This past weekend (26–28 October), I had the pleasure of attending the third annual Gait to the Spirit Festival of Indian classical dance in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Organised by Jai Govinda, the artistic director of Mandala Arts & Culture society and a renowned bharatanatyam dancer himself, the festival aims to showcase classical dance from around the world while also providing a platform for up-and-coming local artists. This year’s festival presented an eclectic mix of dancers, featuring Shalini Patnaik (odissi, USA), Savitha Sastry (bharatanatyam, India/USA), Malavika Santosh (bharatanatyam, Canada), and the UK’s own Aakash Odedra (kathak). As always, the festival was punctuated by a lecture demonstration and a master‑class for local dancers.
The festival opened with a feature double bill between Shalini Patnaik and Aakash Odedra. Patnaik hails from California and has trained primarily with the Orissa Dance Academy. As the opener of the festival, Patnaik showcased odissi by presenting a range of items choreographed in different eras. Patnaik presented each of her pieces with grace and agility. The standout moment of her performance was the ending of her second piece: traditionally a slow walk off the stage, Patnaik chose to walk a few steps and then hold her position in a beautiful and elastic moment of tension as the lights faded to black.
The second half of the evening opened to the sound of dragging ghungroo (ankle bells), as a dark figure entered the stage. Odedra began his performance with his own choreography, Jiya, which interpreted the life and trials of the tawaif or court dancer within the performance of a piece in line with their own lost repertoire. This piece was the highlight of the festival as Odedra moved easily through dynamic stillness to expressive movement, not only sharing the story of the pining woman but embodying the music in such a way that it seemed to spill from his fingers, through his eyes, and from his very pores as he searched the darkness for his beloved. He then performed two choreographies by Kumudhini Lakhia: one technical piece in dhamaar and one expressive piece, Barse Baderia – whether intentional or not, the performance of a piece about dancing in the rain in a notoriously rainy city was delightfully apt. Odedra closed the night in a piece exploring Sufi kathak.
Day two of the festival included an afternoon lecture demonstration by Odedra and an evening performance by Savitha Sastry. Presenting a margam or traditional bharatanatyam repertoire, spectators were treated to the skilful ease afforded to a performer in her prime. Sastry truly hit her stride in the second half of the performance with a narrative piece exploring the relationship between a mother and young daughter, and a Hindi-language narrative dance elaborating on the love story of Radha and Krishna as they are caught in a teasing match attempting to elicit love-confessions from one another. Sastry expertly conjured the environments in which her pieces took place, where a little girl, although never represented, was made visible by the braiding of her hair, the chiding of her actions, or the soothing of her tear-stained face by Sastry’s gentle mother-character; or a maiden was trapped by a herd of wayward cows. Sastry also led a two-day workshop/master‑class in bharatanatyam.
The third, and final, day of the festival showcased up-and-coming local artist, Malavika Santosh, a graduate of the Jai Govinda Dance Academy. Santosh presented a brand-new repertoire choreographed by Govinda almost exclusively for this performance. She shook off the nerves of closing the festival and presented her repertoire with dedication and enthusiasm. Santosh focused on the various aspects of the mother-goddess. Vancouver audiences have the pleasure of witnessing the journey, as Santosh continues to develop as a performer. She possesses a flexibility that allows her performance to be full of exquisite shapes as well as the strength and poise to hold them to their potential and I look forward to seeing where this young artist will take her work in the future.
One question that arises in the presentation of traditional repertoire is how much, and how best, to introduce the material of a piece to the spectators. In this festival some artists chose pre-performance announcements, while others chose to speak at the corner of the stage through a microphone, and others still left the explanations to the programme and left only darkness between their pieces. What struck me as awkward in some of the choices of pre-piece narration was the length and language used. Whether or not information is presented before a piece or in programme notes, arguably what is important is their contribution to a spectator’s understanding of the work. If explanations are constructed with lofty and arcane language, then they may contribute to the alienation that they are attempting to alleviate. I would ask artists to consider the way they introduce their work and, regardless of what they end up deciding, stand firmly behind those choices because they have made them and not inherited them as the ‘accepted’ way.
What is most commendable about Gait to the Spirit is its potential to cultivate spectatorship. Thanks to Govinda, Vancouver now has regular access to world-class Indian classical dance and that is no small feat. Next year’s festival is already lined up, so if you’re going to be in Vancouver around the end of October 2013, get your tickets! For more information about the Gait to the Spirit Festival or Mandala Arts & Culture Society please visit: