them perform made me realise at an early age what it’s going to take to be a professional dancer. So, I was never confused about what I wanted to do. Watching my parents perform in Karadiya is one of the most vivid memories I still have and of how I never missed a chance of watching them from the wings.

Upeka in Chandalika  
Pic: Lukshman Nadaraja

Q: At seven years you made your dance debut in Vanaja choreographed by your mother. What can you recollect about this?

A: I don’t remember much of this except for being excited and having a fun time being on stage with my friends. I was a flower as well as a deer in this story which was about a little girl who floated downstream and was taken care of by the animals and birds of the forest. It was exciting to wear colorful costumes and dance to beautiful music.

Q: In your teens, your first lead role was in Rankikili, another turning point in your journey of dance. What did this mean to you?

A: I was fifteen years old at the time, and I think my mother already knew how serious I was about my dance. I had also been on stage several times in other children’s productions. Therefore, she probably felt I was ready to take on the lead role in her latest children’s ballet, Rankikili. I remember it was an incredibly special feeling because we never got any kind of special treatment as a family. In fact, we had to work even harder than the other children.

Q: Another milestone in your career was when you danced your mother’s role, the lead female role in Karadiya with your father. What were your feelings on this occasion?

A: This was the turning point of my career as a dancer. I was extremely nervous to say the least, taking on my mother’s role, as Sisi, created and nurtured by her for fourteen long years performing it over 200 times. I was only 24 years old and was fully aware of the seriousness of being given this responsibility. However, what was even more challenging was partnering my father, the most nerve-racking experience, which I will never forget. But it was the greatest honour to have performed opposite him.

Q: It is said that you came into your own as a dancer in Kinkini Kolama in 1978. How old were you when you danced this role? Could you please tell us something about this ballet, your role and what you felt while dancing in it?

A: I was 27 years old, with nearly 20 years of experience performing. Inspired by a true incident, the ballet told a simple love story, where a young girl falls in love with a new dance graduate from India, a boy from a low-caste family. An inconceivable match even today. It addressed the true plight of the way so-called nobles in society accepted the artiste.

I believe my parents thought it was time for me to be a principal dancer and created the lead role of this ballet Upul for me. I learnt so much in the making of it, working with my mother who choreographed scenes tirelessly and then watched my father cut out entire sections or select as he saw fit.

I sometimes felt like I was put into a mincing machine, but the result was always worth it. This role provided me with the scope to not only be a lead dancer, but also to bring out my abilities in characterisation.

My character was a very mischievous and daring one, which I loved portraying. Playing my father’s daughter on stage was a fantastic opportunity, especially during the ‘mad scene’ where I had to act hysterical and defy him. I just enjoyed being me and discovering myself as an artiste.

Kinkini Kolama contained all the traditional and some folk dance forms of Sri Lanka making it a truly Sri Lankan ballet, rich in all the technicalities of ‘theatre’.

My father wrote: “My daughter Upeka, has all the qualities and attributes of an exceptional dancer. Being a third-generation artiste and having grown up with the Dance, she has naturally absorbed it in its widest sense. She is in a league of her own amongst the younger generation of artistes and is a typical product of the new generation, skillfully blending the traditional style with a more modern interpretation, which she has developed into a style uniquely her own.

Moreover, she has an extraordinary sense of drama and has proved herself a very dramatic artiste as evidenced in her portrayals in Kinkini Kolama and Dance of Shiva. She’s also endowed with a keen intelligence and sensitivity which are invaluable assets for an artiste” (Nritya Puja - A Tribute to Chtrasena - 50 Years of Dance - 1936 - 1986).

Q:What other roles have had a profound impact on your dancing?

Upeka Chitrasena
Pic: Dominic Sansoni

A: Nala Damayanthi, in which I played the lead swan was again created and played by my mother from 1963. This was probably her most favourite role she choreographed on herself, that I watched her perform avidly over the years, so playing it was an incredible experience, probably the most physically challenging of all characters I have played.

Later, I played the role of Damayanthi, which was a role played by my mother’s sister, Vipuli, a softer, more charming role of the princess that was challenging just because it was not quite me.

Shiva Ranga was another amazing experience, playing the role of Sathi and dancing to the music of the great Pandit Ravi Shankar with the London Symphony Orchestra. Playing a godly character from Hindu mythology, I had to read and understand her characterisation very carefully.

It was a difficult time. We had lost our Colpetty house in ’82 and the riots and civil unrest had broken out in ’83. We were barely able to understand our new circumstances, renting halls and travelling like gypsies from place to place to continue what we lived for, ‘ The Dance’.

Chandalika, a ballet created by my mother for her swansong, in which I played her daughter Chandali was a special one again. Here, I had to play the role of a rodi girl, an untouchable, who is not permitted to use even the well in her village. She is confronted by Ananda, a realised being, who shows the way to end the continuous cycle of suffering. I was extremely fortunate to be able to play these multitude of roles, all very different from roles all very different from one another as they enabled me to become the dancer, I turned out to be.

Q: Apart from your parents who are the other dancers (in any type ) of dance who have influenced you?

A: I really haven’t been influenced by any dancers other than my parents and my two teachers, Piyasara Shilpadipathi (Kandyan Dance) and J.D.Gunatunga (Low Country Dance). From my father’s time we drew a lot of inspiration from the ritual dancers because our work for the stage is and always has been an extension of what they continue to do.

However, sometimes depending on the piece I was working on, or character I was developing, I was inspired by other great dancers.

For instance, I remember for my Saraswathi piece I drew a lot of inspiration from a book that featured Protima Bedi, an Odissi exponent and founder of Nrityagram-The Dance Village in Bangalore India.

Unfortunately, I never got to meet Protima, but a few years after her passing away, I visited Nrityagram ( in 2003) and the bond with her disciples was immediate and has continued to this day.

