Though her parents were born in India, Toronto dancer/choreographer Nova Bhattacharya is unfalteringly Canadian. She defines her dance works the same way, highlighting the fact that they are influenced by where she lives and who her influences are, and stressing their accessibility. But unlike many of the country’s acclaimed contemporary dancers, Bhattacharya brings something different to the stages she animates: rich ties to her cultural heritage. That’s because her movement vocabulary is built on a background in Indian classical dance.
Born in Halifax, Bhattacharya was turned on to the classical dance form after her parents went to see a performance by Menaka Thakkar, an acclaimed Indian dancer who had recently moved to Toronto to establish a school. Bhattacharya, who had studied some ballet, became her first student. She later joined Menaka Thakkar and Company, the acclaimed classical dance company with whom she toured internationally as a soloist and company member for 11 years.
“There’s an extensive use of facial expressions and hand gestures,” says Bhattacharya, describing the classical style, called bharatanatyam. She says the style encompasses both narrative or storytelling dances, and a more abstract approach that focuses on linear shapes and the articulation of different body parts. But it’s far from over-the-top, Bollywood-style dance. “That kind of dancing definitely borrows from the classical,” says Bhattacharya, “but it’s like dance in a rock video---there’s something there from modern dance, too.”
After leaving Thakkar’s company in the mid-’80s, Bhattacharya started a career as an independent dance artist. “Dance is all about physicality and the body,” she says, “so whether you use movement in a classical or formal sense, or in a more abstract way...it’s about recontextualizing the form.” When she performs her program, Incantations, at Halifax’s Dunn Theatre this weekend, it will be her first time taking the stage as a solo artist in her birth city. The four works she’ll perform include a piece of her own creation, as well as works by choreographers José Navas and Peggy Baker, along with the world premiere of a work by Montreal choreographer Laurence Lemieux. Bhattacharya says the experience of working with each was different, particularly as they grappled to incorporate her dance language into their own choreographic styles. “What they did,” says Bhattacharya, “was work with elements of my dance form.”
With Navas, for example, that meant a “crash course” in the basics of Indian classical dance. From there, he could choose what elements appealed to him, incorporating them into the work. In Lemieux’s case, however, it was a different process. “She works in a pretty formal and structured way,” says Bhattacharya, “so she just started making the dance and I went with it, bringing elements of my own work into it, and then if she liked it she’d say, ‘OK, let’s keep that.’
“There are moments where I have to completely rewire my brain. Sometimes something I expect to do in a certain way will have been changed or moved, or there will be a sequence I’m not expecting. In the end, though, it’s quite an amazing performance experience---to have that vocabulary and to be able to go in a different direction with it.” Bhattacharya describes the works as existing in “four different worlds,” but says it’s a way for audiences to see four facets of a single performer, and how “different choreographers have decided to make her move.”
Though Bhattacharya says people of South Asian descent may have an affinity for her movement, a background in classical Indian dance is not a prerequisite to appreciating her work. It should be approached the way any contemporary dance work should: with openness. “The way to look at dance is to watch it and to experience it and to have a sense of the journey that the performer is going through on the stage,” she says. Stressing the universality of dance, Bhattacharya says it shouldn’t be pigeonholed into culturally specific venues. She says her background should be seen as an influence that affects her performance, but doesn’t define it: “It’s just a different source for material.”