Pramila Vasudevan held a quiet intensity while dancing with precise gestures and turns against the natural light streaming in from the windows at Movo Space in the Ivy Building.
"I'm using the architecture of the space to move today," said the founder and artistic director of Aniccha Arts, who uses they/them pronouns.
That attention to the space where the dance takes place, and its meaning, is a major element to the often site-specific nature of Vasudevan's works, including "Census" along the Mississippi River in 2016 and "Parking Ramp Project" in 2018. Both used abstraction, idiosyncratic movement and spectacle rooted in a particular location.
Last week, United States Artists announced that Vasudevan is one of two Minnesota-based artists who would be part of the 2022 class of Dance/USA Fellows. Rosy Simas is the other artist.
Only a handful of Minnesota dance makers have received the prestigious honor, which comes with a cash award of $50,000.
Jessica Ferrer, a program manager with USA, said the panel was impressed with Vasudevan's level of care that the artist demonstrates when selecting a site, including the history of the land.
"The panelists were pretty blown away by Pramila's vision," Ferrer said.
This is not Vasudevan's first national grant. That was a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017. "Their work is visible not just locally but nationally," Simas said of her colleague.
Ferrer said the USA panelists recognized that both Vasudevan and Simas were interested in moving away from translating performance for an audience and coming up with creations that were unabashedly for themselves and their communities.
"The panelists found that really admirable and important at this moment in time," Ferrer said.
Vasudevan said the award is an affirmation for the artist's contemporary community-based work. The artist also felt glad not to be pinned to a certain kind of style because of their background and appearance.
"Experimental is not something you look to brown people for necessarily," Vasudevan said.
Born in Illinois, Vasudevan began studying Bharatanatyam in New Jersey as a child and continued to pursue it when the family moved to Madurai, India, after the dancer turned 8. The classical dance style's punctuated patterns of gestures and postures, as well as footwork, whispers through the artist's movements even as Vasudevan is wrestling with the history of Bharatanatyam.
Vasudevan was raised as a Hindu but now identifies as a spiritual atheist. The dancer examines their own caste privilege as part of their artistic journey and work with the community.
"Caste disclosure is part of a caste-awakening movement — to be in solidarity with the communities where these forms are being appropriated from," Vasudevan said. "To be in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, I have to go through caste awareness. I have to look internally through my own background to call on my history."
Vasudevan also has a background in contemporary Indian dance and has nurtured a style that draws on elements initiated from internal sensations that the artist picked up at workshops and through collaborations in the Twin Cities. The dancer, who has a degree in visual art from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, often collaborates with visual and media artists to create layers of sound, visuals and movement for a performance.
Valerie Oliveiro, who runs the Movo space in south Minneapolis where Vasudevan rehearses, is one of the collaborators.
"Their completely open and supportive of what you bring into their process," Oliveiro said.
Vasudevan's investment in community work stood out during their tenure as director of the Naked Stages program at Pillsbury House + Theater to help emerging and experimental performing artists. After six years of running the program and 10 years with PHT, Vasudevan stepped down earlier this month.
Having taught and designed curriculum, and worked with Upstream Arts, an organization housed at PHT that supports people with disabilities, Vasudevan has been able to confront the artist's own biases and privilege. That work also has given Vasudevan ideas for large-scale performance pieces.
"The amount of flexibility and adaptability that I had to have, and the creativity to adjust to the constantly shifting circumstances, was also a really vital piece of it for me," the artist said.
Vasudevan's current work is evolving from a period of reflection and from discussions about the Hoya Project, which calls attention to social justice causes that have stemmed from the awakening after George Floyd's murder and systemic racism within institutions.
Vasudevan also is focused on environmental justice and is laying the groundwork for the kind of big thinking that the artist often tackles — using dance and interdisciplinary art forms as the path to find new ways of understanding different points of view.