From nowhere, from within


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WHAT happens to a codified language when it encounters uncodified mythologies? So often, there is an inclination to consider this question within the terms of a dialectic between ‘classical’ dance, including forms such as ballet and bharatanatyam, and ‘contemporary’ works. But this is a very limiting framework – as though contemporary narratives can only break apart classical forms, as though those forms cannot expand and reverberate with new meanings and metaphors. Is there greater potential if one reverses the question: what happens to an uncodified mythology – an intensely personal narrative, a myth re-imagined for current times – when it encounters a codified language? In three works by Canadian choreographers Natasha Bakht, Gitanjali Kolanad and Lata Pada, the potential of transforming mythologies – and movement languages themselves – are explored.


Natasha Bakht’s one-two-three-four-five,1 produced at the Ottawa Dance Directive in November, 2014, is a (mostly) solo dance about ‘the creative crucible of motherhood.’ In many ways, the work is characteristic of Bakht, known for her long, angular body and the spare nature of her movements. We are introduced to her as a cello is heard, melodic but curbed in its phrasing. Likewise Bakht’s gestures are wide and fluid but controlled; we hear not the slap of feet but the sound of limbs tracing shapes on the stage floor.

From Natasha Bakht’s, ‘one-two-three-four-five’. (byfield-pitman photography)

In the transition, Bakht addresses us directly: ‘The brain,’ she says, ‘is the most complex organ of the human body… [A] ball of tissue [that] contains so much of who we are, a reminder of the exquisite fragility of life… But the brain is resilient, responding… to loss, to change…’ She moves into a traditional jati, choreographed by Menaka Thakkar, her first guru. She dances without smiling, bringing our attention instead to rhythm, dynamism, the precision of poses and mudras. Before shifting into the next section, she speaks briefly again: ‘Things are challenged before they’ve had a chance to reveal what they have to offer,’ she says enigmatically. The music this time is an African lullaby, cross-shadowed by the sound of a rainstick. The movements feel dreamlike; Bakht gazes upwards, mouthing soundlessly, eyes wide and softly blinking. There is a dazy delight in it.


Natasha Bhakt then speaks at greater length: of dance, and for the first time, of her son, Elaan. ‘Sometimes I have to deal with my primal fear, the fear that I don’t know what I’m doing…But it’s a choice: how do you want to live? ...In the studio, I’m back to how simple things are in dance. It’s like that with Elaan: simple, and satisfying.’ At that, Bakht walks offstage and returns carrying her son.

She dons red flip-flops. He wears red sneakers. His head is tilted back, and he makes throaty, emphatic sounds; sighs, chuckles and laughs. The next few moments are nothing more, nor less, than watching a mother and son enjoying each other’s company. Bakht talks to him, plays with him, supports him as he walks, then sits down with him to listen to a song, her hands holding his to clap. Throughout, his mouth is open wide with pleasure.

From Natasha Bakht’s, ‘one-two-three-four-five’. (Guillaume Houët)

In the last section, Bakht is alone once again. ‘Let him dance,’ she says, ‘to the beat of his own drum.’ In the soundscape that begins, we recognize her son’s voice, his wordless utterances, looped into an eccentric musical and rhythmic score. Bakht’s movements shift between loose, leggy walks, defiant thrusts of torso, to small ecstasies; hands bursting into outstretched fingers; the exaggerated arch of spine. Movements spiral or come to a point, reiterated until the end.

In conversation, Bakht says, ‘I wanted to invite the audience into something intimate.’ She has always been interested in bharatanatyam stripped bare, without the ornamentation of dress or jewellery: ‘They affected my dance detrimentally,’ she says, ‘rather than letting me think about the body.’ She used only a practice sari for the jati; otherwise she wore a gauzy tunic, or a white shirt and slacks, or an A-line dress patterned with Elaan’s hand and footprints. The transitions from one section to the next take place in plain sight; Bakht wanted the feeling of being with the audience in studio. She chose music, too, on the same personal basis; music that soothed her son when she first noticed the signs of what would eventually be diagnosed as cerebral palsy. Even when it came to the lullaby, she says, ‘I was drawn to the beauty of the woman’s voice. I didn’t try to find out what the words meant; it seemed to me it might change what the song meant to me.’


