Once on the verge of quitting, Nova Bhattacharya is putting on a new kind of dance spectacle in Svāhā
The Canadian choreographer's new production brings 22 dancers to the stage in an explosion of dance styles
A few years ago, shortly before the pandemic brought dance performances to a standstill, the acclaimed choreographer Nova Bhattacharya was seriously thinking about abandoning the dance main stage — her second home for close to three decades.
"I was tired of trying to break through the glass ceiling of the dance world, and was really considering going small."
Originally trained in the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam, Bhattacharya went on to mount ambitious dance projects that sought inspiration from her Bengali roots, her upbringing in Scarborough and other dance practices such as Butoh, folk dance and Western dance — as well as her varied interests in the performing and visual arts.
In 2017, for example, she presented Infinite Storms featuring dancers with training in Bharatanatyam and Euro-American dance techniques. Inspired by her own lifelong relationship with chronic migraines, the work invited audiences to consider the experience of pain, and walk away with images of hope, joy and resilience.
Although Bhattacharya has toured through Canada, Germany, India, Japan, the United Kingdom and Uganda with her body of works, and has won several awards and nominations for her artistic achievements, it's been difficult to find consistent opportunities to showcase her work in this country and beyond.
Frustrated by the lack of opportunities, especially when her work "consciously and unconsciously addressed race on stage," she even contemplated reinventing herself as an experimental choreographer, presenting works at venues such as SummerWorks, Toronto's summer fringe-style festival meant to provide opportunities for growing, under-represented theatre communities to present new works representing the complexity and diversity of the city.
"I thought I was gonna stop chasing this notion of success. And then, ironically enough. I attended this show at the Bluma Appel Theatre. It was from Europe, the performers were trained in dance and acting and music. The audience was talking about how blown away they were by it … And I thought, we have all these people in our city. We have so many dancers from so many different practices, who have such rigour and dedication and devotion to what they do.
"It really just reignited this desire to make something big."
The desire has been translated into Svāhā, a contemporary performance inspired by women, rituals of life and love, birth and death, and the way women come together to create community. Named for a Sanskrit utterance associated with making ritual offerings, the dance performance questions "how can we be better together." Bhattarcharya describes it as a vibration of faith, a feminist approach to reinventing tradition, a ritual for our times, and ultimately, "a dance offering to this land."
In the before times, says Bhattacharya, she was really pitching a spectacle on stage.
"There was this idea of building local body choirs," she says. "To me, there's something that comes alive when there are people who have completely different ways of thinking and are coming together in movement."
However, as she was figuring out the logistics of creating a dance spectacle featuring 75 performers onstage, the pandemic struck.
"It was going to involve a lot more swabs up noses time than actually creation time, so I scaled back," she says, bursting out into her characteristic deep laugh.
In order to populate the stage with 22 dancers, she reached out to different dance and performing arts communities in the city to ask who could be a part of the process. In the end, there are more than 29 different kinds of dance practices that are being represented on stage — ranging from Bharatnatyam and Yorchha to ballet and Horton.
"It's really, really challenging, but also satisfying, to find the language that everybody understands, so we can be more cohesive than individuals," she says. Oftentimes artists get consumed by what they are trying to do in their personal practice. "There isn't often time for gathering among ourselves."
The pandemic affected the way they gathered.
"It was really surprising to me because… the time was spent in the artists coming together – dancers from Vancouver and Edmonton and Ottawa and Toronto — you could see who was watching the news based on their facial expressions.
"We had these agreements that if you were having a pandemic crisis and didn't want to come on Zoom to do dancing, you didn't have to. But everyone just kept at it because that was what was making them feel creatively engaged, and giving them hope that there was going to be a future for their art practice."
For Bhattacharya, the process of creating Svāhā — which was partially inspired by childhood memories of gleeful Bengali women in her community gathering for Durga Puja and participating in the ritual of smearing each other with vermilion powder — through the pandemic has reemphasized that dance is able to make people feel connected even during a time of great fracture in human history.
"Before the pandemic, I really felt like there was a declarative statement in the work I created. We are here. And now, I feel like I've been given the opportunity to simply say — we are. And in terms of my practice, that's been the most beautiful gift."
Svāhā stages at Bluma Appel Theatre from Sept 16 to 18.