The second season of CBC’s Sort Of launches Nov. 15. In it, a 50-something-year-old Pakistani Muslim woman named Raffo, yearning to finally act on her own desires, takes a dance class to rekindle a passion from her youth. This dance love is something actor and dancer Ellora Patnaik says she can certainly relate to. Patnaik will be appearing as Raffo in next week’s Season 2 launch next to co-stars Bilal Baig, Amanda Cordner, Kaya Kanashiro and Supinder Wraich.
The Dance Current’s Winter 2023 issue guest editor, Swadhi Ranganee, sat down with Patnaik to talk about her background in Odissi dance, her journey to becoming an artist and how she resonates with Sort Of‘s universal themes of love and transition as well as Raffo’s spirit of never giving up.
Swadhi Ranganee: I want to start by talking about your roots in Indian classical dance, the seeds of your artistic life. What [was] your childhood like in dance?
Ellora Patnaik: Well, my mom grew up as a dancer. She had experience with Odissi, with kathak, with Kuchipudi, Manipuri – she had a little bit of everything, but mostly Odissi. Then she grew up, got married, came over here [and] started working in a bank. I love telling this story because I love my mother’s story. My dad didn’t know that she grew up with dance being such a big part of her life. They were at some local show and somebody was dancing onstage, and my mom was just silently watching and the tears were rolling down her face. And my dad looks over and he goes, ‘Why are you crying?!’ She told him and he was like, ‘Well you have to do this!’ At that time, it’s actually quite impressive, I think, that my dad was so supportive – he’s also a huge lover of the arts. So she performed at a local program and everybody was like, ‘Well, you need to start a school! You’ve got to teach! The kids need culture.’ As much as immigrants came over in the ’60s and the ’70s, they also missed home. It’s a huge adjustment for them. So she started a school.
And then I came along, and I kind of just followed her footsteps. And so did my brother. I was into dancing and acting. With all Indian classical dance, there’s the storytelling part of it, the abhinaya, and then the abstract part, the nritta part. And I was always just an expressive kid.
So my mother opened the academy in her name, called the Chitralekha Dance Academy. And then my brother founded the company called Chitralekha Odissi Dance Creations. We had so many beautiful students. We would be doing productions every year. So I got experience not just performing but teaching and choreography, and directing and producing our shows, and that’s how I helmed dance in my life.
I was also going back and forth to India because, once I reached a certain level, Ma sent me to her gurus in Orissa. I would go often to learn from Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, my grandfather guru – also Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, Guru Pankaj Charan Das, also Smt. Sanjukta Panigrahi. I’m mentioning all my gurus because, you know, it’s wonderful to be talking about it.
SR: Oh, that’s so good to hear. I know, we always feel the need to honour our teachers, especially in South Asian classical traditions.
EP: Oh, you’re a classical dancer too?
SR: I’m a Sinhalese dancer, traditional Kandyan and low-country style from Sri Lanka. I’m also at this stage in my life where I’m ready to go [to Sri Lanka] and train.
EP: Oh, it’s like no other experience. Learning here is one thing, in North America, but the environment, the feeling of being there. You can feel the salt in the air on the coast of Orissa; it’s a feeling like no other. Even though I’m born here, just getting off the plane, you just feel this sense of… I don’t know. It’s like these ancestral roots that we have there, this instinct that feels so familiar and so comforting.
SR: How long did you spend [in India]? When did you start going?
EP: It was towards the end of high school. We would do the usual ‘family vacay,’ and then on those trips, I was introduced to the artistic side of my mother, meeting her gurus and going to programs, just soaking it in. And I was just fixated on the Orissa Dance Academy. Our Chitralekha Dance Academy became a branch of the Orissa Dance Academy. My mom and Guru Gangadhar Pradhan sort of collaborated to make it, so our curriculum here is how it was taught at the Orissa Dance Academy. So I would start with the summers. And [Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra] saw me and he was like, ‘Well, you could become a veterinarian or… ?!’ And my mom was like, ‘He wants to teach you!’ And I’ve always said, You can’t say no to that! So I didn’t go to college right away. That shifted, and my world was just dance, dance, dance. I spent about a year and a half there in the Research Centre. And then after that, I was just going on my own, like every year.
