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Ivan Pulinkala poses in the Kennesaw State dance theater.

Dance maker Ivan Pulinkala brings drive, curiosity to new job as KSU’s dean of arts

Ivan Pulinkala was 13 years old when he experienced an epiphany while watching the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform in New Delhi. 

Despite growing up in an artistic family — his mother, Jeanette, was active in the church choir as a singer; and his father, George, was artistic director of Delhi Music Theatre and played first violin in the Delhi Symphony Orchestra — and extensive training in piano, voice, ballet and jazz dance throughout his childhood, the arts didn’t connect with him in mind, body and spirit until he saw what Taylor conveyed through contemporary dance. 

“Something clicked immediately,” he says. “I’d never seen anything like it, but I wanted to be on that stage, be a part of what I was seeing. Somehow, I knew the modality could offer the greatest personal expression, and wanted to create works as a choreographer to duplicate this new experience.”

By the time he graduated from Hindu College, Delhi University (Bachelor of Commerce), Pulinkala was fulfilling his dream of transforming lives via the arts as founder and artistic director of a dance company that toured India from 1994 to 1998. In 1999, he was named one of 25 artists of the millennium by India Today Magazine. 

But he wanted more. 

Ivan Pulinkala poses in his Kennesaw State office.
Ivan Pulinkala encourages his students to become part of the Atlanta arts ecology. (Photo by David Caselli)

Pulinkala completed graduate studies in the States, where he earned an M.F.A. in dance from Mills College and a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Alabama. That laid the groundwork. In 2005, Kennesaw State University hired him to create a dance department. 

Pulinkala was named dean of Kennesaw State University’s College of the Arts in March, a job that uses his entire skill set. I cannot think of any better way to reflect the intersectionality of my work as a choreographic artist, entrepreneur, educator and arts administrator,” he says.

KSU’s College of the Arts comprises the School of Art and Design (including the Zuckerman Museum of Art), Department of Dance, School of Music and Department of Theatre and Performance Studies. The 2019–20 season marks the inauguration of ArtsKSU Presents across all four disciplines. The professional presenting season will consist of more 100 artistic experiences — featuring internationally renowned artists and companies — curated to expand the boundaries of knowledge, possibility and imagination.

Arts scholarship is integral to Pulinkala’s philosophy as an educator. By the same token, his sensitivity to how insular academic institutions can be compels him to burst the bubble — pushing students to see and participate in what exists outside the membrane. Critical to that equation is engaging the broader metro Atlanta community and working artists who practice domestically and abroad. 

One of the first things Pulinkala did when forming KSU’s dance department was establish ties with Atlanta Ballet to give students face time with professionals. The relationship led to KSU’s Dance Company performing with Atlanta Ballet at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Pulinkala also has built a bridge between KSU and Israel — a world leader in modern dance — by choreographing pieces there, inviting Israeli choreographers to work as artists-in-residence with KSU students and helping launch the first study abroad program in that country. 

“Georgia is lucky to have Ivan,” says Armando Luna, who danced professionally for 35 years and was a principal teacher at Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education before enrolling at KSU (B.A. in dance, Class of 2015). “He is a genuine, calm, unyielding, thoughtful, logical, force for KSU and Georgia. Watching him advance his goals, on campus and off, was a gift. Whether or not his students pursue dance careers, they will be well-informed citizens.”

Ivan Pulinkala was the driving force behind KSU’s $1 million theater devoted to dance. (Photo by Lauren Lopez de Azua/Kennesaw State University)

Pulinkala jokes that when KSU hired him, the only person he had to direct was himself because there was neither a Department of Dance nor any staff to manage. Fourteen years later, under his stewardship, the university has the largest collegiate dance program in Georgia and is home to Atlanta’s first theater designed specifically for dance. 

The complexity and density of his new responsibilities notwithstanding, Pulinkala still makes time for choreography. His latest piece, Moon Dust — a collaboration with award-winning choreographer Lisa Lock and KSU’s College of Computing and Software Engineering — will explore the intersection of the arts and technology when it premieres January 30–February 1

At least three alums have started their own dance studios or companies, by Pulinkala’s count, and he says former students are sending their students to Kennesaw. He’s especially proud of the synergy he’s witnessed between traditional students and seasoned professionals who’ve decided to return to the classroom. 

“Ivan is the reason I took that leap toward higher education, even while I was in the middle of an already successful dance career,” says John Welker, the former Atlanta Ballet dancer and cofounder/director of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. Welker graduated summa cum laude from KSU’s College of the Arts before earning his M.B.A. “Ivan created the opportunity that allowed me to think years ahead so I was well prepared to further my career in dance. He is a true visionary and continues to inspire me daily with his work.” 

A major advocate for metro Atlanta’s arts and culture scene, Pulinkala has served on boards and in advisory capacities for glo, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and ArtsATL. His example is a constant reminder to students that they must round out their formal education by making the most of what’s happening in regional dance, theater, visual arts and film.

“I grew up in North Georgia and only visited cultural institutions during class field trips, or during family outings to see The Nutcracker at the Fox Theatre,” says Sicily Palms, Atlanta Ballet’s company manager at Atlanta Ballet and a 2016 KSU graduate. “Other than that, we pretty much stayed close to home. But Kennesaw’s proximity to Atlanta allowed me to engage with a booming art scene. I think a lot of young people like me are attracted to and choosing to stay in Atlanta after graduation thanks to our experiences in the city as undergraduates.” 

KSU dancers perform Pulinkala's "Cocoon."
The Ivan Pulinkala-choreographed “Cocoon” debuted at KSU in 2010. (Photo by Robert Pack)

By filling the pipeline with emerging artists like Palms — whose pluralistic approach to learning goes beyond their disciplinary perspectives, familiar boundaries and comfort zones — Pulinkala is honoring the legacy of his former professor and mentor, the late Mary Cochran, who had danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

The two met on his first day of classes at Mills College — when Pulinkala, newly arrived in the United States, was terrified, wide-eyed and on the brink of discovery. 

“I just remember this short dancer with bubbly hair coming down the hall saying, ‘You! The Indian guy!’” says Pulinkala. “I lit up because I thought, Whoa! Somebody actually knows I’m here? It turns out Mary had seen my audition tape and pushed for my acceptance to Mills. A few days later, I made the connection that she was Paul Taylor’s muse for 12 years and had danced with the company when I saw them in New Delhi.”

The reunion proved to be another fulcrum in Pulinkala’s artistic evolution. To this day, he’s grateful for Cochran’s generosity in opening doors to professional companies to students — allowing them access to broader communities and ecologies. He admires her facility as a dancer, instructor and administrator (following her tenure at Mills, she chaired the dance department at Barnard College for 10 years). And her creativity and insistence upon constant innovation remain his gold standard. 

“At this point in my life and career, I’m very interested in and invested in opening doors and opening eyes” for artists in training, says Pulinkala. “But I will never let go of being the wide-eyed, eager student I once was, because I want to remain curious. I want to keep growing.”