Twice a week, 16 NYU Abu Dhabi students walk into Associate Professor of Theater Rubén Polendo's classroom to learn the tools that enrich the relationship between director and actor. Late last month, however, these same Directing the Actor students furthered their education of that craft by walking into a much different classroom: the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal.
As part of an experiential research component of their class, the students journeyed to Nepal in order to study compelling and often ancient theater traditions found throughout the country. Furthering their understanding of the directing discipline, the students spent the intensive weekend utilizing the Nepalese cultural landscape as their classroom and coming into conversation with several renowned artists, actors, and directors who offered a variety of lenses into Nepal's rich performance history.
Using Durbar Square — a plaza comprised of dozens of temples and shrines with over a millennium of history — as home base, as well as traveling during Tihar — one of the most important Hindu festivals in Nepal, during which decorative lights are strung up throughout the city — provided an immediate aesthetic and historic grounding in Kathmandu. However, this trip was not about touristic sightseeing, and the students were soon off to meet with Rajendra Shestha, a celebrated classic Nepali dancer. Shestha, who founded Kala-Mandapa (The Institute of Nepalese Performing Arts), works to preserve the ancient traditions found within Nepalese dance and, more widely, Nepalese culture. The students were privileged enough not only to participate in a two-hour workshop on Nepalese dance, but also to witness a very special and rare performance of Charya Nritya, a sacred and meditative Buddhist dance, by Shestha and one of his students who rigorously studies the tradition.
The Directing the Actor students were also afforded the opportunity to study with other well-known Nepali artists, including director Eelum Dixit as well as members of the Aarohan Theater Group. Dixit spoke extensively on his wide-ranging work spanning theater, television, and film, as well as the ways in which modern Nepalese culture comes into conversation with its ancient traditions and heritage. Later in the afternoon, the students participated in a workshop with company members of Aarohan, learning about the work the group has done throughout Nepal, and the means, challenges, and rewards of navigating in a space with such cultural dynamism.
Between workshops, the students witnessed firsthand the unique religious and cultural setting of Nepal, studying physical space and a director's relationship to it in places as diverse as Pashupatinath, one of the most significant Hindu temples in the world located on the bank of the sacred Baghmati River, and Boudhanath, one of the largest and most important Buddhist sites in the world.