For anyone unfamiliar with, yet fascinated by the vocabulary of bharatnatyam dance, the idea of a decoding wrapped in a performance is a welcome prospect.
Nova Bhattacharya’s decoding bharatnatyam is both a learning experience and an entertainment. As the choreographer explains, the three works in the show, “investigate the places where cultures overlap – where the influence of Indian dance produces fresh and exciting contemporary Canadian art.”
Montreal dancer/choreographer José Navas, who has created works on ballet companies, made Calm Abiding for Bhattacharya in 2006. Aptly titled, the dance begins and ends in stillness and draws on bharatnatyam and modern dance modes of expression.
The silver polish on Bhattacharya’s fingernails direct our attention to the hand gestures or mudras of bharatnatyam dance. As with the mimes of classical ballet, the gestures, especially in combination with eye movement, have a narrative significance. So we take note when Bhattacharya’s eyes are closed or open. All is simplicity here, from the dancer’s basic black tunic and capri pants to Marc Parent’s minimalist lighting, signalling the changing sections of the dance. Alexander MacSween’s electronic and acoustic music turns Bhattacharya’s words and laugh into rhythmic repetition. Throughout, we are reminded how any movement in the body of a highly trained dancer can convey meaning at a subliminal level.
The decoding becomes literal in Breaking Lines, a duet that Bhattacharya created with bharatnatyam dancers Neena Jayarajan and Atri Nundy in 2016. Jayarajan, who trained with Menaka Thakkar for more than 28 years, wears a blue hoodie over black pants. Nundy, who learned bharatnatyam over decades with Lata Pada, wears a sari and ankle bells. They talk, they laugh, they join hands and they make fun of each other, in what is presented as a rehearsal. “What are you doing?” asks one of the other dancer, who appears to be picking blossoms. “Putting flowers in my bath,” is the answer.
Nundy and Jayarajan engage in the rhythmic tiki-teki rhythmic recitative that is an important feature of classical Indian dance. Hands on the ground is a greeting to Mother Earth, another gesture over the eyes means a blessing. A raised pinkie finger can be interpreted as a bridge or a lifting of something heavy as if it were light as a feather. We also take note of their feet, which move in heel-to-toe fashion, sometimes while the dancer is in a deep plié position, pounding out the rhythms as if feet could talk. In one amusing passage, Nundy describes the vision of a handsome man, urging her partner forward as if to approach him. They dance to a timer; at 20 minutes the alarm signals the end of the performance.
Lucy Rupert, director of Blue Ceiling dance company, comes from a contemporary dance background. Arriving on stage in Alaap, a piece Bhattacharya created with her in 2013, she wears a long black jumpsuit, with split pants that reveal her legs, ankle bells attached above bare feet. An electronic bubbling sound (music from B1 Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm) accompanies her movement. An ingenious bit of lighting by Noah Feaver gives her shadows in two directions, one lime green, one hot pink, an expression of a divided self coordinated through dance. Striding upright, then sashaying into floor work, Rupert cuts a wide swath across the Citadel stage, circumscribing the space as she takes command of it, one long pinkie finger held high.
Choreography by Nova Bhattacharya and José Navas
At The Citadel, Toronto, through February 17
Photo of Neena Jayarajan and Atri Nundy by Ed Hanley