When I came back from India after that study period of intense Odissi training, I was broke. I ended up doing this audition for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with a friend of mine – I was just like, ‘Sure, I’ll audition, whatever’ – and we both got accepted. So then dance came along on the ride of my acting career.
SR: I want to ask about your switch into acting. It sounds like your dancing was happening at the same time and it was kind of an organic whole of a career between dance and acting.
EP: I’ve found that, as I’ve received more opportunities to act and people found out I was a dancer, they would say, ‘How can we bring your dance onto this platform along with this character?’ Mira Nair did that when I did My Own Country. I played a live person who was not a dancer, but Mira turned the character into a dancer as well. I’m finding [with] a lot of my characters, dance is something, kind of like a blast from the past or they have that experience and they use that to express themselves in many ways.
SR: What’s been important for you as a dancer? Is it the tradition and authenticity or are you looking for ways to adapt to Canadian audiences?
EP: I’ve always adapted to a Canadian audience, but I’ve never had to through classical. I think when you’re presenting classical in its purest form, it’s not the dance that can be hard to understand – it’s the way it’s presented. We’ve always presented classical dance through western theatrics. There’s a way to, for lack of a better word, help your mainstream audience understand what classical dance is.
When you’re dealing with the classical arts, if it’s constantly tweaked, we’re going to lose what the beauty of it was before. So I think it’s really important to preserve that form. But feel free to experiment.
I did Romeo and Juliet and I played the nurse, and at the wedding, everybody sang and had an instrument. And my director was like, ‘Ellora, would it be too much to ask you to wear your bells and dance?’ And I was like [shrugs]. I mean, we’re percussionists with our feet (that’s how we keep taal and laya) and I’ve always adapted that way. My mom is always like, ‘Go! Do it!’ She’s amazing. She’s not one of those strict dance teachers who are like, ‘No, that’s offensive, that’s sacrilegious!’ It’s always been, ‘If it serves the piece, then definitely do it.’
The only time I felt really uncomfortable, one time I remember, we danced Odissi at a variety program, and at the end, we all stood and did the national anthem – O Canada and Jana Gana Mana – and then they said, ‘OK, break it out!’ And I’m still in my Odissi costume and my bells! I’m not going to bust out moves! It just didn’t feel right. It was an interesting mental clash for me. That’s why it clashes for me when I see actresses in films wearing these authentic Odissi costumes and bharatanatyam costumes, and they’re like [gestures, shaking hips]. I’m just like, ‘It doesn’t feel right at all!’
SR: It’s different for everyone, but I think that mental clash is really important to pay attention to. Sometimes I try to push through that, like, ‘Oh, I should be experimenting.’ But you do have to honour that clash.
EP: Yeah, we should never feel forced or pressured into something that doesn’t feel natural.
SR: Do you have any thoughts on the dance sector right now and how it could better support South Asian classical dance artists? Or any thoughts on how it’s changed over the years?
EP: Well, it was really wonderful to have the grants available from Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council. It used to be the Laidlaw Foundation. It was slim pickings, no doubt about that, but it was a lot easier 20 years ago than it is now.
SR: [Surprised] How did that happen?
EP: I know, right? I’ve sat on the panels to assess emerging artists or productions or what-have-you, and sometimes to see the weight towards, let’s say, the contemporary world versus the… diverse world. There’s only so much money. I wanted to see more Indigenous artists, I wanted to see more Asian artists, I wanted to see more South Asian artists. We need more money to support diverse dance artists. All artists!
All the social media, all the platforms, all the TikTok stuff, it’s really great, but it’s really overwhelming. I mean, what happened to the stage? What happened to the silver screen? That’s what I want to do with dance. I want to go, sit in the audience, and I want that stage with the big platform and beautiful dancers. The power that comes from the stage, it’s indescribable, you can’t even put it in words! That’s what we need to do.
SR: Let’s switch into acting. In Sort Of, Raffo is my favourite character. Her struggle is really touching for me. Who [is] Raffo for you, how [do] you understand her journey and how [do] you relate to her?