Bhakt speaks of the choreography as ‘an intuitive process’. She searched for ways of expressing ‘the ease of being in my own skin.’ The third and fifth section were explorations, she says, of ‘Elaan’s unconventional ways of moving; his hand gestures, the way he moves his back; the incredible way he walks – almost as though he is floating. I wanted to capture his feeling of wonder when it begins to rain: the way he opens his mouth to catch raindrops as they fall.’

Gandhari. (Walter Lai)

‘Elaan’s involvement wasn’t originally planned,’ explains Bakht, and she was ready to let go of the proposal if he didn’t respond well. ‘But he surprised me in a wonderful way.’ Over the period of rehearsals and performance, the dance became a game he recognized. His vision is poor, says Bakht, but his hearing is excellent; every now and then he would pause, listening to the audience, and she’d reassure him: ‘Yeah, there are people here.’ The scene is improvised, and yet, affirms Bakht, ‘the most vulnerable moment ended up being the most sure.’ The choreography, for her and for us, is ‘a glimpse into joy, where others wouldn’t see it; the capacity to be present’ – something in which Elaan is, in Bakht’s words, ‘a master teacher.’


Choreographed by Gitanjali Kolanad and performed by Brandy Leary, Gandhari2 is essentially a ritual. On the stage, there are thirteen silver pots, upside down, in no apparent order. A red scarf is laid out like a truncated river. A violinist plays, her music low and plaintive. On her haunches, Leary smooths out the scarf, gathers it into a rope, twists it round her wrists. Slowly she rises and turns away from us. She wraps the scarf over her eyes and knots it at the back of her head, the ends falling down her spine. Blindfolded, she must now find and turn over the pots, one by one. Each contains a small pool of light.

Gandhari. (Walter Lai)

When Leary moves, she seems to forcefully shape the space: a twist of shoulder, of torso, of foot. Occasionally, one recognizes the fight gestures of kalaripayattu, but there is no enemy. Once she lifts a pot, holds it to her face, casts its light upon her features; touches her cheek as though looking into a mirror. It is the only feminine gesture in the piece. Little by little, the music becomes more agitated, the movements more aggressive: a wide plié in which she judders forward; a leap, a turn, an outward kick. She rearranges the pots so that they form a rough circle. I found myself riveted by the dance’s gravity and sense of danger; the mystery of how Leary seemed to know exactly where things were.

The dance, Leary says, emerged from Kolanad’s interest in the idea of wilful blindness. It resonated with the core principle of kalaripayattu, ‘the body becomes all eyes.’ Both Leary and Kolanad were drawn to blindness as a tapas: ‘an austerity practice,’ in Leary’s words, ‘that generates another kind of seeing, of knowing; another kind of power. To me, it’s ritual state work.’


Leary describes Kolanad’s approach as ‘magic realism’, working with myth without telling the story in a didactic way. ‘She pulled images out, like the one of Gandhari’s weird birthing, not to a baby but to a ball of flesh, half-formed limbs, eyes; how she divided it into a hundred pots, with a little oil; all the sons hatching from these pots.’ Dislocated from the narrative, the image functions both as the beginning and the end, when Gandhari crawls through the battlefield to gather the limbs of her dead sons.

If the choreography is minimalist, it is because the work is more a meditation than a dance. ‘The state work means that you remain responsive to a shifting imagery,’ says Leary, ‘allowing narrative to flow through, without being attached to any of it, by simply attending to the task. All of this meaning gets made because you are taking care of this very simple score, and not letting yourself complicate it by the incredible amount of meaning you’re making for the audience.’ It’s adapted to kalaripayattu, she says, ‘because kalaripayattu is not a dance language; it’s a functional language of precision and focus in a martial arts form.’

