Marketing and development manager Emily Pettet speaks with Spring 2023 cover star Nova Bhattacharya, artistic director of Nova Dance and choreographer of Svāhā! which premiered in 2022 and will tour to Vancouver in July.
- What were your inspiration(s) for your piece Svāhā!? What was your process like?
The original inspiration was acts of gathering and how women create community through acts of gathering and rituals of birth and death and life and marriage and all those things. The process was interrupted by the pandemic, which meant it became a completely new process that I had never encountered before, where we did a lot of work online. Through the course of the pandemic, the work shifted a little bit and also became closer to, I think, its truest intentions or the subconscious meaning of it all along, which is the celebration of dance as this transformative ritual and how dance can bring us together. The cast has so many different dance vocabularies in their bodies that it just kept enlivening and enriching this idea.
- Was there a specific event in your life that got you thinking about these rituals?
As a Bengali Canadian, my parents immigrated to this country in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and so I was raised inside the act of community building. Growing up, there were so many rituals; there was always something: somebody was being born, somebody was dying, somebody was getting married, somebody was having a baby. All these things always had their own specific rituals. My father learned many rites as a young boy growing up, so in North America, he was often asked to preside over these different ceremonies; that’s also why it was a bit more a part of my growing up. Also, as a dancer, I was often being asked to dance at Filipino cultural events or Portuguese cultural events. There were always different communities that were having celebrations that wanted dance to be included in it somehow.
- What is the story of the photo that appears on our Spring 2023 cover?
The story of that is quite honestly where we were in March and April of 2022. The piece didn’t really exist yet; it was still a lot in my head. There were dancers who had been a part of the process online, so it was like a collage. It was a creation process from which I selected the final cast, and it was the first time that I was really seeing this volume of bodies in the room. We had Dahlia Katz come in, who had been photographing Svāhā! since 2018, and I had this idea for a landscape of bodies. I kept saying, ‘How can we stack everybody? How can we get, like, a landscape happening and a depth and volume?’ We were doing these floor shots, and somewhere along the way, that got staged. And then the bag of flowers was always somewhere in the studio, so that got added in because we were still playing with this idea of when you say ‘Svāhā’ you’re usually throwing flowers in the air. We were still playing with the specific marigold imagery, which eventually in the show got abstracted into confetti and not marigolds. So yeah, it was one of those things; they were literally like the last 10 shots on the roll.
- Svāhā! has a cast of over 20 artists representing over 30 forms – what particular challenges and joys does such a diverse cast bring?
For me, it was really grounded in joy because that kind of diversity of skill set and diversity of dance perspective, like that just really excites my brain and my, you know, ideas about composition because I love when there’s texture and shades and the potential for real variety, even inside of set choreography. So when that cast came together, I was really like, yeah, this is the zone, this is where I want to be because being able to watch dancers with a slightly different understanding of how their body was processing material and to be able to bring different artists together and juxtapose tenderness with ferocity, specificity with a little more, you know, lyrical sensibility; everyone has their own quality, and then that just brings so much richness to the movement vocabulary, so for me, it was definitely a lot of joy.
Because I knew we were going in with this really diverse group, I designed a warm-up that was breaking it down to sort of the simplest elements of what my choreography required a dancer’s body to be prepared for. So we would do those warm-ups, and for some dancers, certain things would feel very familiar because they happened to have a similar training to mine. For others, it was wildly different. For some of the people who had the same training as me, it was also very different because I’d take certain basic tenets and then I’d, you know, jumble them up and play with them in a different way, so even that warm-up of all these differently trained artists working together, that kind of addressed one of the challenges while also infusing it with, the joy of, ‘Oh, we’re all doing this together.’
The dancers might feel differently, but I think we knew what it was. There was this one moment where Swadhi, your managing editor, was in a group of people who all had bharatanatyam training and was doing a certain set of movement, and she was a bit concerned because she said, ‘OK, I’m with all these people and I know I’m not trained the way they are.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but that’s exactly what I’m looking for here. We’ve got four people who are being super angular, super precise and nailing everything on the beats, and then we’ve got one body who’s doing all those movements but has a rounder, softer approach going overtop of these rhythmic specificities, and that’s the juxtaposition I want the audience to have.’ Yeah, I’m not finding a challenge right now; it was all joy.
- What are your thoughts on using dance as a medium to build community?
You know, we’re in this place of kind of rediscovering it, both as a company and as a society, I think. We just did these events with Jamii on The Esplanade where we were outdoors in a park, and we were just doing excerpts of Svāhā!. Svāhā! itself ends on a cipher and then Mel Hart, who’s one of the cast members – she had been doing cipher workshops with the Jamii community – she then ran the cipher for three nights in a row. The community was there, and each night they were dancing with us and participating with us, and Mel was always playing a really eclectic playlist of music from all over the world. And you would see which songs got which families up and dancing, and some families came back more than one night. It’s like we’re watching it play out in front of our eyes now where I think people who might not have thought of going to a dance party in the park before are still, you know, finding ways to reconnect with people, to make friends with people again, to spend time with family. To come and watch a company dance and then be invited to dance along with them is having an impact and is resonating for them. So I think we’re at a very exciting moment right now where we can really dig into what it offers as the world reinvents itself.
- Svāhā! premiered in 2022 and will be playing in Vancouver next month. How has the work settled since its premiere, and what’s on your mind now?
You know, it took me a long time to get to a place where I had the space to process. It was a really intense experience to be creating it, to be performing in it, just how high the stakes were for a small Toronto company to create a work and put it on the Bluma Appel stage in the same season as work from Pina Bausch, you know. There was just a lot on my plate. It wasn’t actually until earlier this year; I was working with James Kudelka at the National (he brought me in to work with him on Cinderella), and then after I watched the premiere of Cinderella, I went home and for the first time, I watched the video of Svāhā! from beginning to end. It took me a while to get to processing. In terms of settling, I think, for me, the biggest thing is that it exists and the response we had from the audience, the fact that every night, [for] the last five minutes, the audience was on its feet, the fact that they kept coming back, the fact that even doing these small excerpts in a park are resonating for people. So yeah, I think what really settled is that it exists. Maybe the image that’s coming to my mind is like that confetti in the show that just kept falling and falling and falling, that there’s still little pieces like that that will keep falling.
I’m feeling really good about going to Vancouver, and I’m feeling really honoured and privileged and lucky that, but for one dancer, I have the entire original cast. Nova Dance is a pickup company, so to be able to have almost the entire original cast (then one dancer from Toronto who can’t do it) [and] to be able to bring the Vancouver dancer who had a baby back [then] just feels like this sense of Svāhā! being more than a dance piece but something that did build a community of artists. It’s the most exciting thing. Like, everyone who was a part of it somehow is still so committed to it going to Vancouver.
In Vancouver, we also have this community project that we’ve been doing where there was a call to artists, and fifteen dancers came into an audition process in April and have now been going every Sunday and working with the Vancouver cast members. And we’re doing a pre-show invocation with that group of artists. So yeah, what’s on my mind is that, you know, Svāhā! was inspired by acts of gathering and then totally recharged by the idea of dance as a ritual of gathering, and now it’s really extending beyond the performance into creating this larger community of artists. Like, I keep joking that Svāhā! is going to be Nova Dance’s Nutcracker or Nova Dance’s Vena Cava, and, at the same time, it’s like, yeah, but it’s more than that. It’s like somehow just like Svāhā! was transformed by the pandemic; now Svāhā! is somehow also transforming the whole company.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
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