Saturday, February 24, 2018

Poised Between Dark and Light: Nova's Fresh Take on Classical Dance

Choreographer Nova Bhattacharya. (Photo: John Lauener)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Nova Bhattacharya’s latest show, decoding bharatnatyam. Would it, as the title implied, unravel the millennia-old classical Indian dance style’s rhythmic and imagistic complexities to make them better understood by a general audience? Would it seek to solve a problem? Stem the narrative flow? Such an analytical approach threatened, in my mind, to suck the life out of a dance whose ancient mysteries, incubated in India’s holy temples, constitute its enduring charm. But, after savouring the delights embedded in this three-part program that opened on Valentine’s Day at the intimate Citadel + Compagnie performance space in Toronto’s Regent Park, it turns out I had worried for nothing.

This was a mesmerizing evening of stylized movement recast for contemporary times, one of the most imaginative shows seen this year. Not only did Bhattacharya’s exploratory dance project illuminate the inherently dramatic power of bharatnatyam, the Hindu dance form which this Canadian of Bengali descent has been studying for more than four decades since childhood (mostly under the tutelage of revered Indo-Canadian dance artist Menaka Thakkar), it showed just how far you can stretch a classical art form to make it feel relevant today.

The unscrambled structures and stripped-down energies yielded several fresh discoveries, starting with Bhattacharya’s solo performance of a dance fusion piece created for her by the Venezuelan-born, Montreal-based choreographer, José Navas. Originally performed in 2006 and revived with some notable differences for the four-night run of shows which concluded on Feb. 17, Calm Abiding marries the butterflied and finger-clicking poses of bharatanatyam with a contemporary dance sensibility. The piece starts in darkness with Bhattacharya dressed head to toe in loose black pajama-like clothing and merging at times with what could be interpreted as an existential atmosphere.

The ensuing dance alternates between sculptural stillness and percussive heel-toe stepping, integral components of bharatnatyam that Bhattacharya performs with vitality, integrity and masterful control. Alexander MacSween’s tape-loop score, featuring fragments of Bhattcharya’s voice chopped into word syllables, and her laughter pounded into implosive sound provide a rhythmically complicated soundscape through which the dancer further navigates with astonishing dexterity, despite having to rethink entirely the beats driving the dance form.

Flitting in and out of Marc Parent’s dusky lighting design, her subtly expressive face reflecting a kaleidoscope of emotions ranging from melancholy to mirth, Bhattacharya uses her entire body to meditate on the meaning of existence. This is both a departure from and a reinforcement of the basic tenets of bharatnatyam whose multiplicity of gestures for the feet, hands, head, eyes, arms, legs, fingers and cheeks, all codified in a 2,000-year-old book called the Nāṭya Śāstra, is a form of kinetic iconography describing in precise detail the exploits of Lord Krishna, among other Hindu deities.

While not directly concerned with Krishna, Calm Abiding, an abstract work of profound emotional depth, does, in its novel way, explore what he represents in Hindu mythology – love, compassion and joy. Bhattacharya illuminates the surrounding darkness with an inner lightness of being that radiates outwards from her fascinatingly contemplative performance, drawing the audience inwards along with her, towards the celestial glow. Like a piece of traditional bharatnatyam the piece describes the universe, but in this instance with the dancer herself forming the spiritual centre.

Neena Jayarajan and Atri Nundy performing Broken Lines. (Photo: Ed Hanley)

As we learned from the relaxed but informative question-and-answer session which followed the show, moderated by Citadel + Compagnie artistic director Laurence Lemieux, Bhattacharya did not originally dance Calm Abiding from a place of piety. She took the darkness literally, seeing it as an invitation to leave this life, an erasure of identity. But with time (and growing sophistication as an artist) she understands the dance to be about embracing life in the here and now, and being fully in the moment. Acceptance. It’s the first law of the spirit, the gurus would tell us. It’s also how Bhattacharya found her way back to embracing the ancient wisdom of bharatnatyam, and rediscovering, she told the audience, “the freedom of the classical form.”

This reconciliation must have surprised even her, given that one of the works she contributed to the program, Broken Lines, is an improvisational work that looks to break entirely from the constraints of the strict bharatnatyam form. Bhattacharya first conceived the piece in 2016, creating it in collaboration with the Toronto bharatnatyam dancers, Neena Jayarajan, formerly assistant associate director of the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company, and Atri Nundy, a former student of Lata Pada, another prominent Indo-Canadian classical dancer. The two women also perform it, basically making up what they are going to do in the spur of the moment as they go along, poking holes into the tightly woven fabric of bhatatnayam and its obsession with divine heroes and their garlanded handmaids. Improv and bharatnatyam rarely go hand in hand. This was classical Indian dance not so much deconstructed as sent hurtling in a brave new direction.

The dancers, also participating in the Q and A, confessed out loud that the dance challenges and discombobulates them in ways that fall completely outside their training, making it thrilling and terrifying to perform. But if they were at any time fearful they didn’t show it. Seasoned professionals, Nundy and Jayarajan performed Broken Lines as an amusing send-up, punctuated by spontaneous outbursts of ironic commentary and heavy eye-rolling. A romp through the River Ganges more silly than sanctimonious.

A return to reverence, but again in delightfully altered form, was found in the evening’s final offering, Alaap, a word which means (or so my dictionary tells me) the improvised section of a raga, forming the prologue to the formal expression. Bhattacharya choreographed this work in 2013 with and for the exquisite solo dancer Lucy Rupert, who again performed it on this occasion. Noah Feaver’s lighting design casts the piece in beguiling twilight while the free-flowing electro-acoustic score by B1 Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm, celebrated for their ambient music compositions, sends it drifting into an enigmatic atmosphere.

Dancing with bells on her ankles which intensify the sound of her percussive foot drills, Rupert looks as if launched on a journey of the extra-planetary kind. She arches backwards, falls to her knees, twists and turns on the floor, as if licked by tongues of flames. It’s a breathtaking performance, intense and uplifting. Bharatnatyam forms the foundation. But the structure is fluid, the balances askew. A traditional dance traversing new ground.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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