And what is that imagery? I ask Leary. ‘What are genocides, what are the histories of women’s bodies in the wars of men, what is it to pick up the body pieces of your relatives? It is encased in Indian myth but it is the truth of every single land. When I pulled it apart, I realized it was a grieving ritual, a burial ritual.’


Created almost 15 years ago, Lata Pada’s Revealed by Fire,3 was perhaps one of the first bharatanatyam-based works in Toronto to delve into autobiographical material. Pada drew from the searing experience of losing her husband and two daughters in the bombing of Air India Flight 182 in 1985. The choreography is not a solo, but it is centred on Pada’s journey through a near-unimaginable grief.

The work opens with Pada alone on stage, apparently rehearsing; she is casual, her focus light and shallow as she dances, pauses; beats the rhythm in the palm of her hand; begins again. A telephone ring is heard, and Pada’s state suddenly intensifies. As she moves towards the altar, we hear her in voice-over: ‘It was an ordinary day. I was rehearsing. The phone rang.’ The phrases (the script was developed in collaboration with theatre artist Judith Rudakoff) are repeated, turning around themselves. ‘The phone rang. The phone rang. The phone rang.’


In solos, Pada’s movements are graceful, even when agitated; and yet they are also recognizable, common, natural. She leaves symbolism and lyricism to the ensemble. In an early scene, she tears down the richly coloured saris that formed the backdrop of the stage; the women come forward, then, each gathering a sari, arranging them in long folds, and carrying them in an elegiac gesture. The women use the saris to suggest mourning clothes, bodies; then pots to carry water on their heads; then cloths, to wash the floor; then cradles.

Pada interweaves vignettes of her girlhood, her marriage: ‘I learn the place of being a woman,’ she tells us in voice-over. She describes moving to Thompson, Manitoba: ‘My first gift from my husband was a winter parka.’ And then motherhood, her daughters, what they were like. The women of the ensemble are sometimes Pada herself, her grandmother drawing a kolam, her daughters playing handclapping games, her friends. The reversal of her fortunes is only suggested in the spoken text. The gestures are more telling: the women, for instance, stripping her of her wedding bangles, erasing her bindi with a rough gesture.


Pada describes the challenge of choreographing Revealed by Fire thus: ‘I was talking about gut-wrenching pain, but I didn’t want to stylize it. We’re trained in bharatanatyam that you cannot allow your eyes to well with tears. You have to signify that level of sorrow, but you cannot cross that threshold. What would I do?’

Pada also wanted the work to speak beyond the specificity of her experience. Key to that was her collaboration with dramaturge Judith Rudakoff, who recorded and transcribed interviews with Pada, and then collaged them. ‘She took that one line,’ Pada says (‘It was an ordinary day’), and turned it into such a beautiful reiteration of the word. The ordinary is what transforms all our lives.’ But the resonance Pada sought was also political: ‘I wanted to look at the identity of woman: why she is so tied to patriarchal systems. If I lose my husband, am I still a wife? If I lose my children, am I still a mother? Who am I? Can we forge our own identity?’ How close are these questions to Leary’s, when one considers Pada’s daughters, and Pada herself: their identities forged ‘in the wars of men.’

Lata Pada: ‘Revealed by Fire’. (Cylla von Tiedemann)

Pada explains, ‘Choreographing for myself was very improvisational. Many a day it changed. I knew the music, what I had to do, how much time I had, but...,’ she loses her words. ‘I was afraid to go there. To go into that place and become…’ She describes a scene where she turns from us and walks towards the white backdrop; upon it is a moving image of her walking into the sea. The projection dwarfs the real woman on stage. ‘I came that close to saying, life is not worth living.’ But suicide was not her only wish. ‘Vishnu’s body was never found,’ says Pada. ‘The girls were recovered, but not Vishnu. I wondered, will I meet him there, in the ocean? Sometimes I wouldn’t even think about it; I’d just do it because that was the time for me to disappear into the white screen. But there were days when my heart was pumping, because the thought was there – will I meet him?’ In a way, the act of choreography would have been an attempt to delineate something that was impossibly vast and always moving, that could never be contained; improvisation allowed her to experience it in its changing truth. Where would the dance come from, then, night after night? ‘It came from nowhere, it came from within.’


