Shoba Narayan is Bringing Bharatanatyam to Broadway and Beyond

April 27, 2022

Shoba Narayan, who plays Princess Jasmine in Broadway’s Aladdin, just so happens to also be an award-winning bharatanatyam performer and teacher, as well as a classical violinist and trained ballet dancer. That sheer variety of artistic training has enabled Narayan to breathe vivid, original life into characters like Hamilton’s Eliza on tour, Wicked’s Nessarose and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812’s Natasha.

Embodying New Characters

“In many bharatanatyam pieces, you’ll embody as many as 10 different people to tell an epic story. A lot of my process for physically becoming a character comes from that training.”

Understanding Jasmine

“There’s a stillness and power about Jasmine’s physical presence—and softness, a compassion for those who didn’t grow up with the privilege she has. Then there’s this exuberant, excited­ energy to see the world beyond the palace walls. As Jasmine, I have a strong stance. My shoulders are pulled back, my feet are firmly grounded to the floor, and my chest is presented as a ballet dancer’s would be.”

Performing Bharatanatyam

“My favorite thing to perform in bharatanatyam is the varnam: a 30-minute journey between intricate, pure-dance sequences and storytelling. It tests physical energy and stamina, and your ability to hold a story for a very long time—which I now do as an actor. Doing the varnam taught me to sustain the emotional and physical stamina for two-and-a-half-hour performances.”

Narayan poses in a navy dress with white print. Her hands are flexed in opposite ways and her right foot is pointed.
Shoba Narayan. Photo by Mark Mann, courtesy Narayan.

Revisiting Aladdin

“When Aladdin came back last fall after 18 months of shutdown, there was an openness to revisiting parts of the script and choreography that were no longer sitting as well as they did in 2014. With Disney’s blessing, I was able to tweak some Bollywood-based movements and hand gestures, or mudras, in a workshop with the entire company. What was a closed, squeezed gesture is now the alapadma mudra: a beautifully curved gesture of the hand that mimics the petals of a lotus.”

Staying Grounded

“I still take a ballet barre daily because it’s great conditioning that aligns me really well. Afterwards, I feel warm and my joints are lubricated, but I’m not so depleted that I can’t do the show.”

“I stay plugged in to bharatanatyam by teaching middle- and high-school students over Zoom. And I’m constantly choreographing and performing Bollywood dances for various weddings, which is so much fun.”

Playing the Violin on Broadway

“I never could have anticipated that in my Broadway debut—Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812—I’d have to play a violin solo. There’s something to be said for maintaining skills that you’re passionate about. It doesn’t hurt to keep in touch with all the facets of your artistic background.”