Asian Music and Dance

Beyond Boundaries – Imagining a New Future for South Asian Dance in Canada

From 24 to 26 July 2015 Canada’s Sampradaya Dance Creations hosted the Beyond Boundaries – Imagining a New Future for South Asian Dance in Canada National Dance Symposium in Mississauga, Ontario. The conference brought together bharatanatyam dancers from the breadth of Canada. The occasion marked Sampradaya’s 25th anniversary and a celebration of the distinctive grace and rigour of the Thanjavur dance lineage.

The opening event was a tribute to Guru K. Kalyanasundaram, guardian and innovator within the Thanjavur tradition. Lata Pada felicitated her guru and his wife Mythili, reflecting upon her personal dance journey under their guidance. Guru Kalyanasundaram in turn presented to Ms Pada a shawl that had been laid at the feet of Nataraja in the Chidambaram temple – a profoundly meaningful blessing. With this began the Dance-Forward Showcase, featuring rising stars in bharatanatyam, kathak, kuchipudi and mohiniattam, all from or based in North America. The best moments had the audience leaning forward in their seats, captured by a performer’s clarity of line or individuality of expression. Starting the conference with the buzz of a well-curated ‘new generation’ showcase created the perfect energy with which to kick off a weekend of vivid conversation.

Day Two started with the keynote address, an intellectual tour de force by Chitra Sundaram, dance artist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in England. She discussed the experience of gaining a place for classical Indian dance in the mainstream world of British art and questioned the identity politics inherent in its practice. Ms Sundaram honed in on the philosophy and challenge of identity – how do you name and define your art, and how do you fit your dance into the world around you?

Guru Harikrishna Kalyanasundaram of Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir (Mumbai) introduced the screening of The Legacy of the Thanjavur Parampara, the family story of eight generations of choreographers and teachers spanning 300 years from Serfoji Maharaj’s court in Thanjavur to the present day, highlighting contributions of Guru K. Kalyanasundaram. The film was emblematic of the theme of the weekend, recognition of innovation within an unbroken line of dance tradition.

In the first panel discussion, ‘Transmissions and Translocations: The Evolution of South Asian Dance’, established dancers/teachers/mentors Jai Govinda, Joanna de Souza, Lata Pada, Rina Singha, Usha Gupta, Janak Khendry, Sowmya Dakshinamurti and Kirupanithy Ratneswaran presented learning experiences and life journeys, traversing experiences of dislocation and translocation while building their dance careers in Canada. Panellists touched on the transmission of tradition and the complexities of transmitting meaning in transcultural choreography and performance. 

Participants experimented with movement in Natasha Bakht’s workshop ‘New Impulses for Contemporary Movement’. Movements and adavus were deconstructed and turned backwards, dissociating the dance from its usual structure (and from any music other than internal rhythm). Ms Bakht used video clips of her recent work to illuminate the thought process behind her own choreography.

Noora Sagarwala (Ontario Arts Council Touring and Audience Development) led the workshop ‘What it Takes to Build a Professional Career in Dance’. Citing different career models for dance professionals in Canada, she applied business principles to goal-setting, resource chain management, and marketing dance as a valuable skill resource as well as a completed product. There was a lively discussion of the supports available for dance – how to access traditional grant funding, when to rely upon the box office, and also how to tap non-traditional sources of support. 

That evening was extraordinary Chennai artist Malavika Sarukkai’s solo performance Ganga Nitya Vahini. In a series of intensely visioned vignettes, she was the rhythm of water, a pleasure-loving courtesan, a priest invoking the heavens, and the river lamenting its pollution. Ms Sarukkai’s unique spiritual, intellectual and creative approach to bharatanatyam was the inspiration for Sumantra Ghosal’s breathtaking film Unseen Sequence, screened on the following day. 

Day Three started with a panel ‘Dancing on Our Terms’ featuring eight emerging Canadian artists. Patterns emerged as they described how they chose to embark on dance careers, made niches in local arts scenes and connected with the greater dance community; a shared drive and enthusiasm, similar challenges. These threads recurred in the vigorous discussion ensuing among conference participants and spilled into the break-out session ‘Imagining a New Future for South Asian Dance in Canada’. Facilitator Charles Smith focused each group on wants, needs, challenges and solutions. What emerged was the need to create a (virtual when necessary, tangible where possible) shared community of Indian dance in Canada – without competitive politics but offering a safe space to share ideas and nurture new careers. Dancers identified a need for national recognition and respect for non-mainstream dance vocabularies, and support for organisation, marketing and new audience-building. Finally, independent artists sought sources for mentorship, criticism and review – crucial for benchmarking and validating any new art. There was a sense of community among participants, and resolution that initial solutions to these specific challenges might be found among members of this group, working with the South Asian Dance Assembly of Canada (SADAC), in the form of web databases and blogs to begin with and eventually creating national platforms for performance.

The Beyond Boundaries symposium concluded with the works of three generations of gurus – Guru K. Kalyanasundaram, Harikrishna Kalyanasundaram and Lata Pada – presented with tremendous energy and faithfulness by the dancers of Sampradaya Dance Creations. 

We who participated in Beyond Boundaries recognise the power of collective voice engendered by this invaluable conference. The energy found here will surely echo into action.



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