Though Kolanad’s (and Leary’s) work is not personal in the same sense as it is for Bakht and Pada, there is unquestionably a similar quality between the three works. Part of it arises out of a sense of ritual, most visible in Gandhari. But in Bakht and Pada’s works, too, there is an observance of certain acts or procedures, that are not danced but are nonetheless necessary to enter the work: Leary blindfolding herself; Bakht dressing herself in the practice sari; Pada tearing down the saris from the walls.


More than that, though, it’s about the way the choreography depends upon inhabiting each performance as its own experience. Leary reminds us of this when she says: ‘The score is simply where the pots go: from disorder to order. None of it is exactly repeatable.’ Occasionally Leary would find herself disoriented, and would have to accept the anxiety of that fact. Improvisation became its own choreographic act: ‘You practice it,’ asserts Leary: ‘It’s an extremely attuned state of presence and adaptability.’ Likewise, though Bakht’s son responded in constant ways, she had no means of predicting what would happen. In rehearsal, dramaturge Lynda Collins said to Bakht, ‘You just have to be his mother and be present.’

‘There’s a certain vulnerability when you enter that space of being,’ said Pada of Revealed by Fire. ‘Every day the same words [of the performance text] resonated in a different way. Each day it brought a different memory.’ Choreography, then, was more than the articulation of the dance vocabulary. It was also the articulation of personal imagery, and of a public time and space when it could be lived and re-imagined.

Though their stories emerge from very different sources, all three choreographers are confronted with an intense emotional task: the desire to speak without sentimentality; for the audience to feel, but also to see clearly what it at stake. At work, then, is the rigorous constraint of the experience itself, of coming to terms with its exact nature. If there is formalism, or classicism, in these dances, it is accomplished by drawing the boundaries of grief and elation, where they meet, intersect, or are severed.

How intriguing then to view these dances as embodiments of how formality imposes itself in extreme circumstances. All the personas in these choreographies are undergoing extremity – and fascinatingly, extremity in the role of women, wives or mothers. The lightness or heaviness of them may vary; Bakht, especially in integrating her son’s presence, also brings in an estranged but vivid joy. ‘Myth’ may not ring true in describing one-two-three-four-five, which is so close to Bakht’s current and lived quotidian; perhaps it is closer to a child’s fable. Regardless, all three choreographers have invented their own mythologies for the occasion. Bakht remembers friends saying to her, after the performance, ‘You were such a different person in that moment.’

‘What could I use, what could I not use, what could I transform?’ Pada asked about the act of choreography. ‘Because it had to be true. It was not the pain of Draupadi, of Sita. It was myself. While we embody these great archetypes, who’ve gone through hell and back, we really haven’t imagined that something like that could ever happen to us, that we’d have to replicate that experience in a personal journey.’


Hell, or unimagined heavens in Bakht’s case. Leary’s words answer Pada’s: there are certain experiences that are encased in Indian myth but are true in contemporary life. Likewise, Pada’s words could answer to Bakht’s: ‘The ordinary is what transforms all our lives.’ It is this constant oscillation between interior imagery and the known story, that enlivens each of these artists’ work.



1. one-two-three-four-five (2014); Choreographed and performed by Natasha Bakht; Conceptual consultant: Lynda Collins; Artistic advisor: Yvonne Coutts.

2. Gandhari; Choreographed by Gitanjali Kolanad; Performed by Brandy Leary (dancer) and Parmela Attariwala (violinist).

3. Lata Pada’s Revealed by Fire (2001); Choreographed by Lata Pada; Dramaturgy: Judith Rudakoff; Design: Cylla von Tiedemann.