A mixed program of Compagnie Kunal Ranchod’s three most recent ballets will take place at the studio theatre of Les Grands Ballets in Montreal on April 7 and 8. An Ode to Kiran & Pradeep features work by artistic director and choreographer Kunal Ranchod and explores personal narratives of displacement and subsequent renewal that are rarely told in classical ballet.
The three ballets, Within the Golden Raga, Blue Curve of the Earth and Short Ride in a Fast Machine, were each inspired by Ranchod’s parents and grew from his unique approach to choreography, influenced by his South Asian cultural upbringing.
Ranchod seeks to explore unseen aspects of a refugee journey, including the pain of leaving home and the process of building a new life. The process enabled him to connect old and new stories, like when Ranchod sat down with his mother to ask her about when she left home.
“Growing up, I had maybe heard her talk about it once or twice but didn’t really have a great understanding of the trauma and difficultness of it all,” he says.
Ranchod is intentional and precise about describing the inspiration for each work and how it takes shape choreographically, from anecdotes of his parents’ stories to insights he gained himself in listening to them.
His mother, Kiran, fled Uganda with her family at the age of 11 in 1972 when then-president Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the country’s entire South Asian minority. They left behind a good life running a tailoring business. As he was beginning to create A Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Ranchod learned a new story about the kindness of a taxi driver who hid the family’s savings in the upholstery of his cab so they would not be robbed before leaving, as many other fleeing families were.
“Stories like that make me wonder about how traumatic it was for all of this to happen,” he says. The feelings of loss, restraint and resistance following her family’s eventual relocation to Canada became clearer to him as an adult hearing her speak. They are now key elements of his work.
His father Pradeep’s vivid childhood memories of playing on the beach at home in South Africa would transport Ranchod as a child and inspire the ballet Blue Curve of the Earth, along with Ranchod’s own visit to Cape Town as an adult. There, he was struck by the contrast between what he describes as the distant calm horizon and chaotic waters at the foot of a cliff where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. His father’s enduring attachment to the place as well as the ocean imagery became the impetus for the ballet.
Where Blue Curve of the Earth and A Short Ride in a Fast Machine embody stories from before he was born, Ranchod begins the first ballet in his trilogy with what he knows first-hand about his parents’ life in Canada; he bears witness to what he describes as unconditional spiritual love between them.
In Within the Golden Raga, he brings this deliberate and caring relationship to the stage. “A lot of love we see in ballet is centred around lust and this very exaggerated form of love,” he says. “This kind of more spiritual, quiet love is not often seen.”
His South Asian cultural background appears throughout the program in specific aesthetic choices, like the juxtaposition of Indian classical music with balletic forms, and influences his overall creative process. Ranchod’s task-based approach involves building phrases with ballet vocabulary informed by the relationship to gesture he learned from Bollywood dancing and bharatanatyam growing up.
For Ranchod, it is necessary to create space for personal identity and individual experience in ballet to broaden the types of work created and to change the culture of ballet in the studio.
He aims for dancers to feel respected and involved as individuals. When creating his mixed program, this meant asking the dancers to define what the themes of each piece meant to them; they became participants in translating those themes into movement.
Sarah-Maude Laliberté, a Montreal-based ballet dancer who will perform in all three works, says the approach pushed her out of her comfort zone initially but ultimately makes the choreography more personal and allows each dancer to be valorized.
“We feel like we are part of it,” she says. “We are telling the story of Kunal’s parents, but we are part of it too because we’ve put our own creative threads in there.”
Ranchod hopes ballet audiences connect to the stories and gain awareness about what it is to be a South Asian artist. “I feel like a lot of the ballet work being created is not from someone who looks like me, or has a name like me or creates like me,” he says.
He aims to be part of a shift for more inclusivity and diversity in the ballet world. “The only way for me to make that change was to start my own company and to start telling my story, so that’s what I’m doing.”
This article will be published in the Spring 2023 print issue.