SOUTH LOOP — A lifelong percussionist and DJ who spent most of his life in the Midwest, Chicagoan Brian Keigher could seem out of place in his new position at the head of the city's premier classical Indian dance company.
But the second he starts talking about bharatanatyam, the centuries-old dance style that's a cornerstone of Kalapriya's programming, or distinctively South Asian instruments like the pulluvan pattu, the former city cultural affairs staffer's expertise becomes clear.
Keigher joined the 20-year-old Indian classical dance company in January as its first executive director, part of a five-year plan to expand the organization's offerings to include more aspects of Indian culture, beyond dance workshops and performances.
Before that, he booked performers for city cultural department events like World Music Festival, Chicago SummerDance, Audio Picnic and more at the Chicago Cultural Center and Millennium Park, spinning as DJ Warp during his off hours.
Kalapriya's founder, Artistic Director Pranita Jain, said she wasn't worried about telling the board that she hoped they'd hire a white, male musician to lead the dance company.
"When Brian was being considered for the position, it was absolutely known, no doubt, that Brian would be the person for the job," Jain said. "It's not of essence that Brian is not of Indian heritage, because the audience we have is reaching out to the Indian diaspora, offering dance lessons and classes and music programs to an audience of all backgrounds."
Keigher's interest in Indian music dates to his childhood in Racine, Wis., when he "got bored with rock music" and developed an interest in Tabla drumming, an Indian playing style. Unable to find any formal Indian music lessons in Milwaukee or Chicago, Keigher "made a cold call to the Ali Akbar College of Music" in San Rafael, Calif.
They connected him with a nearby engineer who dabbled in Indian classical music, eventually connecting him with a Tabla instructor he met with weekly for lessons.
Frustrated that he couldn't see live performances of the music he was studying, Keigher, then a high school student, decided to book his own.
"The first concert I ever produced, when I was 18, was an Indian classical concert for the public at a Unitarian church in Racine — that was kind of the bug that bit me of putting things on stage for people to witness, and exposing people to new music that way," Keigher said from his new office, in Kalapriya's new headquarters at the Fine Arts Building in the South Loop.
"Fast forward 15, 17 years or so and I ended up booking world music for a living, always looking out for Indian music while knowing that I have to look out for other cultures and not play favorites."
Keigher's been tasked with expanding the dance company's outreach by hosting at cultural events and with students in Chicago Public Schools, and to bring more musical programming through the company, like last week's concert for Sarangi master Lakha Khan.
Since moving into Kalapriya's new home at 410 S. Michigan Ave. a few weeks ago, Keigher's already pushing to book the building's rehearsal and performance spaces for a growing roster of Indian music, dance and arts programming.
"Now that we're here, in the Fine Arts Building, we're looking to use this building as a hub of our performance activity," Keigher said. "In February, we started an in-studio concert series — we hope to do about four of those a year — of more intimate Indian music performances in our dance hall spaces. We just confirmed that we're collaborating with the Old Town School of Folk on a show in October, and curating an Indian classical concert as part of the World Music Festival in Millennium Park."
Keigher wants to introduce a wider audience to Indian music and dance, he said.
"We want to take every opportunity we can for Kalapriya to bridge those artistic worlds," he said.
Jain said she's confident that Keigher's presence, and his background independent of the dance world, will help expand the dance company's impact in Chicago and beyond.
"I'm an immigrant and I still have a deep knowledge of Indian arts coming from India, but Brian complements that, because he has a deep knowledge of the Indian music scene happening in the USA itself," Jain said, nodding to his "Bombay Beatbox" series that first brought South Asian music into Chicago's nightclubs.
"From an audience perspective, he knows what makes the audience's heart sing and be happy," Jain said. "It's just not about Indian dance and music for people of South Asian descent. We're serving the entire arts-loving community."