So, why was it contemporary? Because I worked with newly commissioned scripts. It was experimental because it combined the northern and the southern classical music from India, which is not commonly done. Also, there was a lot of difference in the staging of the work, but it was intentionally kept within the Bharatanatyam syntax. There was no movement invention in this work at all. If one didn't know the background, one would see it as a classical piece.
The next piece really broke tradition, because it was a personal narrative that was enacted on the stage. That was a complete no-no, something which is not done in traditional Bharatanatyam and particularly not when the story is so completely personalized. It has to do with an autobiographical work that I created called Revealed by Fire and Revealed by Fire had to do with my own personal journeys through loss and grief. In 1985 my husband and my two daughters were killed in the Air India bombings and sixteen years later I created this work. I don't know if I set out wanting to say anything. I just felt like I needed to do this work. I needed to be able to put myself through what I call the test of fire, and that's why the title was Revealed by Fire. It was based on a female archetype in our great epic story of Ramayana where Sita, the protagonist has to enter a fire to prove her purity and to prove her loyalty to her husband who demanded that she go through that test. The metaphor of going through a test of fire is something that all world cultures know about. The metaphor of fire was very important because it is a very destructive force, but as we know it is also a very rejuvenating and a cleansing force. And that's what this particular incident did to me. It forced me to confront myself. It forced me to confront social norms.
I'm from India and it is understood that in a traditional culture like that of India quite often there are very negative social attitudes towards women who have been widowed. And that happens everywhere in the world. And I must say that I was not subject to it directly, but certainly was in a very subtle way. And those things really bothered me. Those were things that I felt I needed to challenge. Revealed by Fire is text-based, which again is something we don't do in traditional Bharatanatyam. It also really challenged norms in society. But most importantly the work allowed me to show that dance was the one cathartic tool through which I reclaimed my life. I don't like to use the word “transformation” lightly, but in my case I have a personal reason to say that it was an important part of this work. It premiered in 2001. I'll show you a very short excerpt.
I took that on tour to India in 2003 and was really very nervous about it because later in the choreography there are sections that involve invented movement. This was not something that people would have expected from a senior artist like myself – the sections that deal with the absolute reduction to nothing, as what the tragedy did to me and how I emerged from it movement by movement, pulse by pulse, limb by limb to explore a centre in myself and claim dance as my way of coming out of it. But I guess I underestimated the capacity of the traditional audiences in India to understand the importance of a work like this, and we were really quite pleased by the media reports that we received. It was particularly interesting to show this work to my guru who I trained with for many years. He's an absolute traditionalist. He will not allow any tampering with tradition. But I think the work had such an incredible amount of emotional power that, much to my surprise, he actually embraced the work and talked about it as something that he was deeply moved by. So that was a validation; but it was a very important work to me personally.
Living in Toronto, all of us are impacted by cultural, political and artistic influences of the different communities, and we can't but help be impacted by those many layers of acculturation that we experience. Unknowingly, we absorb these into our being, and become a composite society, made up of many layers of acculturation of world cultures. I find Toronto particularly fascinating with regard to this phenomenon; I see that I'm really at a crossroads and that's why for me, an artist working in Toronto, there's something incredibly rewarding.
Something I have been interested in is a deeper investigation of ballet and Bharatanatyam, because I see these forms as being comparable. I see them as something where we can look at syntax, we can look at the evolution into contemporary voice, how ballet traditionalists themselves have their wonderful repertoire of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, but how also they continue to want to breathe a new life into the work and relate more to a world that is looking for dance that touches them on a personal level.
So, the next work that I'll show you is a short excerpt of a piece that we did with Ballet Jörgen Canada. I must say that “fusion” does not interest me. Fusion is not something that I'm excited about just because we live in this incredible confluence of world cultures. For me, I find enough material within my own form to be exploring but I will only engage in a collaboration if I'm convinced that there could be a deeper investigation of some common points that we're trying to search for and also to articulate in our work. Fusion to a large extent ends up being superficial and doesn't really get to answering some questions. So this work was called B2 (b-squared) and if any of you have access to an issue of The Dance Current that came out in May 2008 you might want to read a conversation dealing with classicism; it was a conversation between Bengt Jörgen and myself talking about what exactly are the dilemmas that we as creators of these two traditional dance forms engage in, and how we negotiate those new realities that we're working in and how sometimes we find dancers and sometimes we don't. So this is from B2 (b-squared) and was a novel way of looking at Bharatanatyam and ballet.
I wanted to also tell you about a project that the company is producing which will come to York University next year. It's called Dance Intense and is a two-week choreo-residency for South Asian dance which will bring together twenty young professionals from England, India, Canada and U.S.A. They will work with master teachers in varying styles, mainly South Asian, and also with choreographers in different movement fields in order to develop new vocabularies, and also to get a sense of the variety of movement disciplines that one needs to start training in to be able to do contemporary work from a South Asian context.
My dancers train in contemporary work. Right now Natasha Bakht is creating a work for the company. They take workshops in every movement form possible besides of course the core training in Bharatanatyam and we're ready then for a wide range of choreographic approaches and styles.
I think dancers from both Sampradaya and Ballet Jörgen found that they were working outside of their comfort zones, and they were being challenged. My dancers were challenged in all the partnering work because in Bharatanatyam you're essentially solo and even if you do work in a group there's very little physical contact with another dancer. The partnering is something they had to spend quite a bit of time on. For the ballet dancers, sometimes they were doing familiar movements but in an opposite direction. The part that they found very interesting and challenging was the gestural material that was taught. They spent long hours training to do very complex steps, and then getting used to the classical Indian music and it's very interesting where they found their cues, where they found the common pulse that they could all respond to and make sure they were all working in unison.
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