An Expression of Today in Bharatanatyam

By Rebecca Todd
  • Anita Ratnam / Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 
  • Aneela Maharaj, Suba Navaratnasingam, Uppekha Jain and Viji Rao in Hyphenated / Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 
  • Lata Pada / Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 

Life Lines: an evening of women's lives in dance & theatre 

Lata Pada, Sampradaya Dance Creations

Toronto September 27-28, 2002 

The theme of women’s lives links the three works by two different choreographers in Life Lines, an evening of bharata natyam-based dance presented by Lata Pada’s Sampradaya Dance Creations. Because both choreographers are concerned with adapting a classical dance form to a changing world, it also raised questions about what makes for successful fusion, and in whose eyes.

The performance opened with two new dances by Anita Ratnam, a Chennai (India)-based choreographer who has spent a number of years working in New York. Because there has been such a historical problem with Western critics imposing their aesthetic on non-Western art forms, I was tempted not to discuss her first piece, “Vaitharani”, at all. But on reflection I decided non-discussion is a cop-out. So I’ll state my background and biases out front: I was raised in the United States and my background is in Euro-American modern and postmodern dance. I am not an expert on bharata natyam or any other South Asian artistic tradition. And, although it may be self-evident, I want to state explicitly that my response is personal and subjective.

Directed by Minneapolis-based Dipankar Mukherjee, Ratnam’s “Vaitharani…the crossing” is a solo about the journey of the soul after death. I had the impression that in this loosely structured dance, Ratnam had sacrificed the physical and emotional precision of bharata natyam for an amorphous fusion. Ratnam journeys through a set of dangling ropes, expressing angst with large body movements drawn from martial arts and yoga, every so often showing a glimpse of a more precise bharata natyam-based rhythm or gesture. Because the emotion felt vague, I was unmoved; because the physical intention and choreographic structure seemed unclear, I was uninterested. 

Ratnam’s “Hyphenated”, is a breezy piece that centres on the lives of its four young dancers (Aneela Maharaj, Suba Navaratnasingam, Uppekha Jain and Viji Rao), all North Americans of South Asian descent. In the show’s advance press, Ratnam is quoted on the restrictions she feels within classical bharata natyam. She points out that the classical scenarios of pining heroines bear no reflection on the lives of Canadian-born girls who go straight from dance class to dance clubs. So in “Hyphenated” the dancers perform bharata natyam gestures to Ernie Tollar’s jazz saxophone and Debashis Sinha’s world music rhythms, add a butt wiggle to their hand gestures and dance to club music. They have also devised a new repertoire of gestures for putting on mascara and nail polish, checking email and lifting weights.

Periodically the young women take turns offering monologues about their internalized culture clashes. Although, as a device, the identity-based monologues are somewhat threadbare, the personalities of the attitudinal young women are likable. However, the piece lacks the level of professional polish that Premiere Dance Theatre audiences expect. 

In contrast, “Soraab-Mirage”, a new interdisciplinary work created and performed by Lata Pada, is both carefully crafted and expertly performed. Pada’s strategy for bringing bharata natyam into a new context is to embark on a long creation process with excellent collaborators, harnessing their talents in the service of a narrative. In “Soraab-Mirage”, the story is about Zubeida, an Afghani school friend of Pada’s. Recorded text is layered over visual images, Pada’s dancing and Maryam Tollar’s magnificent voice. Dramaturge Judith Rudakoff crafted the script to sustain its grip on our attention.

There are several voices layered through the piece. In the voice-over, Pada tells a story about moving to the north of India as a teenager, where she was sent to Catholic school and met Zubeida. Pada remembers Zubeida as a sophisticated young woman who returned home to Kabul after she finished school. We also hear the imagined voice of Zubeida, who is now in prison – though whether behind a burqa or in a literal prison we don’t know. Maryem Tollar’s singing gives body to the emotion of each woman. With the scripted narrative in place, Pada uses her dancer’s palette of gesture and rhythm to colour the story, conveying powerful emotion with subtlety.

The piece is clearly about the all-too-common struggle of being a woman in hostile circumstances – we hear Zubeida’s voice saying that she is a state of war. The stories about the Catholic institution, with its barred windows and angry nuns, paint a picture of the school as a training ground for surviving a fundamentalist culture. But the school is an authority against which one can rebel and it doesn’t break the youthful Zubeida’s spirit – unlike the Taliban regime in her home country.

I would suspect a lesser artist of generalizing about current events, superficially commenting on the unimaginable through an easy identification with a long-forgotten friend. But I didn’t find this piece easy, nor did I perceive anything superficial or sentimental in Pada’s identification. She has the ability to access powerful empathetic emotion – a power all the more believable when viewed through her intelligence and restraint. 



For Ms. Todd: Thank you for the article about my solo and the group choreography in the Sampradaya Dance Creations Fall Season. I am rather surprised at the predictability of all North American dance writers to comment on subjects which are primarily unfamiliar to western beliefs. It is amazing that the same piece has elecited a very different and positive response amongst Asian audiences. Contemporary dance in India is very different from what is being explored in the guise of contemporary in North America. A stubborn insistence of always seeing the beautiful, delicate and feminine is against what I believe our dance should be like. I thank you for the comments which reinforce the direction that my dance is journeying in.

Anita Ratnam 
Chennai, India

I want to respond to a couple of issues raised by Ms. Ratnam’s response to my review – first and foremost to say how glad I am she responded. I think artists hesitate to give feedback to critics for various reasons – not the least of which is fear of offending the critic and the imagined consequences. Only when artists have the guts to respond honestly does any real dialogue happen. Talking to artists is how critics continue to learn about dance. So hurray for Anita Ratnam’s response. I hope more people follow her lead. Ms. Ratnam’s comments regarding the predictability of Western writers open a whole set of issues about which it would be interesting to hear other peoples’ views. I think when innovative artists – working on issues that are contemporary in their own artistic communities – tour their work to different communities, it raises challenges for both artist and critic. In general I think the artists in a community educate their local critics over time, sensitizing them to their particular sets of artistic concerns, which are based on the historical trajectory of that art form in that place. So the critics of one place – say Toronto – are not necessarily primed to be able to see the innovations of a touring artist working out of a different place and historical tradition. If I, in turn, were to tour my latest work to a festival of contemporary dance in Chennai, I’m not sure I would expect the critics to get what I was doing in the same way my contemporaries or the critics here would. The Chennai critics would have no choice but to respond to my work from their own perspective. What else could they do?

Regarding angst and darkness, Ms. Ratnam is right that the concerns of contemporary dance in India are different from the concerns of contemporary dance here. And goodness knows the EuroAmerican modern dance tradition, from Graham to Bausch, is steeped in dark emotion – to the point that angst appears in a lot of second-rate European and North American work as a stylistic tic or default emotion. Because I am so primed by my own history with EuroAmerican modern and postmodern dance, I wonder if I didn’t respond reflexively to qualities in Ms. Ratnam’s work that to my eyes resembled twentieth-century American modern dance. It may well be that responding to such a superficial resemblance without the proper context was unfair and uninformed. Still, to clarify the point I was making about specificity in the review, I think I was less concerned with seeing the delicate and feminine than with seeing a certain clarity of attention/intention manifested in the performer’s physical/emotional impulses. I could be wrong, but my hunch is that such mental/physical clarity reads across cultural forms. It would be great to hear what others have to say about any and all of these issues.

Rebecca Todd
Toronto, ON

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