I have also been greatly inspired by the classical ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose performances I have watched and whose life I have followed closely for a long time, and recently I have had the good fortune to meet him and also develop a friendship. I have also been greatly inspired by reading about other great artistes such as Isadora Duncan, Gelsey Kirkland, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris to name just a few.

Q: You have an extremely illustrious dancing career spanning over five decades. What did you gain from it and what do you think you have given back to dance?

A: Because of my dance I have lived my life to the fullest. I did what I loved, and I got to see the world through it. Whilst having performed all over Sri Lanka, I have had the great privilege of performing at some of the most prestigious theatres of the world, collaborating with world-class artistes, and performing and meeting some of the most distinguished audiences including Royalty, Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, Heads of State and other world-renowned artistes.

I have dedicated my entire life to ‘The Dance’. I not only trained all my life and performed but I also played a major part in sustaining the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya and Dance Company by continuing the management of the Dance Company on the retirement of my parents, organising and performing in a variety of countries with the Chitrasena Dance Company, until the next generation was able to take over.

My time shouldering this legacy was during the 30-year unstable period in the country, without a permanent home to work from and barely managing to find funds to carry on. I have been teaching students from the time I was about 15 years old and I will continue to teach till the end.

Q: You are a dancer who took traditional Sri Lankan dance to the world. How has it impacted the global cultural scene?

A: From the time my father and mother began performing on stage and presenting our traditional dances in a theatre setting there was a huge impact created where it was opened to a wider global audience in a manner never seen before. My father established two ways of presenting our dances. One that he is famously attributed with is the genre called the ‘Ceylonese ballet’.

The other is a traditional repertoire of our dances and drums in a single evening’s performance. The original production that established this format was called Nirthanjali, followed by many other such productions that used the same format, but included completely different items called Navanjali, Navodaranga and others. This format is what is popularly used by schools and many others even to this day.

I always wanted to and followed my father’s philosophy that the dance is sacred and therefore, it must maintain a certain work ethic established by him. So, I did just that and continued performing at home and taking Sri Lanka to the world through international performances and collaborations with artistes such as Arianne Mnouchkine of the Theatre du Soleil in Paris and Jonathan Hollander of The Battery Dance Company, NY.

More recently, our Dance Company was invited to collaborate with the world-renowned Nrityagram Dance Ensemble in a critically acclaimed production called Samhara that not only travelled the world over but was nominated for the Bessie Awards, (the Oscars of Dance) for ‘Outstanding Production’ and ‘Outstanding Sound Design or Composition’ of the year in 2012 in New York.

Q: Tell us something about your involvement in choreography?

A: When I was teaching Dance at the Presbyterian Girls School, Dehiwela, I did some choreography with those students and later at Carey College I produced my Mother’s ballet Vanaja, adapting the choreography as needed. Other than that, I have choreographed for the students in my classes at the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya.

My mother choreographed all my ballet roles and solos, however, I always contributed to the finished product. I believe that, given the situation at the time, I devoted all my time and energy to the dance, I had little time left for choreography, particularly as my mother was still creating works for the Dance Company.

Q: What can you say about the evolvement of dance e.g. fusion of the traditional and modern for example?

A: As a living art form, dance has evolved and will continue to evolve all over the world. So, the rituals (where all our traditional dance forms were born out of) and the stage adaptations of our traditional forms have also evolved and continue to evolve.

My father is the foremost in pioneering the transition of our ritual traditional dances from the village setting to the modern stage in the 30’s and 40’s.

As such, the existence of formal theatre presentations of our dances is fairly recent in comparison to our rituals that date back over 2500 years.

However, it is important to highlight here that, right at the inception of this initial transition, my father set standards for our stage presentations which ensured our dance forms remained true to its roots and were on par with the best dancers in the world, performing at the Kremlin in Russia, the Saddler’s Wells Theatre in London and later being invited to perform in Germany for 3 straight months 56 performances on one tour, all of it in the late 60’s early 70’s.

In our Company it is compulsory for every dancer to have a solid foundation in a single technique be it Kandyan, Low Country or Sabaragamuwa and continuous practice on a daily basis is of utmost importance. So, there is an inevitable mastery over your style with constant practice of basics.

The performer and the performances mature with each new experience and so the traditional repertoire evolves too. When we create, it is a natural extension of the language you are trained in. There is no fusion or confusion in how we move.

Q: You have now taken on the mantle of guru. How do you feel about it? How would you compare the present generation of dancers with earlier generations?

A: The Maha Guru is my mother, Vajira, who at the age of 88 is still actively teaching and inspiring all of us. I take an active part in teaching, as does my sister Anjalika and the third generation, consisting of my nieces, Heshma, Umi and Thaji form the backbone of the creative, administrative, artistic and performance aspects of the School and Company.

Thaji is the lead dancer and also teaches. The Dance Company is trained by me and Heshma, who is also the Artistic Director and choreographer of the Company.

Times have changed and circumstances are also constantly changing in our students’ lives. Today’s generations have much more information and access to other options. It is much harder for them to commit to one thing. But I have to say, I am very proud of my nieces.

Q: You are the Vice Chairman of the Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation. What are your future plans for it?

A: The Foundation has a Board of Directors who collectively makes the decisions going forward. The main aim at present is the sustainability of the Kalayathanaya while ensuring the Dance Company continues to practise, learn, share, experiment, collaborate and perform. We are also trying to complete the construction of the Guru Gedara.

The future tangible plan is primarily the construction of the permanent Kalayathanaya. Intangible plans are always open and unfolding. However, we will continue our programs in recruiting and granting of dance scholarships where we provide rigourous residential courses for students who are serious about making a career in dance. We are currently recruiting a full-time drummer.