EP: She’s, in Season 1, feeling very isolated and separated and just wanting to connect, especially with her children. Aqsa is one, but Sabi was very hard to reach. I love the way they come together at the end and find each other. In my life, I’ve felt quite isolated in many ways. I think also when I ended up having to realize that, ‘OK, this is what it is now: you’re being recognized.’ I’m getting more success now in my later years than when I was really, really wanting to reach and climb – it was really hard back then to break into a very non-inclusive society [in] film and theatre too… So I think Raffo and I identify as feeling like, you know, ‘What can I do?’ I kept trying. I never gave up, I stuck on like a hyena with my acting and my dancing, so I identify my acting and dancing as my children in a way. What can I do to keep myself going and to keep myself alive?
SR: Yeah, what I love about Raffo’s character is that she keeps trying. This whole idea that people get stuck in their ways, I don’t think that’s true. I love that it shows that struggle.
EP: I love that you appreciate that about Raffo because she does keep trying, and she doesn’t stop and she just wants to have some kind of connection and avoid anything that doesn’t feel good. And we feel that shadow at the end of Season 1. And then it arrives in Season 2! All of a sudden, Raffo’s house is called “The Mehboob House” in the script and I was like, ‘No! It’s Raffo’s house!’ I mean, Sabi’s the queen, but Raffo is Queen Mother! She’s a tough broad. She lost herself along the way. Forget about just connecting with her kids. She has to connect with herself, she’s got to find herself, like so many of us do on Sort Of – the characters are all on their journey. As far as Raffo is concerned, I find that a lot of moms have lost their way. In the South Asian culture, the woman sacrifices everything for her family! She is doing everything: she’s cleaning, she’s cooking, she’s working… Some women love it, but Raffo was lost. And then she made the connection with her kids and found she needs something for herself. I mean, that’s why the friggin’ wall broke! What is it that she says? ‘I need space and open feelings in my life!’ She needs to express. So what’s the best way to express when you don’t have words? Abhinaya!
It was interesting when I got the call from Fab [Filippo]. I knew it wasn’t going to be classical. Plus, we’re Pakistani [in the show] so maybe she had a little kathak. I was trying to wrap my head around that. Anyway, so she finds some space where she can have some fun. It’s great for Raffo’s story, especially in this season when Imran comes into the picture – she needs it more than ever.
SR: I’ve seen a preview of a few episodes and it feels like this bubbling tension – I just don’t know what’s going to happen with the Imran storyline.
EP: I know. It’s that kind of tense unpredictability. He’s smiling but what is he going to do? How’s he going to handle the situation? How are we going to handle the situation? This year, [the publicity] hasn’t been a lot about the family dynamic but it’s so important. And the fact is, the theme is about love this year. They really focus on the universal, different branches of love, be it Queer love, family love, spouse love, children love, dance love – not just cultural dancing or Bollywood dance, club dancing! It’s really great. We really need that. I know that sounds cheesy, but at this time, after what we’ve all been through the last few years, we need to instill love. We’re human and that’s what fuels us.
SR: Speaking of [the show’s] universal themes, all the characters are going through transition – that was one of the main themes of the first season, that regardless of age, sex, gender, orientation, whatever you are, you’re evolving no matter where you are in life. How does this theme resonate with you right now? We’ve talked a lot about your past in dance, but where you are right now, coming out of the pandemic, working on this show, or in any other respect, how are you evolving as an artist or as a person?
EP: I am pleased to say my filter has become a bit thinner. I don’t know if that’s just because I’m turning into a crusty old broad. I think I’m delightfully truthful. As an artist, I’m able to speak up. I’ve been saying no to certain roles, and it’s nothing personal, but it’s just not the way I see myself. I want to feel like I’m contributing to the story. I’ve done the whole token thing. I did the whole post-9/11. I literally had to keep taking a dupatta to every audition at some point. I did all of that. My friends, my colleagues, my girls, my South Asian brown girls back in the ’90s, have laid down the foundation so that here we are, able to have more opportunities. The young people are doing leading roles now. It’s awesome. I’m so happy! Where in the hell would [it have] ever happened that Bilal Baig would’ve been a leading role in this show? It’s now here. It’s way past due. I’m happier as an artist that way. Yes, I’m much more honest, much more vocal, and I’m proud of it.
SR: Anything else you want to [share with readers]?
EP: I’m very proud that I still identify as a dancer and as an actor. I just say artist. I love saying artist. Artist is such a beautiful sounding word.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
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